Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Queen is (Not McEntirely) Dead. Long Live The Queen!

Kelly Clarkson: Why Haven't I Heard From You? 

For as long as folks have been warbling on the Earth there has been a method for raising up the young in such a way as to make the old accept them and teach them the Secret Ways which will allow them to survive and thrive, as opposed to view them as a threat and simply crush and eat them. Such a system provides a pecking order for young and old alike with rules to follow. The novice pays homage to the professional and attempts to affect humility while seeking to impress; the professional takes note and sees that one has to adapt in order not to be eclipsed before one’s time. There ensues a period of mutual appreciation until the master’s skills fail or he/she simply croaks. The apprentice steps smoothly into place and thus begins a new cycle, with some fresh whippersnapper biting at the new master’s heels.

A perfect example of this symbiotic relationship is the one that has developed between between Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson. Wha? you say? Let me show you.

When I say Kelly Clarkson, you’re thinking she’s that girl who won the first season of American Idol, had a few hits, and then got fat and dropped off the planet.

Not quite. Did you know, for instance, that Billboard ranked the Grammy-winner  the #14 artist of the decade? And that according to Nielsen SoundScan, she has sold around 36 million singles and 23 million albums worldwide? I know! WTF!! 

So back when Kelly was a baby popstar, she claimed Reba was her idol, and sure enough, they were soon hooked up. It was while Kelly was doing all these guest-appearance-at-a-TV-show things that she started doing after Idol, that she (or the folks who managed her) figured something out: she may not be big enough a star to command huge audiences on her own, but she sure can kick the ass of anyone whose stage she walks out onto. In short: she makes a shit-hot Guest Star. Here she is wiping the floor with everyone and upstaging her gracious accompanist Jeff Beck by using the occasion of a zillion billion American Idol viewers to showcase Patty Griffin’s “Up To The Mountain” instead of one of her own hits, which was a really classy move. 

Cleverly, the one time you really want to blow the roof off a place is when you have all of your peers in the record industry sitting under it, so awards and tribute shows are a great place to strut your stuff. To wit: “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” at the Reba Tribute (I completely and deliberately ignored Kelly Clarkson until I happened to see this).

One of the folks whose eye she caught is one Narvel Blackstock (awesome name!) who happens to be Reba’s husband. He’s now her manager. Which helps explain how come you see these two gals together so very much. When Reba’s performing, Kelly invariably shows up. They did a CMT Crossroads show together, which spun off into a double-header tour.

Here she is, a few years down the road, showing Reba how it’s done. Check out Reba's face, y'all. "Up To The Mountain." 

I saw Reba doing her massively gaudy and slick thing on tour this Fall when she shared the bill with George Strait and LeeAnn Womack, which is one hell of a triple play. When Kelly walked out unannounced to join her in their duet “Because Of You” the house nearly, I kid you not, fell down. There was such rapturous ovation you could hardly hear them sing. But sing they did, each lass playing off the other to up the artistic and vocal ante considerably. They did a whole mini-set. Here's "Walk Away." Reba, of course, is the consummate showgirl, squeezed into tight pants and sequined tank-top, red hair fixed just so, all gestures and looks and Drama with a capital D. Kelly, on the other hand, was barefoot, and looked like she just got off the sofa, in a hideously unflattering short flowery dress and what looked (from the stands) like no make-up. But what she lacked in stylistic Drama, she made up for with her chops. This girl long ago realized that she didn’t need to give a shit about looking the part if she could sound LIKE THAT

The truth about Kelly Clarkson is that she sings other people's songs better than her own. "Why." Kelly's better when she's singing with Reba. Consider this very odd thing: two videos for the same song,  "Because of You"; recorded two years apart, one as a solo act, and one as a duet. (And doesn't Kelly look odd in her solo video? Thin! Blonde!) (And doesn't Reba look odd in the duet? Hmmm....)

All of this Reba business has meant that Kelly Clarkson, the Pop Diva, has fallen into the clutches of Country Music, where all singers with God-given talent end up. Her much-touted duet with hottie Jason Aldean “Don’t You Wanna Stay” debuted in the form of a stage spectacular at this year's CMAs that became the song’s video. Sure, she’s glammed it up for the occasion, but we’ll forgive her that velvet monstrosity for the sake of seeing the next mighty pair of lungs bask in the spotlight where she belongs. 

Reba and Kelly gabbing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Justin Moore: He Can Kick Your Ass

Why I like Justin Moore
(American-born simple man with a Southern drawl)

At first you might think dude’s just a big redneck with swagger with an Arkansas accent so thick you could drive a truck across it who sings about all the usual topics as if he’s checking them off some “How To Be A Hick” list. I love my small town? Check. I own guns? Check. I fuck my girl in my pickup truck? Check. I could kick your ass? Check.

He looks the part, too: handsome, strong-jawed face set off by his cream colored hat; lean, broad shoulders whose muscles teach a shirt what a shirt should be (usually open to the third snap); slim hips accentuated by a big belt buckle whose purpose appears not to be to hold his jeans up but to draw your eye to his crotch; boots.

But it’s what he does with all this that makes Justin Moore compelling. He can move in such a way as to ooze masculinity onstage, and knows, unlike a lot of his country contemporaries, to open out his arms when he sings (calling the audience in and giving his ribcage room to deliver the big notes). 

It’s the kind of stage prowl that has traditionally made women wet their panties since the dawn of rock ‘n roll, and it looks like he comes by it naturally. It’s not something you can see in his videos, where he’s usually standing in one spot singing to camera – but you can see it in abundance when he’s in some small smoky club or treading an amphitheater’s boards in YouTube clips. I saw him do his thing on a giant stage from a hillside this summer, and though he was as small as an ant, every nuance of his movement came across loud and clear.

I know I started off with what a sex god he is, but the real reason I like Justin Moore is that he can sing the living shit out a song, and he writes them too. They are packed full of gusto and melody, and it seems that the set he’s got lined up for his second album push the strengths of his first batch in exciting ways. Take “Outlaws Like Me,” for instance: it’s a ballad backed only with piano, yet you don’t really realize that’s all it is until the end because the sound is so rich. Any guy who can deliver that strong a vocal performance against a few tinkling keys has some skill and the balls to back it up.

I like seeing the small-club sets you can find scattered all over YouTube, because that feels like his natural comfort spot, close to the crowd — but check out his radio performances too, where he’s just popping out his songs on cue while strumming an acoustic guitar. Look at how he delivers "I Could Kick Your Ass" when he's doing it in an office to promote his record HERE, and then again to a crowd once he's made a hit out of it HERE. That's the performer I'm talking about. Again: anyone who can pull off this sort of on the spot, unaccompanied, unaffected singing (always in time; always on key) is a winner in my book. He covers the classics the way you want them covered: true to a fault. Check out “Bad Company.”

I slowly fell in love with his first big hit, “Small Town USA” not because it was yet another paean to God-fearing regionalism that defines so many of the small-town songs, but because despite the cliché of the lyric, I found myself signing along to it loud and hearty every time it came on my radio. I am a girl who looks ridiculous signing and gesticulating to “I Could Kick Your Ass,” but it’s glorious to sing. Same thing with his less blustery song, “Grandpa.” His homage to good old boy romance, “Like There’s No Tomorrow” is about as sexy as it gets. “Get in a rhythm / Nobody’s near and listening” my ass. We're listening. (Especially to that last note -- wow.)

He’s signed to an imprint of Big Machine records (The Valory Music Co.), the label who hit the jackpot with Taylor Swift. They seem to be an outfit that encourages big-hook songs of the kind that Moore excels in delivering.

His debut, self-titled record, Justin Moore, does not have a weak song on it, and was the album that got the most play in my house this year. His next album (The Boot?) is the one I most anticipate arriving in 2011. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Get In The Spirit! (Just not IN The Spirits….)

Do you ever get the feeling, that, like certain mechanical devices (VCRs, Fax machines, typewriters, rotary phones, the Abacus, Paula Abdul), there are some traditions that have long ago been rendered obsolete, yet can still be found hanging around? They evoke a kind of horror when you come across them, perhaps even embarrassment that you once thought they were cool. Still, they prove hard to throw away (could they be necessary in case of an apocalyptic event? How am I ever going to play that video of my wedding? Where do I insert a floppy disc?).

Similarly, I love that YouTube can make readily available episodes and clips from epically kitsch television shows of my childhood, the ones in which technology had not yet caught up with the unavoidable truth that TV is a visual medium, and that the viewers at home can actually see the bad hair and makeup. But I love that they are on YouTube and not on my actual Tube: I don’t want to have to pay to see crap. I want to enjoy it for free.

This brings me to the CMA Christmas Special aired last night on ABC. I will not pretend that this will be a review of the show, because I only made it through three songs before having to turn it off. Here’s why.

Jennifer Nettles. Now, I love this gal: I think she is one of the most reliably gifted singers we have. This has become so obvious to so many in the last few years since Sugarland hit it big, that she has become a go-to girl for all sorts of things that don’t involve singing. Her speaking has become infused with her stage persona to such an extent that everything she says appears scripted and polished with a big dose of country phony. That’s the stuff that allows girls in 5-inch heels and designer duds to pretend they just came off the farm. There is a fine line between performance and showmanship, and it runs through the Las Vegas Strip. The opening number, “Winter Wonderland,” reeked of Branson, Missouri so bad I could spell the formaldehyde. It was like the song had been put through an app that turns everything into a wildly exaggerated parody of itself. Then she told an anecdote to camera that had no point whatsoever about the one year Santa came to the Nettles’ house early. Whatev.

I thought, well, this is to be expected. But now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to see good singers deliver some fine seasonal songs. I was wrong.

LeAnn Rimes looked great! for a former child star recently embroiled in a nasty divorce publicity fiasco. Really, she looks great! And she sings great! But what the fuck was with the gang of jazz-hands sailors who “enhanced” her set with much leaping and swirling? Is she being marketed to queens now? Seriously? At least when Cher did it she gave us a gratuitous shot of her bare ass. 

Feeling slightly nauseous by this time, I waited through the commercial break because I was curious to see how Rascal Flatts were handled by this treatment. I needn’t have worried: those boys hammed it up all by themselves without any help. It’s what they do. But please, someone: Joe Don needs a hair product intervention. The first step in overcoming addiction is admitting you have a problem. Joe Don: put the hair spray down. Now

Rascal Flatts are best when they sing acapella, which thankfully they did for their second song. Sure, Gary Le Vox has a great voice, but you know, whenever he finds himself in iffy waters, range-wise, he throws to his trademark warble and that gets him out of trouble.

By this point I had had enough. I was clearly a fool for thinking that anything with “Christmas” in the title produced by a major network could be anything but sheer schmaltz (and by that I do mean rendered chicken fat.).

So instead of any of that rubbish, I shall leave you with some genuinely great seasonal (non auto)tunes and bid y’all a Very Merry Christmas. 

Sugarland "Gold and Green"

Carrie Underwood "Do You Hear What I Hear"

Martina McBride "O Holy Night"

Jeffrey Foucault "Ghost Repeater"

Mike Oldfield "In Dulci Jubilo"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Can They Duet?

Joey and Rory

Men, a question for y’all: why do you wear overalls? 

Is it that the lack of a waistband allows you to develop your beer gut in secret? Or that the bagginess can accommodate enormous boxer shorts? Does the bib serve to protect your shirt from BBQ sauce or hide embarrassing manboobs? Is it because you work on a farm and there ain’t nobody going to see you all day long except hogs? Is it the extra space for pockets? Are you in investor in denim manufacturing? Do you have a fetish for hooks, clasps and rivets? Were you born in 1876? Are you Uncle Jesse?

Let’s face it: unless you are six years old, or lean, tanned and naked underneath, overalls are a fashion faux pas. In country music, you can generally get away with a kind of wardrobe that works in context: the cowboy hat; the cowboy shirt; Wranglers; dusters; even a Nudie suit on occasion. But overalls is sort of rubbing it in. Wearing overalls on stage seems like a gimmick — “look at me! I just came from the farm!” — that is amusing until you hit it big, at which point you (or your label) springs for a personal stylist and some new duds. If you insist on wearing your overalls at every public appearance you ever make, including actual awards shows at which the women wear gowns — then you are the one who is a dud.

Which obviously means I have to draw attention to Joey Feek, he of Joey and Rory fame, the duo who placed third in the short-lived CMT audition-reality show Can You Duet? in 2008. All of those other contestants, including the winners, were never heard from again, but Joey and Rory, the husband and wife team, have hit it big by dint of their actual talent. This has given Joey a chance to show us that he can adapt to the spotlight by switching it up a little in the trouser department, but no; the man truly does not own anything other than overalls (in every shade, including black for the occasional black-tie event). He also wears a short-back-and-sides with slight quiff straight out of the 1940s, which gives him an anachronistic look at odds with his very hot wife. Sadly for her, she usually doesn’t get to don a pretty frock like the rest of the girls for the party, because she has to match her hubby by turning out in  equestrienne gear: shirt, boots, belt, boots. And when she does look purdy ... Dude. Come on.

Honestly, I thought Joey and Rory were a joke when I first saw them. I figured he was in costume. I was wrong.

If you check out their “audition” tape, you’ll get a good idea of their schtick. In one of the two videos they currently have playing (“That’s Important To Me,” and their Christmas song), we see Joey dutifully baking bread in her kitchen. I thought this was a bit of poetic license too (oh purleese….) but guess what? She is (was?) an actual baker in her own actual restaurant. It’s all a bit sweet and syrupy, but I do like listening to good songwriting and people who can sing effortlessly, and these two do make a pleasant sound. As Naomi Judd said (in her role as judge on Can You Duet?), “I believe everything about you.” And this, coming from a woman who bears more of a resemblance to a shop mannequin than a human being! If you can get past Rory’s unfortunate choice of pants, you’ll find gems like “Cheater, Cheater,” sporting the catchy refrain “you no good white-trash whore,” which is worth the listen alone. 

Do we need more aw-shucks cute-as-a-button duos? Probably not. But country music has a rich tradition of husband and wife teams, and though they are no George and Tammy, no Tim and Faith, no Garth and Trisha, no Blake and Miranda, and certainly no Johnny and June, it's good to have fresh blood in the stable. Personally, I'm kind of happy to see Rory look a bit like deer in headlights up on the big stage, or adopting the demeanor of a table-side mariachi player, guitar held high up on his chest. It distracts me from wondering if perhaps there's some sort of strange abdominal problem responsible for his sartorial oddity. 

Rory is in fact a well-practiced songwriter whose compositions have been big hits for other acts. His "Some Beach" was a number one for Blake Shelton. It's funny.

Overall? It ain’t about the clothes, it’s about the music, and these guys remind you of that every time you see them and go “WTF?” Close your eyes. Open your ears. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Roll Away The Stone

Rolling Stone magazine has ranked The Elton John / Leon Russell non-duet The Union number 3 in their Albums of the Year list. Here’s what they say:

“Two rock giants, one largely forgotten, re-kindle a friendship and make music that ranks with their best. Producer T Bone Burnett delivers his most spectacular production in memory, filled with shining steel guitars, chortling brass and gospel-time choirs. Ultimately, its Russell’s voice that shines brightest, drawing on the entire history of American popular music in its canny, vulnerable, knowing croon.”

To which I say: what drugs are you on, and can I have some? Because I want life to look like that too: an impossibly dreamy rose-tinted place where cherubs tickle me with dodo feathers and George Clooney pours champagne down my throat 24/7. To Whom It May Concern at Rolling Stone: wake the fuck up and employ human beings with ears and balls. Let’s face it, the best and most honest writing you have is about fucking FOOTBALL (Matt Taibbi, natch). What happened to you, formerly esteemed music magazine? Did you switch your leather jeans for a nice pair of Wallyworld softpants? It’s blurb-reviews like this which totally devalue your take on the industry you purport to represent.

Let’s look at that paean to the print blow-job above, shall we?

-- Please, someone, convince me that any, ANY of the tracks on this album are worthy of wiping the sweaty brow of either Elton or Leon’s “best” tracks. Then give me a ketamine hotshot for my own good.

-- While it is true that T Bone does deliver “his most spectacular production in memory” on this record, it is only true if the world and everything in it was invented yesterday. O Brother, Where Art Thy Cajones? T Bone dropped not one but two balls on this clunker, and you know it, you just can’t bring yourself to admit it. Lest lightening strike you down.

-- Ultimately, it’s ELTON JOHN’S voice that shines loudest on this record, which should be obvious to anyone who has actually listened to it, as opposed to tapping out a plausible-sounding paragraph on his Blackberry and emailing it in to the office while enjoying a Four Loko lunch with his buds. (Or her.) And while we’re at it, the phrase “drawing on the entire history of American popular music” sounds like something one of my students writes when he/she is gunning for an A in dazzling bullshite.

-- Leon Russell does not “croon.” Please. Leon Russell makes a downhome plaintive growl that uses your peritoneum as a tambourine. 

On a positive note, they did include Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song and the King’s of Leon’s Come Around Sundown on their list. But that was EASY. Listen: it’s OK to tell it like it is. What’s Elton going to do to you? Yeah, it might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but use lube. 

What, you’re all out already? 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Grammy Nominations 2010

Swept Away!

The Grammy Nominations were announced today, and I am delighted to tell you that this year, everyone — me, you, all of us — will be awarded grammies. This is because there are enough categories, each with their multiple nominees, to include every person that ever lived. Except the year’s biggest moneymaker, Taylor Swift, of course, but that’s because she’s going to win them all next year. Sadly, despite the 109 category listings, there were no nominees this year for Best Regional Mexican Album, because there weren’t enough of them to be competitive. Wow, that sucks if your particular oeuvre is Oaxacan Jazz.

This is not why I am writing, of course. The big news is that America’s favorite white rapper, Eminem (he of Oscar fame) scored huge.

Actually, scratch that, that’s not news. That’s predictable. What is also wrist-slashingly predictable is that the vending machines I mean, voting members of NARAS, also chose to heap a million zillion nominations on Lady Antebellum’s album Need You Now, and the title song from it. This is because it is the most mainstream pop record Nashville has produced this year. I have long since stopped trying to fathom how or why NARAS makes its selections (or even devises its categories or determines eligibility in them, for that matter), but this appears clear evidence that they simply look at what everyone else is cheering for and go with that, as long as it’s wholesome. Every now and then, this produces a reflexive backlash, which one can see this year with Cee-Lo’s naughty little ditty, “Fuck You.”

Lady Antebellum’s record isn’t actually all that bad. I almost didn’t get it because the song “Need You Now” was so overplayed and is such godawful pap. The video has the three band members pretending to be broken-hearted and lonely slumped in hotel corridors and staring with dour melancholy into the camera. Wot shite.

Lady Antebellum only has two modes: upper and downer; this clearly falls into the latter category, as does their current single, “Hello World” which features a child nearly dying in a car wreck. “Our Kind of Love” is of the former variety, and provides you a good example of the slight creepiness that seems to have gripped this band’s videos: the playing up on film of some kind of sexual relationship between the two main singers, Charles and Hillary (who are not a couple in real life), and the awkward third-wheel inclusion of the other dude in the band. He’s the one with the floppy haircut who can’t dance. Young Charlie can’t dance either, but this doesn’t stop him from waving his arms about and posing in theatrical stances every chance he can get. He’s the one with too much hair product. Hillary Scott wears awesome shoes (Louboutins!), but watching her strut about on stage this summer it was clear she is not a natural with the 5” heels (hello Kellie Pickler and Lee Ann Womack). She’s the one using the camera as a mirror and doing that goofy arms-over-the-head shimmy most girls never debut outside the privacy of their bedrooms.

What should win Song of the Year instead of that is Miranda Lambert’s gem, “The House That Built Me,” from her already rewarded album, Revolution. She’s a real country gal and this is a beautifully understated and well-written song. This is her singing it live a couple of weeks ago. 

While we’re at it, what should win in another of the categories “Need You Now” is nominated in, Best Country Performance, is the Zac Brown Band’s wonderful paean to Liberty, Justice and the American Way, “Free.” Why? Because it is a country song, dammit. Zac Brown could walk away with Best Country Album too, but I’m plumming for that being taken by Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song, which has received a shitload of critical acclaim and is, shocker, a country album, dammit! And let’s add that Best Male Country Vocal should go to Mr. Johnson for the sublime “Macon” for which he is rightly nominated.

A fantastic song that features both Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson (and Dierks Bentley) is “Bad Angel,” up for Best Country Collaboration, but I suspect this will be eclipsed by the popular supernova of sexiness, (and Miranda’s fiancé, Blake Shelton, who was admitted into the Opry this year) for his duet with Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone,” which is, appropriately, a country song. Well, it does feature the word “hillbilly” so that must count. And it is a song all about an erection. Which is awesome. 

Speaking of real country babes, Gretchen Wilson is laughing her denim-clad bum off because she had a song nominated that wasn’t even released as a single. WTF. The country press was quick to point out this year's notable omissions, which include Jason AldeanKenny ChesneyReba McEntireTim McGrawBrad PaisleyDarius RuckerSugarland and Taylor Swift. I second that. Please, someone explain to me how any of these folks could possibly have been overlooked? It can't just be about money, because according to Billboard, these guys sell the most actual CDs and rake in enormous revenues touring, which does not appear to be the case in other genres. Brad Paisley won Entertainer of the Year and played for the President. He's as American and wholesome as they get. What gives? 

Finally, I would just like to make a suggestion to all the lucky winners: when you get up to thank the academy, God, your endless list of industry flunkies, your parents, etc., etc., etc., please do NOT thank the “fans,” as the hapless Justin Bieber did today, upon finding out he was nominated for Best New Artist. The fans ain’t got nothing to do with this one, boyo. Unlike NARAS, you should give credit where credit is due: thank your sponsors, and leave before the band strikes up to sweep your ass from the stage. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Roll With Me

Montgomery Gentry

It was with sadness that we learned this week that Eddie Montgomery has prostate cancer. The Inky Jukebox likes Mr. Montgomery because he manages, like a good rodeo clown, to excel at what he does by being who he is. Example: he reinforces everything you suspect about celebrity twittering: Dude tweets from the tour bus or plane late at night when he can’t sleep and uses a lot of exclamation points. 

This unhappy news reminded me that high on the list of shows I saw this year were Montgomery Gentry (named after Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry); they headlined the Country Throwdown tour and let me tell you something: it was a long hot day full of one stellar act after another; by the time these guys took the stage most folks were sporting severe sunburns and were on their seventh or eleventh beer. It was a rowdy crowd who voiced their wholehearted dedication to the band by singing along so loud at times they rivaled the PA system (no mean feat).

Troy and Eddie put on a hell of a show, though: a couple of hours that consisted of one hit after another, Eddie in his trademark long black duster and flat hat, Troy in sparkles playing flashy guitars. Eddie wields his mic stand as if it’s a cross between a cheerleader’s baton and a lion tamer’s whip. Here’s how they operate as a duo: Eddie sings the verses and Troy steps in to ramp up the vocal for the choruses. (Some People Change) They deliver songs about being rednecks, mostly, and being good Southern boys with old fashioned traditions and beliefs (My Town). These include getting drunk; wrecking cars; not giving a shit what anyone thinks of you; being surprised to have grown up; giving props to the military; and being down with Jesus. Typical stuff. (There’s One in Every Crowd) As such, they are the kind of band your Democrat friends wince at if they hear it blaring out of your car window as you sing along to “Long Line of Losers.”

This was the song I think the crowd sang loudest to, come to think of it. Perhaps it was the alcohol.

When you see Montgomery Gentry being interviewed, you notice a couple of things right off the bat. One, that they both have preternaturally white teeth. Their teeth are so damn dazzling they could misdirect incoming aircraft. Eddie was raised in a church where they handled snakes; no way are his real teeth that color. Two: Troy comes across as dumb as shit. Clearly he is not. Together they sound like what they actually are: childhood buddies having a lark. ("Hell Yeah")

I’ll say it: I love this band. I don’t care how cheesy or clichéd their songs are, or that they are beloved by folks with very different political beliefs than me. Every song on all of their records is great. The Inky Jukebox hopes Eddie makes a full recovery because I want to see them in concert again. ASAP. (How self-serving is that!) Why is there not a concert DVD, guys? Huh? 

If you are going to only listen to one of their songs, check out this little gem: Roll With Me. (Eddie: “He sang the crap out of it.”)

This is pretty funny: Speed.

Hear the boys speak about their songs at Montgomery Gentry's You Tube Channel

Friday, November 19, 2010

Awesome Foursome: Little Big Town

The Reason Why
Little Big Town

Little Big Town released their fifth record, The Reason Why, by Fleetwood Mac in August. That’s right, you heard me. If you got the joke, you already know how awesome Little Big Town are, so you can go make popcorn or feed the chickens or something. If you didn’t, then let me clarify.

Little Big Town are a quartet who make songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac if Fleetwood Mac’s music was a little more Nashville and a little less LA. And did less coke. And didn’t break up with each other so much. And were still around. The first time I heard Little Big Town I thought “They remind me of….hmmm….Fleetwood Mac….” And almost immediately I saw the CMT Crossroads special they did with Lindsey Buckingham which sort of sealed the deal. ("Go Your Own Way") If you ever wished Fleetwood Mac were still making great records, wish no more: they are. ("Kiss Goodbye")

Although a fair share of the singing is handled by the men, it is the ladies who are the stars of the show. Like any good foursome (ABBA), the blonde one catches your attention first, and then you realize that the brunette does most of the heavy lifting. I won’t beat around the bush: Kimberly Schlapman looks like Glen Close in Jagged Edge: scary as all-get-out. But listen to her: she has a Marilyn Monroe voice. (“Stay.”) Karen Fairchild’s voice is the kind ordinary girls think they could probably imitate but probably not. (“Shut Up Train.”) The magic happens when they sing together. On record it is lovely; if you listen to them in practice, a capella, it is sublime (“You Can’t Have Everything," "Bring It On Home.")

Little Big Town put on a great set at this year’s Country Throwdown. I saw them close-up when they rode past me on a vehicle, and let me tell you something: they look better than normal folks. They look like famous people. They were every bit as good live as they sound on record, which is no surprise. They also make handy back-up singers; they appeared on Jamey Johnson’s “Macon” and The Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather,” enriching both songs with the well-practiced harmony of a band who has been singing together for donkey’s years. Also check out the collaborations they’ve done with pals Sugarland (“Life In A Northern Town” and “Walking In Memphis.”)

The Reason Why you should get this album? Why the hell not? It’s really good. (“Lean Into It”) And Christine McVie retired, already. ("I'm With The Band") Besides they look good in thigh-high boots and shake tambourines. 

Capitol Nashville

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Everything He’s Cracked Up To Be

Uncle Kracker
Happy Hour

All superheroes have a sidekick: he’s there to perform essential tasks that fall beneath the dignity of the big guy; serve as the but of jokes; and his diminutive stature and/or lack of English and/or maturity make his big buddy look better. He usually gets stiffed with a more comical version of the superhero’s costume, and never gets the girl.

Uncle Kracker has long been Kid Rock’s sidekick, and to be sure, his career has been allowed to flourish slowly under his more flamboyant papa’s large wing. His first album, Doublewide, sounded more like a Kid Rock record he was given so much primo mic time. The one song that doesn’t have his master’s voice all over it is “Follow Me,” the hit that lit up the radio and brought Uncle Kracker to our attention. (Dig the cameos!) It is a mellow, happy-sounding plea to a girl to jump ship and take up housekeeping with the singer; it’s so upbeat though that you have to listen hard to hear that the lyrics are a bit strong.

Uncle Kracker’s new album, Happy Hour, is full of songs like that: you get the impression that this is one easygoing dude who flicks life’s annoyances (“My Girlfriend” turns out to be a lesbian / girlfriend pisses off to Hollywood (“I Hate California”) / girlfriend is a “Hot Mess” etc.) off his shoulder like so much dust. He’s riding along in his Cutlass Supreme singing “It’s Good To Be Me” with a “Smile.” He’s like the anti-Eminem, a Detroit boy who sees the sunny side of life.

He was marketed as a white rapper back in the day (when Kid Rock was rocking it Big Pimp style) but that is clearly not where his musical heart is. Nowadays he can be found on Country radio, though why this record qualifies as a country album God only knows. It’s a pop record, let’s be clear. Uncle Kracker makes lovely pop songs: there’s nothing on here that will hurt your ears.

He’s outgrown the whole sidekick gig. This can be seen in the video for “It’s Good To Be Me” where he and Kid Rock go for a ride and Mr. Rock takes shotgun: the message is clear: Uncle Kracker is in the driver’s seat. Indeed, he’s branched out lately with a popular duet with Kenny Chesney ("When The Sun Goes Down"), and he pulled up on Jason Aldean’s tour, which will have given him a great deal of play with the country crowd.

An interesting highlight of this album is the Bob Seger cover of “Mainstreet,” which sounds for all the world like the original. It’s as if Kracker got up at karaoke and completely demolished the competition. This has become a bit of a tradition; check out his version of “Drift Away” too (Dobie Gray!).

Personally, I’m glad he’s back; he ain’t the best singer out there; he ain’t the most good-looking; he ain’t the most charismatic. But he’s good at being himself, which makes any hour listening to this record a happy one. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Please Pass The Jar

Zac Brown Band and Friends 
Pass The Jar
Live from The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Atlanta

The Zac Brown Band have just released a DVD and double live CD that documents a concert they did to raise funds to help rebuild the fabled Georgia Theatre in Athens, and you should buy it.


Because unless you have had your head up your ass for the last two years (or not been listening to country radio, which some may argue amounts to the same thing), then you will not have been able to escape them. First, you will have liked, then hated “Chicken Fried,” their zydeco-styled paean to Georgia good-old-boy living, which was played too much for its own good. Then you will have loved the ballad “Highway 20 Ride” and the pop song “Whatever It Is” and thought huh; they can do more than fiddle around a campfire. Then “Toes” will have gotten on your nerves a bit, but that would not have prevented you from singing along. It’s been enough of an introduction to have garnered them some serious trophy action in the Best New division, but like most best new acts, this is because they’ve been around for donkey’s years honing their craft. To absolutely no-one’s surprise they walked away with the coveted New Artist of the Year gong at this week’s CMA’s.

So what, you ask?

The reason you should give a toss is that the Zac Brown Band are throwbacks: to a time when bands consisted of fuggly-looking musicians who could write and play the crap out of actual songs. When was the last time you saw a chubby bearded dude wearing a velvet jacket hit up lead guitar, mandolin, piano, organ, pedal steel and vocals? With absolute virtuosity? Not all at the same time, sure, but, you know, wow. (Clay Cook. That’s him singing “America the Beautiful.”) And he’s not even Zac Brown. This is a band in which every member has an integral part to play: they are a BAND. They sound, if I’m being 100% honest, like The Band, and if this concert reminds you of anything it will be The Last Waltz. But since when was that a bad thing? (See “I Shall Be Released and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”)

They pull a happy bunch of musical friends, famous and not, onto the stage with them to deliver a mix of their best hits (new and old) and awesome covers. Kid Rock lights up “Can’t You See” the way only Kid Rock can (balls-to-the-wall); and if any band could take on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (how apt!) it is they, and their fiddle player (Jimmy Di Martini). If you ever wondered how a violin hacks it as a lead instrument, lend this your ears. Little Big Town, a group whose sound is based on harmonizing (a la Fleetwood Mac), gives “Colder Weather” a richness that reminds you of the Allman Brothers at their rocking finest. Joey and Rory help out on a version of “Free” that incorporates “Into The Mystic” in the bridge, thus bringing Van Morrison into the fold.

The Zac Brown Band are popular with my kids because of the song “Sic ‘Em on a Chicken,” which is a song about setting a dog on a homicidal rooster. Hey, it’s country, y’all. But my favorite is “Jolene,” a ballad that manages to feature the line “Booze in my hair, blood on my lips” with sublime grace.

There are 24 songs on the CDs, and 19 on the DVD (with 5 bonus tracks). That’s a lot of great music for your dollar. This concert is an instant classic, something you get the feeling someone, somewhere knew it would be before they decided to roll the cameras. Thank god they did; the Fox Theater don’t hold that many folks.

Country Strong!

CMA Awards 2010

So last night Nashville threw itself a little hootenanny we like to call the CMAs – the Country Music Association Awards. 

Here’s how it goes down: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood show everyone else, in every genre, how this whole hosting thing is done. They have become the go-to comedy duo who can be relied upon to kill it while remaining (mostly) wholesome, on-script and on-cue. This is the sort of thing you expect from a seasoned pro like Paisley, but it always comes as a bit of a shock to see how slick a performer  Carrie Underwood has become in the few short years since she walked off the farm and onto the American Idol stage.

There was a lot of chatter drummed up about a special Loretta Lynn tribute, which featured Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow trading verses of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with hearty aplomb; the Grand Dame herself walked out to complete the song. I will obviously hold off on commenting on her frock, because that’s what we expect from the girl from Butcher Holler.

The other performance that got a lot of advance publicity was the Jason Aldean / Kelly Clarkson duet on his new song “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Each of these folks smack you upside the head with the quality and timbre of their voices when they open their mouths, and sure enough, they delivered. Both of them got the memo about dressing up, but alas they both turned up in all-black, rendering them invisible against the all-black orchestra and set.

OK, I’m obfuscating: the one thing everyone tuned in to see was whether Gwyneth Paltrow would go down in flames when she took the stage in her much-touted debut as, improbably as it sounds, a country singer. Would she, could she pull it off? And how does a waif who weighs all of 90 lbs stash the giant pair of hairy balls it takes to even attempt such a move? Do they make Wranglers like that? I want some! Country music television has been hawking the video promoting the movie she’s starring in, Country Strong, for a while now: it opened a few nights ago. It features Ms. Paltrow (a NY prep school girl now transplanted to England, let’s not forget) in the role Kelly Cornbread or something, a washed-up yet vibrantly healthy looking young blonde singer who has to rebuild her career once she gets out of rehab. Her husband is played by Tim McGraw, who has become so typecast in this role that you can literally wheel him around like Han Solo encased in that stuff Jabba the Hut freezes him in. The video features clips from the movie (obligatory dancing-on-the-bar scene; obligatory drunken breakdown scene, obligatory comeback on stage scene) that reveal a cross between The Rose and YouTube concert footage of Taylor Swift. Yes, it’s chick-flick hell. The big soundtrack song is the self-same “Country Strong,” a bit of old-timey pap that the real blondes in the audience could demolish the living shit out of. Along to help her out is the kindly Vince Gill, who looks like he’s lost some weight (go Vince!). So how did she do? Passable: she sang on key, she didn’t puke. She looked terrified and stood rooted to the spot like she’d been pinned there with a giant iron rod through her trousers. For this, she got a standing O. Let me tell you: country folk are polite.

Here’s the thing: country music is still a farm system; you have to play the sweet bejesus out of your singing chops before you get invited to the Game. By the time most people hear you you’re a hardened professional who would have fallen by the wayside long ago if you couldn’t REALLY SING. Gwyneth wouldn’t have made it past round One of the reality audition show that was won by the real star of the evening: Miranda Lambert.

Girlfriend had a good night. It was her birthday: she won an armful of gongs, including Album of the Year for her second CD, Revolution, and she utterly deserved it. Add to that, her hotter-than-hell fiancey (as she spells it) (and newly inducted Opry member) Blake Shelton won a bunch of trophies himself. Nashville likes their power couples; Tim and Faith have had a good run; it’s time for some new newlyweds to spawn some babies. She says she’s been on a no-pizza diet in order to pull off the red-carpet glam, but evidence of that was overshadowed by the potential spectacle of her massive boobies bursting forth from her low-cut dress. Any minute I expected disaster to strike, but no: the double-sided tape held fast.

Taylor Swift, of course, doesn’t have that problem. She is the biggest star in all of American music (oh, COME ON: try to deny it!). When the first single off her album was leaked during a flight to Tokyo, a decision was made on the spot to go ahead and release it: by the time the plane landed, that single, “Mine,” was already a number one hit. The album sold over a million units in its first week. Therefore, seemingly in the pursuit of fairness, she was not nominated for anything this year, so as to give everyone else a chance. Very sporting.

This allowed Brad Paisley to pick up the hallowed Entertainer of the Year title (after being nominated for five straight years). The evening’s touching moment came when, in accepting it, he genuinely choked up. You know what? I saw a lot of country acts live this year: and his H2O show was clearly the most entertaining: it was satisfying to see merit given where due. Country Strong? Hells yes, my friend. That’s what Miranda was relying on, at any rate. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses, The Rex Theater, Pittsburgh

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses
Rex Theater, Pittsburgh, October 19, 2010

There’s only one thing better than listening to a Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses record; it’s seeing them live. I’ve seen them twice this year as they are still very much a road band, so I can also say that the only thing better than seeing them (as many will have done) as part of the summer concert juggernaut that was the Country Throwdown Tour (where they occupied a very tiny slice of a giant stage playing to folks in hats fashioned out of beer cans), is seeing them in their natural habitat: a smaller, darker, grubbier venue where even fans at the back felt like they were being sung to: the Rex Theater, for instance.

On October 19, there were so many fans that if you failed to arrive suitably early, at the back is where you would have been, too. The good-natured crowd came from far and wide and responded with raucous enthusiasm to everything the band played, which was a balanced mix of songs from their first record, Roadhouse Sun, and their new one, Junky Star.

As I write this, the video for “The Weary Kind” has just come on the TV. It’s a typical music video featuring a song from a film; clips interspersed with Bingham playing guitar. The reason it’s on my TV at all is because it won him an Oscar last year for Best Song. It is a magnificent bit of old-school musicianship, and when he failed to play it in the summer show, the crowd bristled noticeably. Hence it is with a good deal of savvy that he played it as his encore this fall. As I had the sweet spot (next to the stage, right under Bingham’s mic) I tried subtly to record it by placing my phone on the stage, but it snapped shut halfway through. Luckily, the guy next to me was less shy about this sort of thing: his footage can be seen here.

The Dead Horses are a professional outfit; they rock out yet remain always on focus and in tune with one another, cutting more loose in this venue than they do, say, when being filmed on stage playing Austin City Limits, much of which you can see on YouTube. There, Ryan looks like Dylan redux in a white hat, and truly, this is who he reminds you of, both in his singing and the tenor of his songwriting, which often touches on topics that support the underdog. When Bingham sings in his distinctive rasp, he looks comfortable, gazing at no-one in particular, just doing his thing with no grain of pretense or showmanship. He lets the music speak for itself.

What the music says is Get up off your ass and listen: this is the real deal. Don’t settle for less. If you’re going to don a hat, let it be made of felt, not beer cans. Come on out to a show. It’s good for your soul. 

An Unholy Union

The Union
Elton John and Leon Russell

Look: I love Elton John as much as anyone. I have about ten of those songs in permanent rotation on my iTunes and never mind when one comes on. Even the ones with odd titles like “Border Song” and “Burn Down the Mission” have grown on me immeasurably in recent years. But then he stopped snorting so much coke and the good songs became fewer and far between, the odd sparkling gem on a record full of schmaltz. He started writing for musicals. More than Elton John, however, I love Leon Russell. I grew up with his beautifully clanging voice and tinkling keys; “Song For You” has always been my favorite song, bar none. Always. The Temptations do a good version. Sadly Donny Hathaway’s one seems to be the only one Americans have heard. But the original is a perfect few minutes of sound; it still leaves me breathless. The audacity of the final note alone is enough to make it a classic. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. Much to his credit, I have heard Elton give Leon his props in interviews, even to people who have no freaking clue to whom he’s referring.

So it is with considerable interest that I come to this collaboration between the two: the not-quite-accurately named The Union. Its path into my hand has been greased by the adulations of weeks of Rolling Stone slobber, so I’m prepared for glorious things. After all, Elton has done some passable duets; Justin Timberlake, for example, was a fine singing partner on that song they did. And let’s not forget whatshername he had that hit with back in the days when he had hair and wore silly clothes. The first time around, I mean.

But I pop the disc in and the first thing I hear are those half tone notes that can be sublime when offered as a quizzical turn here and there in a Leon Russell piano-driven song, but jar your ears when they presented at the front end of a song, without context. I fear a sad clown at the circus redux (not my absolute favorite parts of Russell’s legend-making self-named album), and sure enough, that’s what I get. All the way through the song only two things come to mind: first, that there are too many instruments on this record cluttering up the sound, like a kid let loose at the toppings bar of an ice cream shop; and second, that it sounds suspiciously like it’s all on there to camouflage the fact that Russell is slurring his words. Well, he did have a stroke. He always slurred a little, but this sounds like old man slurring as opposed to artful note-bending.

Each and every song on this album sounds the same, pretty much, as all the rest. They all sound like late-career Elton John show tunes. They sound like the result of entering a recording studio with a flamboyant queen who is footing the tab. If I close my eyes I fear I will see jazz hands. Each song seems to open with Elton’s trembling baritone leading the way for Russell to follow, as a back-up singer might, to flesh out the vocal. Some of this stuff is dreadfully plodding and morbid; “There’s No Tomorrow” makes you wish ardently that was in fact the case. Neil Young lends a bit of sparkle in the Civil War joy fest that is “Gone to Shiloh,” but it only reminds you that, unlike most of his peers, good old Neil can still sing. Halfway through I can’t recall actually having heard Russell sing alone. Come to think of it, I can’t recall having heard his piano playing either. In fact, the only solo Russell gets is on the very last track. I like to think he recorded it on a lark when Elton went for a pee, telling the engineers with rapid hand signals to keep the tape spinning. Still, the lovely backup girls were in on it, which tells you something. Interestingly, it is called “In the Hands of Angels,” which might be an inside joke.

Like many awesome records, this has been ushered into being by the able hand of producer T Bone Burnett. I get the feeling the gentle giant was bowed by the raw wave of diva power at the mixing board. It is uncharacteristic for him to be attached to music that sounds so muddy. I saw Leon Russell in a tiny club 16 years ago, where he played to about that many people. I took my parents. It was the first time we had ever been anywhere as a threesome. They are big Leon Russell fans. I ordered a beer, my first. The great man appeared, walking on a cane over to his piano, like an apparition. He looked like a funky Santa Claus. This must have been just before he slid into the oblivion these liner notes hint at. But when he touched that piano; when he opened his mouth and sang; the air changed. It was magic. I like to think this is what Elton had wanted to capture a little of, the dream of pure talent he’s chased all these years, and I’m glad, don’t get me wrong, that he has reached into that chasm and pulled his old hero out to reap some of the benefits of his fame — but honestly, anyone not familiar with the Leon Russell of old will be unconvinced of the genius of the new one dragged to the stage here. I would love to see Russell take a leaf out of Johnny Cash’s book and step out into that spotlight alone, and dare to sound like the man he is, rather than the man he was. Who can forget Cash’s take on the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”? That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.

If one song summed The Union up, it would be the aptly titled “When Love Is Dying.” Think an ABBA song arranged by Andrew Lloyd Weber, sung by Elton John, accompanied by Liberace. It is the most honest song here: when love is dying, it just might sound something like this. Congratulations, dude: you killed