Category Archives: Music

NOW, Shania Twain (snap judgement)

I’ve listened to it just one time. These are the highlights:

  • Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl
  • I’m Alright
  • All In All
  • Life’s About To Get Good
  • Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed

There are some serious duds, mostly due to their easy, predictable lyrics:

  • More Fun
  • You Can’t Buy Love

The rest are forgettable.

I don’t hate “Poor Me,” but it, along with “I’m Alright,” is a little too maudlin, depressing. Which leads me to theme: I don’t know what this album is about or what it’s trying to say, and to whom. This would’ve been the perfect time for a concept album, similarly to what Miranda Lambert did with her latest. The lyrics for a few of the songs indicate that Shania was interested in excavating the demise of her relationship with Mutt Lange to some degree; “Life’s About to Get Good” and “I’m Alright,” in particular.

The production is way over the top. At times her voice is front and center, and loud, despite instruments playing at maximum volume already. How this music will play live, I can’t imagine. Clearly her vocal was run through a battalion of equipment before it landed on the album.

Two songs especially disappoint because the production suggested good things that the lyrics didn’t deliver. At the opening of both “Home Now” and “We Got Something They Don’t” I thought to myself Okay, here we go! This one sounds like it’s gonna be gooood but it didn’t happen.

And friends, this ain’t country… in the least. At times I heard sounds similar to 1970s Elton John, 80s rock (surprise surprise, though with an entirely new set of producers it kinda is a surprise). The hook of “Home Now” reminds me of an album track from Culture Club. My instinct, and again I’ve only heard this album once, is that this doesn’t fit into the current music marketplace anywhere.

It presents the question: what should we expect from Shania Twain? After a 15 year hiatus, a well-documented divorce and remarriage, Lyme disease and its related vocal struggles, I expected a little more introspection, everything inside “Life’s About to Get Good” but stretched out to span an entire album. Definitely some fun songs, but “You Can’t Buy Fun” doesn’t come close. There is no “Man I Feel Like a Woman” here, though “Life’s About to Get Good” was aiming for it.

Despite her presence everywhere during the run-up to this release, I think that because there is no single or specific genre attached to the album hurts its chances of success. After 15 years, this is a comeback album so if it doesn’t revolutionize anything then you gotta give the fans something familiar but elevated. That it doesn’t fit in the current (meaning: R&B-infused) mainstream means there is no place for these songs to land.

At radio, which promotion team would take this on?

As for streaming, we’ll know soon enough if listeners respond well enough to build a story.

Shania was, for better or worse, a country trailblazer. By now, “Any Man of Mine” and “Man I Feel Like A Woman” are 90s country classics. “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” remains her most underrated contribution to country as a genre. A shuffle, with fiddles and drums blowing out of the speakers, all cranked up to 11?!  It far surpasses any of the bigger hits as it regards Country Music (except for perhaps “No One Needs to Know”).

This album reminds of the crossover attempts by Lee Ann Womack and Faith Hill. Each  wanted to engage a bigger audience but didn’t really know how to do it. Or perhaps their industry handlers didn’t know how to do it. The best hook on the album comes from “Life’s About to Get Good,” but where can we genuinely expect to hear it other than the grocery store? I’d say the mall but who goes to the mall anymore?

The Rose: a retro film review 

You’re either old enough to have seen this film at least once, or you’re so young that you’ve not ever heard of it. There really isn’t an in-between. 

Bette is an icon, a gay icon of the highest stature and though she had a moment of breakthrough to the pop culture zeitgeist a few years ago with a Kardashian Twitter fued, and despite a coveted ‘belle of the ball’ appearance (and win) at this year’s Tony Awards for her universally acclaimed performance in Hello Dolly, she’s not held the American imagination as much as when she first broke through in the 1970s. Or even during her return to form, a film renaissance in the late 1980s. 

The Rose takes place over just a few days, following the tour of Mary Rose Foster, who is known by all as only ‘Rose’ or ‘The Rose.’ The film’s narrative momentum, the two-hour-long crescendo to its climactic scene, is a stadium performance in Rose’s hometown somewhere in Florida. In between, we witness brilliantly photographed performances in (we’re told) New York City and Memphis. 

Rose is exhausted, an alcoholic who repeats at least three times that she’s no longer interested in drugs. She pulls a large green liquor bottle from her oversized handbag and tips it back so frequently that, had the film been made today, the internet would give it a name and we’d be overrun with memes. She repeats as well, beginning with the very first scene, that she wants to take a year off after the hometown performance in Florida. 

Her manager, played by Alan Bates, refuses to entertain the idea, though we’re never told why. We know the tour is financially lucrative but the narrative suggests it is a bluster of non-stop movement and chaos, that these few days are indicative of the entire experience. Most every film review defines him the bad guy but, aside from Rose’s obviously erratic nature (which, perhaps my fault, I assumed was an immutable characteristic), he seemed to make the most sense of anyone involved. 

Over the course of those few days Rose falls for an MIA military (title) — note the fort Campbell shout-out! — and brings him along for a ride, drops in backstage at a country musician’s show where she’s perfectly humiliated, performs impromptu at a drag show (where, this is sort of interesting, all the queens sing live), gets lost with Huston and then gets found, meets up with a female lover (in a scene that’s more fascinating by the interpretive stretch were supposed to take as viewers, that they’re lesbian lovers), loses Huston, finds him, and then loses him again. 

At one point she stops and says to (name), “you were really all alone for six whole days?” We feel for her because, though she longs for that sort of solitude, she claims to want an escape from the pressure of her tour and career, it seems increasingly obviously that she wouldn’t know what to do with herself, should she ever carve out a few days alone, much less an entire year. 

It’s aspires to be the sort of film that defined the 1970s: think of Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, even the original Rocky, and especially Nashville. But it doesn’t quite do it. 

It’s based on the life of Janis Joplin, of course. Notoriously, permission was not granted the producers of the film–one of whom was Midler’s manager at the time, with whom she ironically had a major falling out post-The Rose –to use original source material, and so the film to some degree struggles in its effort to effectively step aside from that iconic performer’s influence. The Rose takes place in 1969 yet the music is undoubtedly a product of the 1970s. A scene that finds Rose and Huston facing discrimination for at a diner (“We don’t serve hippies here”), along with Rose’s wardrobe, though an assumption that it’s stagewear is valid, are the only references to the time period. 

It’s a film designed for Midler to flourish, to outshine and perhaps even upstage all the others. I fell in love with Bette as a young boy when I saw Ruthless People in 1986 and then it’s followup, Outrageous Fortune, in 1987. Back then The Divine Miss M (a moniker she assumed from nearly the beginning of her career in the early 70s) was described as brash and brassy, outspoken, and in those mid-80s roles she entirely lived up to those adjectives. So with those two film as a starting point, and decades of reading how The Rose was a great dramatic departure from that personae, it comes as a surprise to see a similar over-the-top performance here.  

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a great film. Long outdated references to rackjobbers unwittingly add to the period piece setting. The musical performances are absolutely top notch; at times the director Mark Rydel allowed a single song performance transition without a scene break to another song, giving the film a documentary quality. The end is a bit of a stretch. It relies on the audience’s ignorance of the stresses put on a performer, or perhaps drug culture. We don’t feel Rose’s descent over these few days. In the end it feels like a rollercoaster and, as with all rollercoasters, it hits a breakneck pace somewhere in the middle and then abruptly, incongruously, it just stops. 

The evolution of hip-hop

Years ago, I bought my brother a book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. I gave it to him for Christmas, I’m sure, yet somehow amid all my moves and family visits it ended up in my library, untouched.

About a month ago — on a whim, no less — I watched Straight Outta Compton. It got good reviews so I thought, “What the hell… here’s something the critics love on a topic for which I know very little.”

Intrigued, I noticed book the next day on a shelf, and so I devoured it. It was published in 2010 and stops just before Jay-Z and Kanye exploded, thankfully.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, comes this HBO documentary, Hip-Hop Evolution, that does nothing less than perfectly complement the book visually, providing interviews with Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, and Russell Simmons. Archived film clips from the 1970s and 80s just take the experience over the top.

Just one episode in and it’s already my FAVORITE show!

CLASSIC: Best of 2013 — Canadian country songs

There was a lot of really great music produced in Canada this year. I’m not so much the radio listener I once was, though it remains the primary source to identify new music. Though my iPod worked overtime accommodating my LOVE for some of last year’s really great songs (I could listen to “I Wish I’d Known” on a loop for an hour and not complain), the following list is made up of the Canadian country songs that made 2013 great.

10. “Blame It On the Radio” – Small Town Pistols

Even if it’s just 2/3 of them, it’s always great to hear new music from The Wilkinsons.

9. “Love You For a Long Time” – High Valley/”Where the Party At” – Chad Brownlee

These songs were all over the radio where I live. You hear them often enough, they become favourites, and that’s not a bad thing. Because there were quite a few songs embraced by Canadian country radio that were far less “country” but played even more.

8. “Bounty” – Dean Brody

A true Canadian country star leads a new album with this classic story song you almost never hear in country music anymore. The Lindi Ortega cameo is a great highlight.

7. “Don’t Say You Love Me” – Alee

Where did THIS come from?! Yes, it’s one of those “less country” tunes, but it sounds so goooood. I heard somewhere an acoustic version, and discovered it was written on a piano. Stripped down, the song is much more emotive — but the banjo hidden in the big blaring electric mix here is nice, too!

6. “Get By” – Tim Hicks

Unavoidable, especially throughout the first half of 2013, this was co-written by Florida Georgia Line so if you’ve not heard it yet, you know what kind of song you’re in for. So infectious and fun, it’s easily the single of the year.

5. “Never Gonna Let You” – MacKenzie Porter

I was blown away by “I Wish I’d Known” last year and this follow-up is just as great. The instrumentation has an amped up acoustic feel, and her voice doesn’t try to be country which is refreshing, as is the ode-to-friendship content.

4. “Can’t Keep Waiting” – Autumn Hill

Just like “I Wish I’d Known,” this duo’s first single from last year “Anything At All” was one of those songs that stops you in your tracks the first time you hear it. Subsequent singles, like this one and the recent “Fire,” have been solid.  I really like these guys.

3. “Hope & Gasoline” – Beverley Mahood

Beverley Mahood is BACK!  I’ve been a fan since “Girl Out of the Ordinary” yet when I first heard that whispery voice on this brilliant track I was afraid it was a one-off single intended to keep her country cred — a requirement for CMT to keep it’s country cred while producing decidedly un-country shows like “Pick A Puppy.” Then Patricia Conroy mentioned on the In the Country with Dave Woods podcast that her husband and producer Bob Funk is producing an entire album for Beverley, and that is super news.

2. “When Your Lips Are So Close” – Gord Bamford

One of Canadian country’s most traditional voices leads a new album with this gem. Unlike any single he’s ever released, the rolling tempo is so inviting and pleasing. At first listen I was like, “whaaat?!” but after I settled down and gave it a good listen, I was hooked.

1. “Duet” – Wes Mack (feat. Carly McKillip)

This song is HOT. I’m genuinely torn between hardcore traditional country and turbo-charged hyper electric sounds like this one. Just a Top 10 in Canada, it’s the sort of song country radio salivates over so it should’ve been #1 for many weeks. The new Keith Urban song is a sonic clone.


Honorable Mention:
“Let It Burn” – Lisa Brokop
I just heard it for the first time today. Lisa has made better quality music since she stopped chasing the major labels. She has an unusual voice, and these self-written songs make the full package so much better. “Break It” is an all-time favourite.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on December 21, 2013)

CLASSIC: Best of 2013 — American country songs

First, a warning: these are not necessarily the best country songs of the year. This is a list of the songs and performances I could not get out of my head. Like ’em or not, I most often caught myself humming along with them on the radio, then downloading a copy for the iPod, and wailing at the top of my lungs in the car.

10. “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” – Randy Houser/“Don’t Ya” – Brett Eldredge

Interchangeable, but catchy. I don’t terribly love them, but I hear them once and I’m singing them all day long.

9. “We Were Us” – Keith Urban (feat. Miranda Lambert)

It reminds me of the Wes Mack song. The entire Keith Urban album, while it veers away from country more than any previous release, has a more innovative, unique sound. “Little Bit of Everything” was fun.

8. “That’s My Kind of Night” – Luke Bryan

Probably the biggest single of the year on country radio. If you listen to country, this was everywhere. It may be the worst song Zac Brown has ever heard, but it’s unrelentingly catchy. I resisted for as long as I could.

7. “Red” (Live at the 2013 CMA Awards) – Taylor Swift

6. “If I Didn’t Have You” – Thompson Square

5. “Slow Me Down” – Sara Evans

I wasn’t that hot for it the first time I heard it (are those strings in the intro? Probably not) but it grew on me.  It’s still not yet a big radio hit but I’ve heard it so much in my car, I’m ready for the next single.

4. “Wasting All These Tears” – Cassadee Pope

Downloaded it on a whim one day and fell in love. I can’t distinguish between her and the other girl that won The Voice who also has a new album out, but I know this song is great.

3. “Love Will” – Jennifer McCarter

Remember the McCarters? From the late 80’s? Jennifer visited WSM-AM last December for an interview, previewed this song and I downloaded it immediately.  It fell off the radar among the 3000 or so songs on my iPod so when it popped up again a while later I fell in love all over again. Simple, but gorgeous.

2. “Sunny and 75” – Joe Nichols

Fitting that it hits #1 in December. It’s been so cold and snowy lately, you HAVE TO sing along with it now.

1. “Go Rest High On That Mountain” (Live at George Jones’ funeral service) – Vince Gill & Patty Loveless

This is what country music is all about. Back in May I found this performance both devastating and unforgettable.


Honorable Mentions:
“Done.” – The Band Perry
“Hopeless Rose” – Sweethearts of the Rodeo
“Goodbye In Her Eyes” – Zac Brown Band
“It Goes Like This” – Thomas Rhett
“Did It For the Girl” – Greg Bates
“Easy” – Sheryl Crow


Non-Country Favourites:
“Roar” – Katy Perry
“Heart Attack” – Demi Lovato
“Your Body (Oxford Hustlers Radio Mix)” – Christina Aguilera
“Treasure” – Bruno Mars

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on December 21, 2013)

CLASSIC: American Country Awards 2013

Sara Evans, Justin Moore, Rhett Akins’ son (I just forgot his name). LeAnn Rimes!

There’s so much competition internally, within the record labels and the industry, to get the big names on the CMAs and the ACMs every year that it’s entirely refreshing to see second tier stars performing full songs, receiving a little national airtime.

This is only the fourth year for the American Country Awards, and I’ve avoided every year except for this one, and even now it’s just by whim that I’m watching. Genuinely surprised. Here all along I thought it was an also-ran award show created by a network that’s never invested in the country audience.

And yes, that’s what it is.  But it’s making the best of it.  Kellie Pickler. Randy Houser. Florida-Georgia Line not singing “Cruise.” But that Jake Owen song with the ZZ Top guy: I saw a tweet, during the CMA Awards when Eric Church sang his latest country rock song, that basically said current country stars aspire to music that sounds not like 80’s pop but full-on heavy metal, and it was in full evidence here.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting old and I’d have felt this way had I been this age when someone like Marie Osmond was hitting #1 with “There’s No Stopping Your Heart” back in the 80’s or whether there is a genuine shift in the sound of country music and we’ll never again hear acoustic music on the radio.

(This was originally posted on my previous site Critically Country on December 10, 2013)

CLASSIC: 2013 — the year the CMA became a helicopter parent

Nearly a week has passed and I’m trying to parse out the implications of “country’s biggest night.”  As I mentioned last year, the CMAs had traditionally been that organization that was the Oscars of country, that annointed the stars with awards that truly were prestigious because they were voted upon by the members of the industry.  A conservative voice, it has always struggled to balance defining the industry’s ambassadors to the greater entertainment industry versus bandwagon-ing the hot thing of the day — sometimes with the same award.

You look at the undeniable “crossover” superstars at the time of their Entertainer of the Year wins: Barbara Mandrell in 1980 and 1980 (during the height of Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters TV show), Shania in 1999, Taylor Swift in 2009 and 2011.  Each was dubiously a “country music” star but certainly an ambassador the community could promote as its own.

So just like that parent that can’t always be around to take care of things, but swoops in to take care of the necessary things, the CMA acknowledged the across-the-board success of Florida-Georgia Line and spread the love with all those “Highway Don’t Care” awards, they managed too to pull back the reigns and honor — because that’s the word — George Strait with Entertainer of the Year.

It was right around the moment Eric Church turned the classy (albeit “new country”) music show into a 1980s heavy metal concert that I started to think, “I really want George Strait to win Entertainer.”  I’ll admit I have conservative tastes when it comes to country music but that performance, plus all that “Cruise” love was adding up to too much.  Check this and tell me what country music sounds like:

It really is the single most memorable moment from the evening for me, the way this unrelenting rock song just showed up and encapsulated the angst of every traditional country music fan.

The show was a huge success.  Most notable was the number of tweets for the evening: 1.6 million.  This is the last genre to experience any significant erosion of CD sales, back when everyone was downloading without paying.  Just a few years ago, it was one of the very few genres that saw any significant online presence.  The growth is spectacular and, as much as I hate to admit it, we have cross-pollinators like Eric Church to thank for it (if, in fact, we are thankful).  Notice the way the traditionalist country fans find their way into the conversation in live-tweets like this one from  Entertainment Weekly.

Back to the awards: along with the George Strait win, the CMA didn’t just let Kacey Musgraves’ six nominations be its own reward.  That New Artist win was deserving and it sent a message — to whom, I’m not sure (radio, maybe?) — that the voters were looking to acknowledge quality and possibly even attempt to influence the future of the genre.

I think Miranda Lambert’s fourth consecutive Female Vocalist win was more about matching Reba’s record than genuinely honoring her work this year.  The gossip around the Internet in the lead-up to this show was a rather consensus vote that Carrie Underwood deserved it, especially given her snub in the Entertainer of the Year category, where she was undoubtedly a contender.

Yet it was an enormously entertaining show.  The sound worked, the duelling stages — including the one in the audience — worked.  It was a show worth watching, love it or hate the winners.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on November 12, 2013)

CLASSIC: Gord Bamford “When Your Lips are So Close”

It doesn’t sound like a Gord Bamford song.  He co-wrote it with his producer Byron Hill and Nashville songwriter Brent Baxter, who recounts his behind-the-scenes journey to Gord and this recording brilliantly on his blog Man vs Row.

Gord Bamford sings country music, unquestionably.  His singles really just vary between honky-tonk uptempos (“Stayed ‘Til Two,” “Drinkin’ Buddy”) and slow heartfelt ballads (“Little Guy,” “My Daughter’s Father”).  And I’m sure the rest of the songs on the new album will hew closer to this path.  It’s available tomorrow, incidentally.

“When Your Lips…” works.  It’s left of centre, just enough to excite the fans and intrigue those who might not otherwise be interested; the perfect single to open an album.

Also: the lyrics in the hook makes sense if you substitute “your lips” for just “you,” though you still have to strain a bit.  He’s trying for a play on words, but they don’t quite fit.  The song is definitely about longing, and where it veers I think is regarding the frustration of wanting someone who’s right. over. there. but you still gotta get to know ’em.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on October 7, 2013)

CLASSIC: Mary Chapin Carpenter “House of Cards”

It’s poetry.

“When you dreamed it was of the wind
Blowing cold and hard
In those dreams you thought you lived
In a house of cards”

The first two verses are about the past. “I grew up in a house like this … I grew up in a town like this.” After the third verse it all changes.

“When we dream it’s of the wind
Blowing cold and hard
When we wake up we still live
In a house of cards”

Things are bad and even though we wish for better, it’s still as bad as it was when we were kids. The wind will always blow. Only now it’s our house and, much as we want to, we can’t seem to change it.

I was working at CKON, a radio station on the Akwesasne reserve when this song was new, and I was drawn in by the amped up guitar and drums which at the time were still an experiment on country radio.

This song turned out to be the start of the end for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s mainstream country career, ironically. The third single from the Stones In the Road album, it stalled at #21 on Billboard. It popped up on the iPod yesterday and, for the first time in years, I gave it a listen. Then another, and another, and I wondered how many other truly exceptional songs get lost in the shuffle, and never gain the exposure they deserve.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on September 22, 2013)

CLASSIC: Patty Loveless “Lonely Too Long”

It’s the first crisp, chilly morning of the season, and I’m driving alone down the highway with my iPod on shuffle.  The combination can present some powerful memories.

Living with a married couple in Nashville, I was just one year out of high school, and they were about to separate.  We lived in Bellevue, a community on the westernmost edge of town, in a big fancy expensive two-bedroom apartment just off the second-to-last exit of Davidson County on I-40.  The university Charlotte and I attended was near downtown, so it made for a lengthy drive each morning, and I can remember all the new music so vividly: Deana Carter’s Strawberry Wine, Leann Rimes’ One Way Ticket, Tim McGraw’s She Never Lets It Go to Her Heart, Vince Gill’sWorlds Apart.  They were all over the radio then.

Charlotte and I were instant friends when we met a year earlier.  All of 25 years old, she’d fallen for a boy with a pretentious name at our college who I didn’t find particularly attractive or interesting, and spent every moment with him, avoiding her husband John while he worked two full-time jobs to support the two of them.

In November we sat at a Waffle House not a mile from that new apartment complex that we’d moved into only a few months before.  Along with a mutual friend, Mary Beth, she told us of her plan to leave him.  Her reason, whatever it was, obviously didn’t ring true but, nonetheless, I figured because I was her friend and because I didn’t really know John that well it made sense that I leave too.  She scolded me, telling me I was being selfish by abandoning him, that he needed someone around.   Dumbfounded, I went home for the holiday a few weeks later and, when I returned, the lock on the front door to the big fancy expensive two-bedroom apartment had been changed.

I didn’t really get to know John until she moved out.  He told me he changed the locks because she’d left, and he was concerned she might take everything while he was at work, that my abandonment was unintended.  We sat on opposite sides of the bar in the kitchen, him facing the appliances and me looking out into the living room, and he told me he knew why she left.  Blunt but never cruel, he said he’d met with a counselor who told him I was the problem.

Wide-eyed, I stayed silent and let him continue.  He was working two jobs and was never around or available.  He knew all about Jefferson and resented him, and hated her for choosing him. “But I wonna winna’ back,” he said in his thick Australian accent.  It was admirable.

“I need to letta’ know this is owwa’ home.  So you can’t stay.”

We had a winding, great conversation about marriage, America, Australia, post-secondary education, country music.  He was obliging.  In my head I was so much younger than them, callow and self-interested so I took my time finding a new place, with unattached roommates this time on the opposite end of town.  It was a cheap, small, ground-floor two-bedroom apartment with a shared bath that we kept reliably filthy.  Dare I admit the weather was warming and spring on its way by the time I moved in.

So even though it’s one of thousands on my iPod and though I may skip over it every other time of year, today I repeated the song over and over on my way to Belleville on Hwy 401 this morning.  Somewhere in my mind I was 19 years old again, driving east on Harding Pike past Belle Meade, between Bellevue and Belmont University, inevitably late for class.

I can see exhaust from the cars before and around me evaporating into the chill of the fall and winter morning air.  John said he hated it because Charlotte sang it all the time, like she was trying to tell him something with it.  He said he understood now and I genuinely wished him well, but I was naive.  And he was too, so it turned out.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on September 17, 2013)