Saturday Night Barn Dance #003
aturday Night Barn Dance is a new recurring column on contemporary country music, wherein Stylus aims to survey the landscape of the genre by briefly considering some of its more notable and/or superlative recent releases.
Rantin’ and Ravin’
Nashville’s not just a place where women wield similar clout and share an equal artistic legitimacy with men. Actually, it’s hard to argue that the ladies aren’t significantly outclassing their male counterparts in terms of producing creative, emotionally diversified pop-country. Truth be told, there are gender strictures and dictates in the genre, unspoken but observed boundaries of subject matter and perspective, it’s just that most of them work to the detriment of the fellas. Women like Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Sara Evans, and Natalie Maines can move comfortably between toughness and vulnerability even within the same song.
Contrast that with male stars like Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Brooks & Dunn—some of the real giants of the music—who seem to always put down road flares instantly attesting whether every song is going to be a macho rocker or a tender ballad. The guys also tend to be far more likely to peddle patriotic generalities or frame morality in untenable Biblical terms, both scenarios exceedingly conducive for making boorish two-dimensional music. The fact of the matter is that today in Nashville it feels like a woman can be just about anything she wants to be—naive, adulterous, spiteful, scared, transgressive, or armed and dangerous. The men are quite capable of conveying these things too, it just seems like they often don’t have the time ‘cause they’re too busy singing the same old songs about the flag, pickup trucks, and the lingering sting of Grandpa’s belt to the backside.
Jason Aldean – Relentless (Broken Bow)
On his new song "Use What I Got," Jason Aldean recounts his unlikely rise to fame in Nashville, recalling that he was once told he’d need "a pretty face" to ever make it in Music City. Turns out Aldean’s endearing shlubbiness actually proved to be one of his biggest assets, as the Georgia native successfully pitched himself on his debut record as a dutiful, nose-to-the-grindstone Everyguy, eternally faithful to the responsibilities of his job and his partner. Unfortunately, the song that really catapulted Aldean onto the charts was "Hicktown," a broad but fun romp through the typical tropes of redneck recreation.
Apparently forgetting the fact that the majority of his debut was sweetly low-key, Aldean chose to ramp things up for his sophomore release, and it’s mostly a disaster. Lead single "Johnny Cash" is just as predictable as the title suggests, even stooping to the generic dregs of invoking a wedding performed by "a preacher man who looks like Elvis." Aside from that ham-fisted opener, the album’s loaded down with trite affirmations (you can guess the plaudits of "Not Every Man Lives") and thoroughly unspectacular sad-sack ballads that wouldn’t even make it past Tim McGraw’s front gate. A few of the rockier moments are respectable, particularly the Stones-y "I Break Everything I Touch," but too much of Relentless finds our formerly aw-shucks hero replaced by a self-help-spouting wannabe bad-ass.
Elizabeth Cook – Balls (Thirty Tigers)
A classic bait and switch. The album title Balls is shorthand for the record’s first single, "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman," a highly entertaining (if predictable) slice of empowered pop-country that could fit comfortably between Gretchen and Miranda on any take-charge feminist mix or mainstream Nashville playlist. No doubt it’s much easier to sell Cook as a flashy tough gal than a quaintly charming alt-country chanteuse, but this would-be ballbuster’s only one of those things and it ain’t the former.
Surprisingly and perhaps a bit regrettably, the remainder of Balls consists mostly of thoroughly un-modern, generously honky-tonkin’ tunes that are winning but a tad slight. The primary tones here are sweet ("Mama’s Prayers," "Always Tomorrow"), gently melancholic ("Down Girl," "Rest Your Weary Head"), and even aggressively cutesy ("Gonna Be," "Times Are Tough in Rock ‘n’ Roll"). Certainly it’s a likeable set, but it probably says something that the second most compelling moment is Cook’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s "Sunday Morning," and more because it’s an imaginative choice than because it’s superbly read.
Marty Raybon - When the Sand Runs Out (Dakota Sky/Aspirion)
Raybon’s the former lead singer of Shenandoah and owner of one of country music’s purest tenors, akin to Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox without his Richard Marx-isms: a high, clear, mountain voice (see also: Vince Gill). It immediately gives anything he’s singing a leg up on the competition, but as it would happen, his solo debut When the Sand Runs Out is Raybon’s finest collection of songs since Shenandoah’s early-‘90s heyday.
“Shenandoah Saturday Night” is a rave-up which includes in its lyrics the titles of most of Shenandoah’s biggest hits; it comes off as clever rather than cloying. The likes of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Looking for Suzanne” are heavily bluegrass-based (Raybon’s also got a bluegrass side project), while “Right Where I Belong” sounds as if Raybon’s taken some cues from his old duet partner Alison Krauss. (Krauss guested on Shenandoah’s 1994 hit “Somewhere in the Vicinity of a Heart,” which won a Grammy.) Beautifully, simply produced, with a crack band and a fistful of great songs, When the Sand is one of the year’s best country albums.
Blake Shelton – Pure BS (Warner Brothers Nashville)
Much like Pierre Curie, Leonard Woolf, and Fred "Sonic" Smith, it’s possible that Shelton’s entirely worthy efforts may be overshadowed by the work of his significant female other. See, Blake’s currently dating Miranda Lambert, and while only time will tell if their relationship is built to last, it already seems fairly evident that Lambert is the more singular and affecting artist of the two. Of course, it’s a credit to Shelton’s estimable talents that the gap isn’t a larger one, as once again he proves himself here to be a versatile and sensitive interpreter.
If Shelton has a niche it’s playing the affably sensitive screw-up, a genially average guy who wants true love but can’t help doing stupid shit to muck it up. Sometimes the approach is comically light ("It Ain’t Easy Being Me," "She Don’t Love Me") and sometimes it’s more serious ("What I Wouldn’t Give," "Don’t Make Me"), but in almost every case there’s romantic misunderstanding and ‘ol Blake’s to blame. As befitting a true master of wry, twisty C&W heartbreak, several of Shelton’s song titles involve a little catch ("She Can’t Get That," "What I Wouldn’t Give," "She Don’t Love Me"), each of which is too good to give away here. Probably the second best country record of the year thus far, which just tells you how great his main squeeze’s album really is.
Uncle Monk – Uncle Monk (Airday)
From the I-swear-I’m-not-making-this-up department: Uncle Monk is a straight-ahead folk/bluegrass duo made up of Claudia Tienan and Tommy Erdelyi, the latter better known as Tommy Ramone. There are no traces of punk here; this is honest-to-goodness, simple roots music, with an emphasis on the honest. It’s also quite good. Tienan sounds a bit like a Brechtian art singer, with a deep, rich voice which initially sounds odd contrasted with this string-band music but makes sense as the album gets deeper. Ramone, contrastingly, comes off like your slightly eccentric uncle playing banjo on a West Virginia porch. This likely won’t make any new converts to bluegrass, but if it’s your thing, you’re probably going to like this. Bonus points for truth in advertising: “Happy Tune” really is one.
Clay Walker – Fall (Curb)
In NASCAR terms, Clay Walker would be the equivalent of one of those comparatively anonymous second-tier drivers on the Nextel circuit. Maybe you don’t hear their names too often because they rarely win races and don’t belong to big-money teams, but these guys have earned the right to be running on Sunday just like Gordon, Harvick, and Kenseth, and they’re still among the best in the world at what they do. Similarly, despite a good measure of early success Walker isn’t a household name like McGraw, Chesney, or Alan Jackson, but he is a capable, sure-handed artist who has carved out a not-at-all-shabby career for himself in Nashville.
Fall is particularly heavy on heartfelt, optimistic love songs, which normally might send up all sorts of red flags considering how often treacle gets mistaken for romance in country. Fortunately, Walker’s sincere devotionals possess a simplicity and underplayed grace that so many of his maudlin contemporaries lack. Songs like "I’d Love to Be Your Last" and "She Likes It in the Morning" don’t exactly express novel sentiments, but selling fidelity will always be harder than unspooling vice, and Walker deserves credit for pulling it off with panache. There’s a measure of pandering to the lunchpail set here (the self-explanatory "Average Joe"), but the sly humor of "‘Fore She Was Mama" makes it eminently forgivable.
Gretchen Wilson - One of the Boys (Sony Nashville)
Good God, what happened? Coming off a pair of great albums, her astounding debut Here for the Party and the slightly lesser follow-up All Jacked Up, Wilson hits the wall on her third effort. She now looks less like the new standard-bearer of country women (though Miranda Lambert sure owes her a beer) and more like an artist who rode the zeitgeist to a couple of smashes. The biggest problem Boys has is its simplest: Wilson’s not much of a songwriter. She’s called this album her diary set to music, co-writing nine of the eleven songs here, and while that’s all well and good, that doesn’t make it particularly well or good.
“The Girl I Am” and the title track are flat and lifeless (the latter at least has some nice dobro accents), “There’s a Place in the Whiskey” (one of the two Wilson didn’t have a hand in writing) is a tepid rewrite of “Here for the Party,” and no points for guessing that the “Good Ole Boy” she wants is “one who ain’t afraid to make some noise.” Having John Rich as (ostensibly) your songwriting mentor’s not much of a help, but c’mon.
Boys is a lazy-sounding album, an all-too-simple amalgam of Wilson’s influences (some Hank Jr. here, some Kid Rock there) expressed via a batch of seriously sloppy songs. She’s still a superb singer—I’d love to hear her take on some classics, a la Martina McBride’s Timeless—but she’s no songwriter, and she needs some serious quality control for her next go-round, presuming Sony gives her one. This is quite possibly 2007’s biggest disappointment.
Toby Keith – “High Maintenance Woman” (Show Dog Nashville)
Could he get any lazier? Seemingly reduced to trading on leering clichés and tales of class warfare—and don’t forget his “I AM NOW BEING TENDER” moments—Keith has become a Xerox copy of himself. His “High Maintenance Woman,” surprise, surprise, “don’t want no maintenance man.” Lord, I could’ve written that, and a songwriter I’m most certainly not. Stick a fork in Toby Keith, ‘cause as an artist, it sure sounds like he’s done.
Tim McGraw – “If You’re Reading This” (CBS-TV audio)
McGraw performed this as yet unrecorded war ballad on the Academy of Country Music awards a couple weeks back, and it’s already made the top 30 of the country singles chart from radio playing the TV audio. “Reading” rides on McGraw’s usual keening soulfulness, but it’s the lyrics that deliver a true gut-punch: “If you’re reading this [letter], I’m already home,” he sings in the voice of a dead soldier. Meaningful without being weighed down by its words, this soars like “Live Like You Were Dying.” Here’s hoping McGraw records this posthaste (though he’s already said he has no such plans), because this is another peak in a career full of them.
By: Saturday Night Barn Dance Staff
Published on: 2007-06-07