Randy Rogers Band: Trouble

Release Date: April 30, 2013

Seven or eight years ago, Randy Rogers was the heir apparent to Pat Green’s throne as king of Texas/Red Dirt country (with Stoney LaRue and Cross Canadian Ragweed close at his heels). Now, it’s not really my scene these days, but from what I can tell there’s not much of a kingdom to speak of anymore. All that I see is a bunch of little roadhouse fiefdoms lorded over by “First Name Last Name Band” of the Week every Friday and Saturday night. Pat went “Nashville”, we all graduated from college, and it seems like a lot of these guys couldn’t sell enough records to sustain their careers. (Oddly it seems that country music is one of the last frontiers to not embrace the social media based, long-tail, independent career plan.)

One of the difficulties here is to make music that is radio-ready and mass consumable, while staying true to the honesty of the genre. At its core, this should be “3 chords and the truth”, bucket of Shiner Bock on the back porch music. Outlawin’, Drinkin’, and Gettin’ Your Heart Broke. Where the latest entries from RRB have failed is in over-production that has tried to make the music all things to all people. As I listen, I find myself trying to strip away everything and hear the songs as they were probably written: on an acoustic guitar by itself. When you start making a band out of that, it becomes a delicate balance of enhancing the song versus impressing the potential listener. Randy Rogers Band shines when Randy is front and center and fiddle-player Brady Black is leading the way for supplemental sounds. When ad hoc pianos, steel guitars and electrics start trying to leave their mark, things run aground quickly.

The albums starts out way over-produced, as expected. The songs aren’t bad, mind you. It’s just hard to get to the meat of them. “Fuzzy” was released on iTunes a few months back and drew a slew of negative reviews. It’s an unusual sound for the band, but the song is fun/funny and in the end, it succeeds even as a departure from what we may expect from Randy and company. “Speak of the Devil” has a modern Nashville sensibility to the production, but the Texas style still shines through.

Trouble Knows My Name“, a duet with the great Willie Nelson is a fun idea, but fails to connect for some reason. (Solo acoustic versions on YouTube prove the song a winner.) Another victim of over-production is the big lead single, “One More Sad Song“.

In my opinion, the last three tracks bring it back to the old days, each from a different perspective. “Had to Give That Up Too” (video at top) is near-perfection, propelled forward on the aforementioned greatness of Brady Black’s fiddle. “Shotgun” is an example of the right way to utilize the full band. Randy’s voice is fully on display in all of its raspy (im)perfection on “Never Got Around to That“, the song that Bruno Mars wishes “When I Was Your Man” was.

On the whole, that album is worth a listen, it just tries too hard to do too much. It doesn’t lack the heart of his earlier work, it just is harder to find. Give me all these songs recorded live at a show and I think we would have a winner.

Ryan Adams: Love is Hell

Release Date: May 4, 2004

Ryan Adams is on of the most prolific and diverse artists in all of music. If he hasn’t released anything under his own name or with his band, The Cardinals, in a while, start trolling the internet message boards. Chances are you’ll find a new release from any one of his many aliases: Warren Peace (rock), The Dunes (pop), DJ Reggie (hiphop), The Shit (punk), Werewolph (metal). That’s not saying that you’ll want to listen to any of them, but it’s out there. In truth, I have probably twice as many bootlegs from him as I have studio albums. (If you can find his 48 Hours bootleg record, it’s a winner.)

Coming off of the commercially and critically successful Gold album (2001) which garnered three Grammy nominations, Adams’ record label was expecting more of the same – pop-country crossover hits. What he delivered (Love is Hell) was a set stripped-down, melancholic, greatness. The label didn’t go for it and sent him back to the studio to record the songs that would become 2003’s Rock n Roll. Adams eventually convinced the label to release Love is Hell as two separate EPs. When they saw the success of Parts 1 and 2, Lost Highway agreed to release the entire album as a single disc.

It’s hard to fit this album into any genre classification. It sounds like the soundtrack to a Cameron Crowe film. Most of it is very laid back, even slow at times. There are a few more raucous numbers (“Anybody Wanna Take Me Home”, “Love is Hell”). The rest of it, you couldn’t really call “pop” or “alternative” it’s just great music. There’s not a bad song on the album, though some do shine more brightly than others, with “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and “City Rain, City Streets” landing on the more dull end for me.

There are some very awesome sonic experiences throughout the record. The opening track, “Political Scientist” begins in a very mellow mood and builds to a more driving, ethereal tone coupled with haunting, impassioned vocals. “The Shadowlands” (a personal favorite) starts out with a lo-fi tone that carries throughout the entire vocal portion until the final line when there’s a noticeable transition to full stereo sound leading into a killer 2:30 minute piano/guitar instrumental.

I’ve noticed at least two interesting homages to other artists on the record. “English Girls Approximately” appears to be a reference to Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”, though I don’t notice any similarities within the music itself. The vocal delivery on “Hotel Chelsea Nights” (great track) is very reminiscent of Prince’s classic “Purple Rain”.

Probably the most well-known track on the record – perhaps the most well-known of Adams’ entire catalog – is his cover of Oasis‘ “Wonderwall.” From time to time, an artist is able to take a well-known song and completely re-invent it as if it were their own. The song is a masterpiece of production and performance. Echoing back to my initial comments of this album resembling a soundtrack, “Wonderwall” has been featured in countless television series including Smallville, The O.C., Brothers and Sisters, and 90210.

There’s really only one problem with this record – you shouldn’t get attached to it because it is so completely un-indicative of the rest of Adams’ catalog. There may be a song here or there that harkens back to this type of sound, but most of his work is far more country or rock. I’m not sure what to do with that. I’ll listen to anything that the guy puts out, but in the end it’s always a disappointment when held up against the greatness of this record.

Martin Smith: God’s Great Dance Floor: Step 01

Release Date: April 23, 2013

I’ve been sitting on this album for a while now, listening to it casually from time to time, knowing that its release was still some time away. Then all of a sudden it snuck up on me and I knew I should get serious about listening so that I could get serious about writing. It’s a good thing that I did because God’s timing is not ours and as I began really listening to this record I found myself in a state of mind that allowed it to strike a chord with me that it hadn’t during previous listens. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I was immediately transported back in time to Cutting Edge-era Delirious? and my own journey from there to now.

For the uninitiated, Martin Smith is the founder and lead singer of the UK worship band Delirious? whose afore-mentioned debut record Cutting Edge was released in the U.S. back in 1997. The ensuing years saw the band release an additional eight studio albums and six live albums before calling it quits in April of 2010. The band’s other members have gone on to continue making music in other bands or collaborations with one another. Smith has kept a relatively lower profile, choosing to focus on charity work and songwriting. In 2012, he appeared on the Jesus Culture album, Live from New York and released his own series of 4 EPs, God’s Great Dance Floor Movements 1-4, which serve as the source material for this record.
Not wholly unfamiliar

These songs won’t be wholly unfamiliar. Several of them appeared on the Jesus Culture album. “Fire Never Sleeps” was covered by the newly reformed Audio Adrenaline on their Kings and Queens record. “Waiting Here for You” was performed by Christy Nockels on her 2012 Into the Glorious album as well as the preferable rendition on the Passion album Here for You (2011). Perhaps most notably, the lead track on the latest Passion album “God’s Great Dance Floor” (Let the Future Begin, 2013) is heard here under the title “Back to the Start.”

Smith collaborated with a number of songwriters on these tracks. The ever-prolific Chris Tomlin co-writes on six of the songs. Tim (“Happy Day”) Hughes also weighs in with songwriting credit on two tracks.

The album opens with the acoustic guitar/synthesizer beat of the incredibly catchy chorus to “Awake My Soul.” The spoken-word-quasi-rap of the verse is a strange juxtaposition to the melodic chorus. The chorus is great enough to make me ignore that, though, and the “love is in the air” bridge really brings it home.

On “Fire Never Sleeps,” I’ve gone back and forth between Martin Smith’s version and Audio Adrenaline’s take. I think that the instrumentation/production here is a little too thin while I think that Kevin Max’ (AudioA) vocals are too “syrupy” (listen to it, you’ll hear what I mean). If I could drop Martin’s vocal onto AudioA’s band track, it would be perfect.

“Waiting Here for You” is an amazing slow-burner. Guest vocals by Sarah Bird (who I can’t find any solid information on other than a goofy YouTube clip) are incredible. The way the song builds to its driving final chorus and harmony vocals makes it the definitive recording of the song.
A better version

It’s a real shame to me that most people are probably going to be most familiar with (and perhaps most loyal) to Chris Tomlin’s take on “Back to the Start (God’s Great Dance Floor).” That loyalty may be, for many, born out of their personal experience at the latest Passion Conference. That experience could hardly be compared with Smith’s version. Tomlin’s version kicks up the pace at the 45 second mark and begins surging forward urging us all to bounce up and down. Smith’s mellow, introspective sound doesn’t open up until around 2:50 and still has another 2 emotive minutes before kicking out the dance jams. What’s the big deal? Here’s my beef: Smith’s track takes listeners on an emotional, cathartic journey of restoration. Tomlin just says “let’s have fun; now jump around.” It’s a crime against a perfect song.

To me, “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Soldiers” signify missteps in the creative process here. They seem out of place and just a little bit hokey when mixed in with such personal and challenging songs, while the remaining songs resonate with the overall message of the record.

On the whole, the concept of “Back to the Start” really is the ethos of the album. It is [BUZZ WORD ALERT] authentic and relevant to the core. It resonates with those broken places in your spirit and gently guides you back to hope. But when it gets you there, it kindly slaps you on the back and says “start smiling, God is good.”

Essential Playlist:: Glen Hansard

[Legacy Content]

My friend, Ryan, had spoken to me of The Swell Season and the movie Once, but I hadn’t actually listened to the music of Glen Hansard before I randomly decided to pick up the album The Cost by The Frames. I love the rawness and heart that emanates from the music or Ireland and any iteration of the musical career of Glen Hansard is no exception. Personally, I favor his work with The Frames but performances like “Leave” and “Say It To Me Now” really exemplify the heart of the artist who is as much at home on a theater stage in front of hundreds as he is on a street corner in Dublin.

While he may not be widely known within the music industry, he can always be billed as “Academy Award Winning Songwriter” Glen Hansard.

The Musical Stylings of Glen Hansard and Friends

cost 1. “Song for Someone”, The Cost (The Frames)

cost 2. “Falling Slowly”, The Cost (The Frames)

set list 3. “Star Star / Pure Imagination”, Set List live (The Frames)

lolla 4. “People Get Ready” [explicit], Live from Lollapalooza 2006 (The Frames)

strict 5. “Leave” (live), Strict Joy deluxe edition (The Swell Season)

strict 6. “All the Way Down” (live), Strict Joy deluxe edition (The Swell Season)

even better 7. “Cry Me a River” (live), Various Artists: Even Better than the Real Thing vol. 1 (solo)

once 8. “Lies”, Music from the Motion Picture Once (The Swell Season)

cost 9. “Mind’s Made Up”, The Cost (The Frames)

strict 10. “Low Rising”, Strict Joy (The Swell Season)

rhythm 11. “You Will Become”, Rhythm and Repose (solo)

lolla 12. “Fitzcarraldo”, Live from Lollapalooza 2006 (The Frames)

strict 13. “In These Arms”, Strict Joy (The Swell Season)

fitz 14. “Red Chord”, Fitzcarraldo (The Frames)

once 15. “Say It To Me Now”, Music from the Motion Picture Once (solo)

Vocal Few: She’ll Be Right

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: Jan 10, 2012

Several years ago, my good friend Dan turned me on to a great band out of Seattle called The Classic Crime. Early last year, he came through again by pointing me to this record by Classic Crime lead singer Matt McDonald and his wife Kristie. (There’s a cute story of how the record came to be, so you should check out their bandcamp page to read that and then buy this record from them.) Just this week, Matt and Kristie announced that their follow up, Tall Trees EP, is finished and heading out for mixing and mastering – no release date yet. In anticipation of that release, I thought it would be good to go back and revisit the beginning.

The Classic Crime leans a little bit to the harder side, so it’s fun to hear Matt doing something more stripped down and mellow (though the Classic Crime acoustic EP is my favorite of their work, anyway). Matt and Kristie’s vocals blend really well while remaining distinct from one another. The production is simple, home grown, and everything that you would want from a project like this. Finally, it’s got more oomph than a lot of the male/female duos currently on the market, even in its simplicity.

“We’ll Make it Someday” – A great ode to the young married couple. An idea that should resonate with anyone at that life stage. This serves as a great opening track because it pushes both vocalists to either end of their range and propels itself forward on the great blend of guitar and piano. The strings that show up mid-song add a welcomed air of romance. (shocked by how good the audio is in the video below)

“The Fountain” – To me, this is the weakest of the four tracks. Perhaps it is just because of the lilting melody come on the heels of the first track. There’s a desperation in the lyric that translates well through the music, but still the placement is curious coming off such a driving preceding song.

“Every Second” – My favorite thing about this song is the way that they transition back and forth from unison vocals to harmony vocals. I also love anytime Matt pushes his voice to the near-scream.

“Mexico” – When it comes to the Matt McDonald near-scream the last minute of this track shines. It becomes reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional in terms of using the vocal tone to convey the sincerity of emotion, passion, and hope. Lyrically, it speaks again to that young couple wish of running away together and escaping the daily grind just to be together.

Personally, for the next outing, I’d love to hear a little more production without losing the raw, authentic sound found here. Beyond that, there’s not much more that can be improved upon. It’s a simple concept that’s not trying to be anything more than what it is. In an industry full of “posturing”, that’s a welcomed change.

Essential Playlist :: Dashboard Confessional

[Legacy Content]

I’m not a fan of Greatest Hits compilations, mainly because I think an album should be heard in its entirety. Beyond that, there are often a ton of great tracks that are never released to become hits. But, I also realize that with an artist you’ve never listened to, it can be hard to get a feel for the breadth of their work or to know where to start. For that reason, I’m introducing the new feature, “Essential Playlists”.

I’ve already written about my love for Dashboard Confessional, so I’ll spare you too much back story. Their earliest records were little more than Chris Carrabba and his guitar. They followed these albums with a full band EP of existing songs (Summers Kiss) and two full band albums. They returned to the earlier formula on The Shade of Poison Trees and then had the brilliant idea to please everyone by releasing a deluxe version of Alter the Ending, which was released as a full band record, but had bonus content of acoustic versions of all songs.

The goal with this playlist is to give you a taste of how the band sounds both with Chris by himself or with the entire group on hand – personally I prefer the acoustic stuff. Three albums are not represented here: Drowning EP (oop, can’t find, never heard), Summers Kiss (because those songs were better acoustic), and MTV Unplugged.

A Beginner’s Guide to Dashboard Confessional

so impossible 1. For You to Notice, So Impossible

so impossible 2. Remember to Breathe, So Impossible

swiss army 3. Screaming Infidelities, Swiss Army Romance

alter 4. No News is Bad News (acoustic), Alter the Ending (Deluxe Edition)

places 5. Saints and Sailors, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most

dusk 6. Stolen, Dusk and Summer

shade 7. Matters of Blood and Connection, The Shade of Poison Trees

swiss army 8. The Swiss Army Romance, Swiss Army Romance

places 9. Standard Lines, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most

mark 10. Hands Down, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar

dusk 11. Rooftops and Invitations, Dusk and Summer

places 12. The Brilliant Dance, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most

alter 13. Even Now, Alter the Ending (Deluxe Edition)

swiss army 14. Shirts and Gloves, Swiss Army Romance

mark 15. Several Ways to Die Trying, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar