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.

The Mavericks: In Time

Release Date: Feb 19, 2013

I’ve previously mentioned my jr. high foray into country music. Those were the days when the country airwaves were ruled by the likes of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Reba – this is “Don’t Take the Girl”-era Tim McGraw. From that time, there are 3 bands that really stand out to me: the ironically big hair of Little Texas, the sleeveless pearl snaps of Blackhawk, and the incredible music of Raul Malo and The Mavericks.

I feel it necessary to call out lead singer Raul Malo because his voice makes the band. This is extremely apparent on their earliest records that seem to be built around his vocals. As they went on, they came together and established a collective sound: retro Cali-country, with a hint of mariachi, and a voice stolen from Roy Orbison – not bad for a country band from Florida.

They put out a half-dozen albums throughout the 90’s and very early ’00s. They never broke huge, but had some songs you might remember, “Oh What a Thrill”, “There Goes My Heart”, “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down”. In 2003 they called it quits and mostly went quietly into that dark night with the exception of Malo who released his own half-dozen records (mostly Roy Orbison-crooner-style fare).

Before I get into this record, I have to voice one complaint. Last year, the band released a 5 song EP, Suited Up and Ready. All 5 of those songs appear on In Time. I’m all about whetting the appetite by releasing an EP 3-6 months prior to a full-length. I’m even ok with all of the songs being re-used, so long as the EP is offering up some sort of unique content, such as acoustic versions of those songs and maybe a track or two that didn’t make the record. Frightened Rabbit offered one album track and four non-album tracks on their state hospital EP. Hanson offered acoustic versions of 4 album tracks and one full version of a non-album track on their These Walls EP. Someone made a bad call with this one, expecting people to pay for the same songs twice – especially when those are the five best tracks on the album.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit disappointed with this record. After such a long hiatus, I was hoping for at least one or two really killer tracks that could live on for years and years, and I just don’t think I found any. The band has really moved into a much more mariachi-influenced sound. Honestly, the sound is multi-generational and multi-ethnic. What does that sound like? Well, the organ, trumpets, and accordion are ever-present. The super-clean, whammy-laden electric guitars are abundant. And the entire record is marked by syncopated rhythms throughout. And that’s all good stuff, but it just means that there’s really no place for this record in the mainstream. It’s a record for the band and it’s truest fans.

The strongest stand-alone track is “Born to be Blue.” (If I can say one thing, the theme of the record is really consistent throughout: failed love and heartbreak.) “Come Unto Me” sounds like it would fit perfectly into a Quentin Tarrantino western. “That’s Not My Name” honestly sounds like it was recorded in the 50’s. The bulk of the album is up-tempo, but there are a few slowed down tracks including “In Another’s Arms” that showcase the smoothness of Raul Malo’s voice. The band is comprised of great musicians who play their roles well in all contexts, but shine brightest on the most expansive tracks such as “All Over Again.”

In short, you can roll the dice on each track and you’ll either come up with modern Tejano rockers or Richie Valens flavored ballads. I just wish we’d come away with something on the level of “Oh What a Thrill”.

As an aside, I was really excited to see the band advertised both on the end cap at Target for the last month and in the Target circular this past Sunday. I really appreciate Target for embracing, supporting, and raising awareness for great music.

Gary Allan: Set You Free

Released: Jan 22, 2013

I’ve been a Gary Allan fan since I heard his track “Songs About Rain” off of the See If I Care album back in 2003. I had gone through a Nashville country stage in my jr. high years and Texas country during college. At the time that I came across Allan, I had pretty much limited my country music listening to Pat Green and The Mavericks. “Songs About Rain” struck a chord and when I finally popped in the album, I was pleased to find that it didn’t sound like every other country record out there.

Hailing from Southern California, Allan is clearly not the typical country artist. He brings back the Bakersfield sound of the late-50s – rockin’ roadhouse country – which influenced artists as far and wide as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and even The Beatles. Add to this Allan’s life experience (his wife committed suicide while he was on tour promoting See If I Care) and you’ve got a country artist who can convey pain and loss unlike anyone else out there. [Bias: Now, normally I don’t care much for artists who don’t write their own material – and over the years GA has taken on more writing and producing duties – but the songs he chooses are solid and he makes them his own in a thoroughly believable manner, so I let him slide.]

His latest album opens with the Gary Allan Trifecta: A twangy Bakersfield rocker, “Tough Goodbye”; a silver-lining heart-tugger, “Every Storm”; and an angry ass-kicker “Bones”. “Every Storm”, the lead single, is taken up a notch by the addition of a female background vocal not often found in Allan’s work. While “Bones” has a great sense of immediacy and paints a really clear picture, it lacks the heart of “Just Got Back from Hell” (a song with a very similar sound) off his Tough All Over record.

Gary Allan albums usually follow a pattern: 2-3 really great tracks, 2-3 really bad tracks 4-6 mediocre tracks. This album is no different. I did read an article that talked about how the entire album tells a complete story and I picked up on bits and pieces of it as I listened through several times, but it didn’t “jump off the page” to me. While I hate the idea of stripping tracks out of their album context to make a Greatest Hits record, GA is one of those artists that I’m just never going to pop in his album and listen all the way through. I’m going to pick and choose my favorite songs and enjoy the heck out of those 2-3 each album. That said, I’m going to continue to support him because what he’s doing is so different than everything else out there, and he makes me feel it.

“It Ain’t the Whiskey” is probably my favorite track on the album. If it weren’t for the drunken fools cheering every time he says “whiskey”, this would be an awesome performance. I’m afraid that for the audience, whiskey is the problem.