Monday, September 6, 2010

Invasion of the Music Snatchers: An Opinion on Mainstream Country Music

What do Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, and Carrie Underwood have in common? They're all impostors. Somehow these folks, and many many others, slowly and quietly infiltrated our radio stations and took over the airwaves. It's an invasion that's taken decades, but they've finally conquered, and the world is theirs.

The internet is rife with websites and forums devoted to uncovering the mystical secret behind “why country music sucks”. Unfortunately, most people who put down modern mainstream country music end up sounding like old men unwilling to accept change, who only listen to Hank Williams, and who only consider a song 'country' if a wailing steel guitar can be heard behind a southern accent singing about beer, women, and trucks.

Well I'm not a closed-minded country fan. I do like Hank Williams, but I also like a plethora of other singers, bands, and genres. I listen to classical music, swing, country, rock 'n' roll, hard rock, soft rock, indie rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and the list goes on and on. One thing I cannot put up with, however, is fake music with fake emotions sung by fake people who neither wrote their own music nor their own lyrics, and rarely even play the instruments on their own albums.

When someone writes a song, they are calling upon their own experiences and their own feelings. When they perform that song, they know exactly how they feel. One of the biggest problems with bands who don't have anything to do with the creative process is that they're singing and playing someone else's thoughts and feelings, and 99% of the time, it is incredibly apparent. Watch them as they squint their eyes, and lift their hands in the air or place it over their heart just to try and portray some emotion to the audience that they're really not feeling at all. It's pathetic.

Country music has become a new form of karaoke; the kind where people with little talent can take over the radio, push real country into the underground scene where few people ever hear it, and make millions of dollars simply because their music is backed by massive marketing campaigns. Part of their advertising campaign, by the way, includes their songs being played on the radio twenty-five times a day, where the D.J. is paid to praise their 'new single' or to encourage us all to check out this 'amazing up-and-coming new band'. Repetition is their friend; it makes us buy into their hype, and in turn buy their albums.

I'm not going to take a stab at people who do enjoy mainstream country radio. It's not my position to tell others what to like. If you are a fan of mainstream country, please just do one thing for me; admit that it isn't country. Go ahead and enjoy it, as long as you can admit that what you're listening to is pop music, and that 99% of it has no business being aired on a country radio station.

Article first published as Invasion of the Music Snatchers: Mainstream Country Music on Blogcritics.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Corb Lund and The Hurtin' Albertans: Losin' Lately Gambler

Released on September 22, 2009, Losin' Lately Gambler is Corb Lund's sixth studio album on a major label. Backed by his impressively spot-on band, “The Hurtin' Albertans”, this album marks another step in Lund's career; an introduction to an American audience. Although Lund has an immense underground following, and even some Canadian country radio success, remarkably few people have ever heard of him. This is a tragedy that needs to be rectified.

Lund's unique style, forged by a wide array of interests such as history, agriculture and politics, makes his music and lyrics stand out amidst an endless sea of highly commercialized country pop. Corb Lund is not your typical country singer. Lund grew up on a farm/ranch (unlike the majority of modern country stars) in southern Alberta, before moving to Edmonton to study jazz and bass guitar. He was also a founding member of an indie punk/rock band called “The Smalls” (which gained local legend status), before moving ahead with his folk/alt country career.

Losin' Lately Gambler begins with the song, “Horse Doctor, Come Quick”. An upright bass licks out the groove of the tune, and a banjo fills out the background. “Horse Doctor” is about a farm vet who finds himself accosted by a junkie who wants some cheap animal grade 'drugs'. Immediately, one call tell this is no ordinary 'country' album.

“Steer Rider's Blues” starts out with a rock-a-billy beat and a 60's sounding guitar lick. This one's about a lad whose dream is to ride a bucking bull, impress the ladies with his riding skills, and feel a thousand eyes all trained on him during a full fledged rodeo.

“A Game in Town Like This” is the first of a handful of songs that have a slightly more mainstream approach on this album (though still musically and lyrically superior to most mainstream country), and was the first single to hit the airwaves. Since Losin' Lately Gambler is the band's first American release, it seems likely that compromises were made to produce some more radio friendly tunes.

“Alberta Says Hello” is a heartfelt song about passing a message on to an ex through a mutual friend. This one feels almost autobiographical, and was probably one of the harder songs for Lund to write. Generally, and thankfully, his albums tend to have very few 'relationship songs'.

“Talkin' Veterinarian Blues” is a song influenced by ages old country/folk music. Take a look at any old Woody Guthrie album and you'll find all sorts of 'Talkin' fill-in-the-blanks Blues'. Fortunately, Lund has thrown an updated spin on the Talkin Blues genre. This one's a jaunty foot stomping tune about a veterinarian and his daily plights, as well as the plights of various farm animals and the procedures they have to endure . Even though the content is a tad on the grisly side, it somehow manages to make you laugh.

“It's Hard to Keep a White Shirt Clean” is an homage to Willie P. Bennett, a Canadian Alt Country legend who passed away in 2008, while “Long Gone to Saskatchewan” touches on the monetary difficulties that Albertan's can face when trying to operate a ranch and stay afloat, as well as the folks who pick up and leave to find cheaper places to operate. “Devil's Best Dress” is a song in the style of Marty Robbins about a cold woman who doesn't mind shooting anyone who gets on her bad side.

The album finishes with a fun-filled live version of “Rye Whiskey/Time to Switch to Whiskey”. Aside from a few mainstream sounding songs that feel a little out of sorts with Lund's usual style, this is an incredible album.

Twice I've seen Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans play live, and both times they've simply blown me away. These guys are incredible at what they do, both in the studio and on stage. Nearly every song on every album that bears their name is superb. Their incredible range of musical styles and Lund's impressive word play culminate into something that is much more than just a band. Everyone should give them a listen, at least once.

Personal Rating: 81/90 (90%)

Ratings Breakdown

1: Lyrics: 10/10
2: Significance: 9/10
3: Music: 10/10
4: Freshness: 9/10
5: Production Quality: 9/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 7/10
8: Humanity: 10/10
9: Cohesiveness: 9/10

Article first published as Music Review: Corb Lund - Losin' Lately Gambler on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dr. John: Tribal

To many, Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, is a legend. Born in New Orleans in 1940, he played locally throughout the 1950's, and by the 60's, living in Los Angeles, he became a well known session musician. It's 2010 now and, still tickling the ivories, Dr. John is a man who has honed his craft over six impressive decades.

John's newest album, Tribal, released on August 3rd, 2010, is already gaining critical acclaim. The album's opening track, “Feel Good Music”, gives an impression of the album as a whole. Blues, funk, jazz; this album is a melting pot of musical styles.

The second track, “Lissen at Our Prayer”, is a soulful and spiritual song about the earth, about people, about creation, nature, self, and our future. At age 69, the Doctor sounds as good as ever.

“When I'm Right (I'm Wrong)”, is a song about a guy who just can't seem to catch a break with his woman, and in Track 5, “Jinky Jinx”, his bad luck seems to extend beyond his relationship and into every other aspect of his life. In fact, Dr. John's bad luck with life and women sticks around through the next two tracks, “Change of Heart”, and “Sleepin' In My Bed”.

“Whut's Wit Dat” could easily have been the theme song for the documentary, “Food Inc”. Dr. John sings up the evils of the big food companies, encourages us to eat fresh locally grown (or home grown) food, and we're warned of the dangers of additives and preservatives, and sugar substitutes. As silly as it sounds, maybe we need more songs like this.

Track 9, “Tribal” is the album's title track. It begins with the sounds of native chanting and drums, and this becomes a recurring theme throughout the song. John tells us that the tribal plan is for every man, and sings “We don't need feathers, and we don't need no paint. We on a quest to see who is and who ain't.” This song is sort of a spiritual bookend, accompanying track 2 back at the beginning of the album.

“Them” is a song about change; words of wisdom about living in harmony, and how every link in the chain must pull together to make things better. Full of nearly haunting horns, melody and backing vocals, this is one of the more memorable songs on Tribal.

“Only in Amerika” again warns us about the change we are in dire need of. This is a song about the downward spiral that America seems to be in. It touches on hunger, monetary problems, education, the breakdown of the family unit, and human rights being placed on the back burner.

Tribal showcases an impressive 16 tracks, and closes with “A Place in the Sun”. An almost hymnal sounding organ vibrates the far reaches of this tune's soundscape, while Dr. John sings about finding the end of the rainbow and searching for the ultimate truth, while still living in the here and now.

After so many albums over so many decades, it's amazing that John (with a little help from his superb band, The Lower 911) can still find something to say, and make it feel fresh. Though not every song is spiritual or political on this album, Dr John's words ring true throughout; “The world is a tribe. Everybody on this planet is of one tribe.” Let's all take a lesson.

Personal Rating: 72/90 (80%)

Ratings Breakdown

1: Lyrics: 7/10
2: Significance: 9/10
3: Music: 9/10
4: Freshness: 7/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 5/10
8: Humanity: 10/10
9: Cohesiveness: 9/10

Article first published as Music Review: Dr. John - Tribal on Blogcritics.