Quick Draw Album Reviews – Getting The Ball Rolling For 2020

The short version: In the very first edition of ‘Quick Draw Album Reviews,’ I take a look at new albums from Marcus King, Futurebirds, Steve Moakler and Dustin Lynch.

Marcus King, El Dorado

  • Favorite tracks: “No Pain,” “One Day She’s Here,” “Young Man’s Dream,” “Say You Will”
  • Least favorite track: “Break”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Futurebirds, Teamwork

  • Favorite tracks: “Waiting On A Call,” “Killing Ground,” “Trippin’,” “All Damn Night”
  • Least favorite track: “Picking Up Strangers”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Steve Moakler, Blue Jeans

  • Favorite tracks: “Everything,” “When You Could Still Remember,” “One On The Way”
  • Least favorite track: “Every Girl”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Dustin Lynch, Tullahoma

  • Favorite tracks: “Thinking ‘Bout You (feat. Lauren Alaina),” “Momma’s House”
  • Least favorite track: “Old Country Song”
  • Rating: 4/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The full version:

Marcus King, El Dorado

There’s a story to be written on how The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has made inroads into country music, especially over the past year. His Easy Eye Sound record label is the home of acts like Dee White and Yola, both of whom released breakthrough debut albums last year, and, in the case of the latter artist, resulted in Grammy award nominations. With that said, Auerbach’s production style, while good, is also a familiar style not unlike say, Dave Cobb’s weathered approach or Jay Joyce’s tendencies to push into experimental territory. Yola’s Walk Through Fire and White’s Southern Gentleman both work by complimenting old-school countrypolitan production with voices and styles perfectly suited for the material. Where it can start to look like an odd matchup is when the artist approaches a more hard-edged traditional or rock approach, like Kendell Marvel’s Solid Gold Sounds from last year.

Admittedly, I’m still trying to figure out if it works for Marcus King, who released his solo debut as a break from his lead duties with the Marcus King Band. I’ve warmed up to El Dorado since my first listen, and there’s no denying King has one hell of a voice. But unlike previous projects from King, the material here often forces him to stay in his upper range, which can feel a bit thin overall. And that’s disappointing, as when he’s allowed to cut loose like on “Say You Will” or settle into a low-key, moodier groove on “No Pain,” he’s fantastic. And, given that this is a break from his hard-edged rock material in exchange for more soulful tones, trying to appease that middle ground just doesn’t really work. Again, Auerbach’s touch is of a gentler variety, hence why the moments requiring more muscle in the guitar work, like on “The Well,” just don’t work; and that’s outside of certain songs like “Wildflowers & Wine” and “Turn It Up” crying out for better low-end support. But when they go all in with the change in direction, there’s some really beautiful, melodic moments that compliment King well. I love the string flourishes on “One Day She’s Gone” and “No Pain” that push the album into darker territory as well as the jangled acoustic groove of “Sweet Mariona.”

I can forgive the content for being a little broadly sketched, though the love songs do feel pushy, like on “Break,” and I do wish there was a bit more variety to the content overall. Again, when the album pushes into moodier territory, the results are fantastic: the anxiety permeating “Young Man’s Dream” that paints King as that wandering troubadour still very unsure of his place in the world; the pure fiery angst of “Say You Will” (that’s a hell of a groove, too); the ode to Willie Nelson on “Too Much Whiskey” that deserves credit for making those references about the music over stupid pot jokes; and, again, “No Pain” – by far the best song here, and a surprisingly dour note for the album to end on. As an experiment toward something new, it’s easy to see why El Dorado doesn’t quite completely stick the landing. But with time, I think the potential shown here is going to blossom into something fierce. (Light 7/10)

Futurebirds, Teamwork

If I have one regret with this outlet from last year, it’s that I didn’t venture out to cover independent acts as much as I would have preferred. But considering the Athens-based indie band Futurebirds are releasing Teamwork to coincide with their 10-year-anniversary as a band, this looks like a good time to make amends for that. With Futurebirds, the influences are apparent right away; if you’ve heard of any country-rock act from the ‘70s (Poco or the Flying Burrito Brothers, for instance), you’ll know what you’re getting here. Still, I’ve always thought the band had a smart sense for melody and atmosphere, and the instrumental tones are usually more complex than they may appear.

And that doesn’t change much on Teamwork, though it does carry over certain frustrations I’ve had with their projects over time. For one, the harmonies aren’t really stellar, and outside of Daniel Womack’s rougher, more distinctive, lived-in tone, the singing is more than a tad rough; when the focus is on melody and groove, too, that does matter. But there’s a certain fascination I find with the album’s thematic arc of overcoming personal anxieties by facing them on head-on, and if you recall the earlier influences I mentioned, you won’t be surprised to hear the band tackle those issues in a hazed-out state. I do wish the instrumental tones played to dark, minor territory more often to better compliment the themes, though, as “Killing Ground” is absolute burnout at its finest. And “Waiting On A Call,” a sobering look at death as the character walks the listener through a long goodbye, is one of the most gutting ending songs I’ve heard in a long time. Again, I did hope for some more consistency, but this is solid all the same. (Strong 6/10)

Steve Moakler, Blue Jeans

To be honest, while Erin Enderlin’s Faulkner County and Shane Smith & the Saints’ Hail Mary were two of my favorite albums of 2019, I did find their respective releases strange. Both acts released their songs in spurts leading up to the album release, with the actual release date meant to simply flesh out whatever was yet to be released from the project. A strange concept, but an understandable (and smart) method for gaming the streaming environment and attracting attention of listeners with shorter attention spans. Plus, album listeners win, too, and it’s a hell of a lot better than just settling for an EP release. For some reason, however, it’s only a trend I saw happening in the independent country scene, at least until now. Steve Moakler, as a songwriter, finds himself somewhere in the middle of writing polished hits with substance (the most striking example being Dierks Bentley’s “Riser”).

Leading into his newest release, Blue Jeans, he relied on that aforementioned roll out, releasing the album’s material in “pockets” before wrapping it up just recently. And as a whole, Blue Jeans is an enjoyable listen, but it lacks the tighter focus of past Moakler projects to be anything more than “alright.” Granted, I know what I’m getting with Moakler, stylistically – production that’s smooth and polished, yet carries enough organic rollick in presentation to make up for it, writing that plays to broad themes but does so with wit and tact, and a front man with enough hangdog charisma to sell it all effectively. And there are some nice moments here, musically: the faint acoustic rollick of “Picture,” the shimmering textures of the closer “Everything” imbued with optimism for the future, and some catchy melodies here and there to make up for otherwise decent material. But there’s also moments that stand out for the wrong reasons: “Push” eventually blends into atmospheric tones with real presence behind them, but that blocky drum machine at the front of the mix in the beginning doesn’t help; the garish synthetic elements of “Every Girl” that don’t quite match the content well (which is a note on how “Picture” is sold as much more serious than it really is); or “When You Could Still Remember,” a song speaking to Moakler’s grandmother’s fight with dementia that carries an off-putting, curdled electric guitar tone that just ruins it.

Again, though, Moakler’s personality and charisma can often carry his material, but even the writing feels a bit subpar, at least compared to past Moakler standards. “One On The Way” carries a nice sentiment, but you can tell where that hook is headed by its end from a mile away. The problem, in other words, is in the execution, like how this chance bar hookup on “How Have We Never” means they’re obviously soul mates (slow your roll, dude). Again, the album has its moments: the aforementioned “When You Could Still Remember” doesn’t shy away from Moakler’s anger over the situation at hand, and he’s always been able to write from a youthful perspective with enough detail and charm to make it work as more than a simple nostalgia trip, hence why “Everything” is likely my favorite song here. But without a highlight like “Wheels” or a track to heighten the mood and anchor the project like “Siddle’s Saloon,” Blue Jeans is still worth a listen, but maybe not much more than one. (Light 6/10)

Dustin Lynch, Tullahoma

You know, even with the winds of country music shifting to a point where Dustin Lynch doesn’t have to be a Jason Aldean-meets-Sam Hunt knockoff, he’s still choosing to be just that. Still, even if Tullahoma doesn’t come close to living up to its promise of being Lynch’s most personal project yet, it’s not his worst album – not when Current Mood still exists. Maybe it’s because here, he’s at least trying to achieve some vestige of depth rather than try and cram in every Gen Z reference imaginable, and he can occasionally craft a decent melody and hook. The problem is that, for as much as Lynch leans on atmospheric tones for added weight and presence, he never uses them for anything interesting; they just contribute to an overall cluttered wall of sound. But the most infuriating element shines through when discussing production and content. Sadly, Lynch actually believes he’s living up to his “stay country” motto, but he never learned that just saying it won’t make it happen; the odd turn around of the hook on “Momma’s House” certainly doesn’t make that song sweet or endearing, though it’s sadly one of the more passable cuts here.

No, where Tullahoma really falters is in its presentation, like how Lynch is going to love his “girl” like an “old country song” … by cramming that song with garish synthetic tones, a steel guitar solo that lasts maybe a millisecond, and an ill-fitting attempt at trying to paint George Jones’ alcoholism in a positive light. Or take “Country Star,” where the “rural” reference comes from … wishing on a country star in the sky, you know, rather than maybe discussing Lynch’s career, as the title might imply (which makes it even more stupid considering there’s no such thing as a “country” star, Lynch). And the references are all there, meant to pander to an audience rather than actually speak to them, especially with anything interesting to say: “Red Dirt, Blue Eyes,” “Little Town Livin’,” where Lynch tries his best “Dirt Road Anthem” impression, “Ridin’ Roads,” you get the (uninteresting) picture. At least Lauren Alaina comes in to save “Thinking ‘Bout You,” which is likely the only decent cut here. Again, Tullahoma isn’t nearly the worst album in country music, but it’s horribly mediocre in just about every way, which is an accurate description of Lynch’s career and wasted talent thus far. (Light 4/10)

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