Quick Draw Album Reviews: Oversharing Lost Expectations

The short version: In the third edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I take a look at new albums from Katie Pruitt, Anna Lynch, Porter Union and Kelsea Ballerini.

Katie Pruitt, Expectations

  • Favorite tracks: “Expectations,” “Out Of The Blue,” “Wishful Thinking,” “Grace Has A Gun,” “Normal”
  • Least favorite track: “My Mind’s A Ship (That’s Going Down)”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album.

Anna Lynch, Apples In The Fall (EP)

  • Favorite tracks: “Apples In The Fall,” “Beer In Jars,” “Do You Miss Me Yet”
  • Least favorite track: “Bitter Bones”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Porter Union, Loved & Lost

  • Favorite tracks: “Laundry,” “Looking For Love,” “Loved & Lost,” “Curb Appeal (w/ Kayla Ray)
  • Least favorite track: “We Got It Right”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Kelsea Ballerini, kelsea

  • Favorite tracks: “homecoming queen?,” “overshare,” “hole in the bottle”
  • Least favorite track: “the other girl (w/ Halsey)”
  • Rating: 5/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The long version:

Katie Pruitt, Expectations

An artist’s debut album is the one with the most pressure behind it – a chance to either introduce themselves to the world or just simply deliver a collection of well-written songs; the best ones do both, of course, while the forgettable ones fail to establish that presence. Ahead of singer/songwriter Katie Pruitt’s debut album, the “expectations” were certainly high – she co-produced and wrote the entire project, and given the buzz surrounding it, I’m disappointed I haven’t gotten to it sooner.

And for the most part, Expectations is a fairly solid project that showcases a ton of potential from Pruitt. For one, while she’ll need to work on developing her own unique vocal timbre on future projects (the Alanis Morissette and Brandi Carlile influences are a bit too obvious), she’s a powerful singer with a knack for subtlety on the ballads and the ability to truly soar when she needs to. And that’s even more apparent when digging into the lyrics and themes, which largely revolves around her struggle of being gay in a suburban Georgia Christian community, with the pressure only made worse from her parents and Catholic school teachers; “Normal” really is a sad listen, in that regard. It ends on a positive note, at least, especially when she finds that society is accepting of her and her music on “Georgia.”

And that’s to mention, too, how, along with that struggle, she’s busy facing the normal challenges of growing up and understanding love anyway. It’s a surprisingly complex album that explores every facet of that journey, and the writing is surprisingly more mature than what the focus might imply, though I will say the underlying message of finding your own truth can get a bit cliché and retreaded to make for some weaker tracks, namely “Loving Her.” And the production, while sparse, is also largely pulling from the same sweeping atmospheric tones that have gotten a bit stale in Americana over the years. To be fair, sometimes that can work really well for her tone on, say, “Wishful Thinking,” “Georgia” and “Normal.” But there isn’t a lot of variety in tempo either, and aside from that fantastic liquid bass guitar groove on the title track, the material mostly resides itself to piano ballads with a slight acoustic and string foundation, which can cause the message of, say, “My Mind’s A Ship (That’s Going Down)” to not hit as effectively without that sharper bite. Still, it’s a damn solid project overall, and given the strong foundation, I’m looking forward to hearing Pruitt surpass these expectations on the next chapter. (Strong 7/10)

Anna Lynch, Apples In The Fall

One element of country music that, at least to me, gets a bit overlooked when discussing its history and roots is the boundlessness of it. It’s a regional art form, but it stems from drifters and travelers searching onward for better opportunities and, on a smaller, more ambiguous scale, something more.

This brings us to Anna Lynch, a California native who spent time honing her musical craft in Alaska, gaining a small, loyal fanbase that would further her career as she moved on to Portland, Oregon and, currently, Asheville, North Carolina. Now, with her release of a five-song EP called Apples In The Fall, she’s giving more listeners a reason to pay attention.

Like with most EPs, the biggest gripe one can muster is that it’s not enough to satiate that musical hunger. Here, I can’t say that isn’t true to a certain extent, but what we do get is mostly excellent: the instrumentation is sparse, but firm and crisp; Lynch has a strong emotive presence, vocally; and the writing is mostly strong, if a bit repetitive at points. Even with just five song, however, there is a small thematic undercurrent to this record, namely the passage of time and how moving forward and ahead like we’re told to doesn’t always result in a better tomorrow. It mostly shows itself in the breakup tracks, but the opening title track is a fantastic example, showing how her hometown has lost its cultural edge from gentrification; and the subtext further suggests a hint of regret from Lynch for not appreciating it more when she was younger.

And that lost sense of time comes through when the focus shifts toward Lynch’s own perspective, which, like the decaying town she left behind, finds her trying to pick herself back up and move ahead. Those relationships, after all, in “Hotter Than Hades” and “Do You Miss Me Yet” don’t have any love left in them, and when she questions her own implications as to where things went wrong in the latter track, or has to deal with the small town drama and ridicule of it on the former track, it’s tough to find that sense of direction. Ultimately, her tendencies to travel on and move ahead seem to come from her desire to live by her own code, evident mostly in “Beer In Jars.” Production-wise, it’s a crisp listen, but it is a bit low-key and pulling from the same sparse well as a lot of singer/songwriter records these days; “Beer In Jars” is the only real point where the project shifts direction toward an Appalachian-folk compositional approach. But at just under 20 minutes, it’s also a brisk listen that’s emotionally rich and doesn’t waste time, so here’s to hoping Lynch’s stay in Asheville can result in more projects. (Decent 7/10)

Porter Union, Loved & Lost

It’s certainly not the biggest mystery in the country music world, but I do have to wonder whatever happened to that Real Country television show from a few years ago. Hosted by judges Shania Twain, Jake Owen and Travis Tritt, it was a singing competition show that, sure, operated just like similar shows, but brought talent onboard that was surprisingly excellent. It didn’t have much impact on popular culture, or even the country music industry, but it was only in its first season.

Of course, some of that talent was already known throughout the independent country world, but considering radio wasn’t going to pay them any interest, the show at least provided an alternative method for artists to connect with a broader audience. And for former contestants Kendra and Cole Micheal Porter – known collectively as the husband and wife duo Porter Union – a ringing endorsement from Tritt certainly didn’t hurt. With the release of their latest album, Loved & Lost, I can certainly hear the appeal, but I’m not finding much beyond a solid, if unremarkable country duo project.

Together, the combination works pretty well – Cole’s huskier, strait-laced delivery compliments Kendra’s breathier, drawn-out vocals, though I will say there’s times where both singers sound like they’re overdoing it a bit; Cole on the corny gospel number in “That’s The Spirit” and Kendra on “Pennies,” for instance. But they also both have a good command of their respective tones, leaving Cole to tackle the meatier country songs like the title track while Kendra delivers a devastatingly brutal performance on “Laundry.” But like with most husband-wife duos, the subject matter is mostly relegated to love songs that, while undeniably potent for them, make for uninspiring listens otherwise, especially when they overdo it. “We Got It Right,” for example, is a mostly inoffensive “we made it” type of track, at least until that last line reveals these two lovers only met tonight and are celebrating a very premature triumph.

That’s not to say the writing is without its merits or heavier drama; the title track’s hook makes for an excellent listen, and “Laundry” is a fantastic cheating song with a fantastic progression, with the story only unfolding one brutal truth after another for this woman.

The instrumentation and production is pretty sharp, too; the slide guitars have a nice, meaty presence and the pedal steel cuts through, though I’m not wild about the vocal mixing of “Where Are You.” But for a sharp, decidedly country listen, this is definitely checking every box just right, I’m just not sure it’s offering much beyond that in the writing. There are some pretty fun moments, like the switch between the upbeat stanzas and half time portions of “Looking For Love,” but I’m not getting much from this, other than a few decent cuts. (Light 6/10)

Kelsea Ballerini, kelsea

A few years ago, the narrative surrounding Kelsea Ballerini was that she was poised to fill that gaping hole Taylor Swift left behind in country music, and given her mature outlook from afar on adolescent themes, the comparison wasn’t that strange. And even though I’ve mostly been a defender of Ballerini’s material thus far, I can’t say she wasn’t living in the shadow of that comparison, providing a strong knack for melodic compositions but also an inconsistency with her sound, not helped by an underperforming sophomore album in 2017 (which, ironically, showed great improvement otherwise).

Now, she’s finally back with a kinda-sorta self-titled album that boasted a strong lead single in “homecoming queen?” … and it’s an unfortunate backslide for her in just about every way. Granted, the production on her records has always been sloppy and uneven, especially when it’s trying to play to what it thinks is a cooler, more mainstream sound on “the other girl” or “bragger.” And the issue always boils down to balance – sand away the heavier electronic elements like the spacey effects or hints or reverb and lighten the drum machines, and there’s moments on here that can click for this brand of pop-country: the lonely, sparse acoustics of “homecoming queen?” and the prominent twang of the slide guitar on “hole in the bottle” spring most to mind, even if that track comes out of nowhere and really just feels like an odd fit for her. Even if I wouldn’t label “half of my hometown,” “love me like a girl” or “needy” as highlights, at least their melodies gain a bit more prominence from spacious tones over the murky, blocky, reverb-soaked heaviness of “the other girl.”

That’s not to mention, too, that her voice just isn’t cut out for a move toward mainstream pop. She’s always had enough emotive strength to come across as mature, even in her adolescent-based tracks like “Peter Pan” and “High School.” And her vocal cadence and flow is typically faster, pushing her to her lower range and, again, helps that maturity stand out, which shows on “homecoming queen?” and “la.” It’s just a shame that the vocal production isn’t better, as the synthetic edges on her backing vocals don’t fit well with her style. And when she gets to show her strengths on tracks that don’t suffer from that problem, it shows that all her and her producers need to do is push her to the front of the mix instead.

Again, though, those are all issues that have consistently popped up on her records and, sadly, haven’t improved. What’s shockingly disappointing is the writing, which plays to more personal territory overall, but lacks the deeper emotional pathos to connect. In other words, if there was a time for her to move beyond that adolescent framing, it would have been here. The album starts off good with “overshare,” namely in how open she is about how her anxiety and how much of a toll fame has taken on her behind the scenes. But then there’s tracks like “club” or the closer “la” where the writing comes across as flimsier. Even when she’s going more in depth with what she shares from “overshare,” the actual issues she faces mostly boil down to … feeling she won’t fit in with other rich celebrities or wanting to get smashed in a club. I don’t know, I guess I can understand and appreciate her perspective, but given the commonality of anxiety and issues like it, it never comes across as relatable or like she’s relaying those issues with her audience instead of just talking down to them. Even the hometown nostalgia of “half of my hometown” is more concerned with checklist items like fleeting football games and backroads than it is anything unique to that place or Ballerini’s upbringing, and what Kenny Chesney is doing here I have no idea.

And that’s just a problem with the album across the board – decent ideas that never go far enough in their execution to be memorable or distinct. Even when her and Halsey team up on “the other girl” as two women unknowingly sharing the same boyfriend, the deeper stakes just never fluctuate. They won’t leave this supposed scumbag because he’s an implied dreamboat; they just want to know more about the other woman in the relationship, which is an odd place to frame the song without expanding upon it. And I hate to play this card, but when there’s a song on here about a strong desire to write “a country song,” it doesn’t help that the only real connection to country music is an out-of-place drinking song in “hole in the bottle,” even if that song is ridiculously catchy. Again, Ballerini is a talented melodic composer and writer overall, and I’m glad to see her push into more neurotic, personal material, but not with production as flimsy as this. (Decent 5/10)

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