Quick Draw Album Reviews: 8-Tracks Are Rollin’ On Into A New Age

The short version: In the fourth edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I review the latest albums from Kody West, Jessi Alexander, Ingrid Andress and Jesse Daniel.

Kody West, Overgrown

  • Favorite tracks: “October,” “The Way,” “Breakdown,” “Overgrown,” “Alone”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Lonely Without You,” “Short”
  • Rating: 8/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Jessi Alexander, Decatur County Red

  • Favorite tracks: “I Should Probably Go Now,” “Damn Country Music,” “Decatur County Red (w/ Jonathan Singleton),” “Mama Drank”
  • Least favorite track: “Lonely Out Of Me”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Ingrid Andress, Lady Like

  • Favorite tracks: “More Hearts Than Mine,” “Both,” “The Stranger”
  • Least favorite track: “Lady Like”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Jesse Daniel, Rollin’ On

  • Favorite tracks: “Sam,” “Mayo and the Mustard,” “Son Of The San Lorenzo,” “Old At Heart,” “Chickadee,” “Rollin’ On”
  • Least favorite track: “Only Money, Honey (w/ Jodi Lyford)”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The full version:

Kody West, Overgrown

I’m not sure it’s wide enough to constitute as a legitimate trend, but there’s an offshoot of Texas country musicians currently flirting with hard rock undertones. Now, the crutch of that statement is nothing new – it’s a fusion that’s existed since the ‘70s, and even now can be heard from artists like William Clark Green and Wade Bowen (among others). What I’m referring to, though, is a fusion of country with the sort of pop-punk and rock from around the ‘90s, with the distortion cranked and the guitars heavier and at the front of the mix.

Which brings us to Kody West, a Denton, Texas native who started by working as a tour manager for Dalton Domino and the Front Porch Family, playing fill-in shows when he could. That all, of course, coalesced into his own career and a fairly solid debut album with 2017’s Green, albeit one that showed room for improvement. And with his newest album, Overgrown, it’s a bit of a strange predicament. On one hand, this album is definitely playing to the aforementioned sonic territory, which means that West has yet to really define himself as an artist. But on the other hand, I’m willing to temper those criticisms when the execution is as sharp as this.

Of course, I can understand those disappointed with the shift away from the more distinctive Texas tones of his debut album, but I’d argue the sonic palette here is a sharper fit for him, even if I can’t call this country music (and to be fair, neither is Green). But everything just comes together excellently: the noisy, pop-punk leaning grooves blend well with the huge anthemtic hooks, the drumwork is sharp and potent in the mix, and the guitars are mixed to amplify that shaky, desperate instability evident in the lyrical content. Plus, there’s enough diversity in the groove and melodic interplay to throw listeners off guard in the best possible way, like the shift in the back half of “The Way,” all while preserving dynamics and nailing the soft-loud moments that know when to get spare to ratchet up the crescendos. Plus, all band members present are doing their best to bring a frenetic tension to the foundation that only ramps up the emotional surge when this album swings for the album in its anthemic moments, with “October” probably being my favorite example.

Honestly, too, West is a more convincing vocalist in this territory, matching his gruffer, low-end deliveries with a swing of bitterness that the content supports. Though if I’m looking for another nitpick, it would likely be in the content. Like the sonic palette, it’s nothing revolutionary – just bitter recollections of a dead relationship from West’s point of view. But when it hits, it hits. For one, for as downright miserable as this album can sound sometimes, it avoids being insufferable for two reasons; for one, West is willing to point the blame at both sides, lending an underlying maturity to the writing that, yes, does go a long way. Plus, the general hatred is cast toward himself for not having that strength to move on, and the ending to want to just go off and be alone for a while in the title track is surprisingly relatable. There’s only eight tracks, which means I am left wanting more when it’s over (especially with an underwhelming acoustic number toward the end), but at the same time it means there’s a clearer presentation the thematic arc that never wears out its welcome.

That’s not to say the writing doesn’t suffer from being a bit too basic and straightforward at points – I don’t mind the crumbling weight felt knowing a part of his life is over on “The Way,” but it just comes across as whiny on “Lonely Without You.” But even if COVID-19 is going to derail basically every album and artistic momentum for, well … far too long, there’s no sophomore slump here. (Decent 8/10)

Jessi Alexander, Decatur County Red

I can’t say I mind singer/songwriter Jessi Alexander keeping a song she wrote for herself, especially when it inspired her to craft an entire album of her own.

And that’s what happened with Decatur County Red, a collection of songs that, truthfully, does scan more as that than an actual cohesive album, but also a listen that was desperately needed in these times. It’s hard not to point to the list of songs already known and not make immediate comparisons, but there’s also a sense of guilt when you realize they were originally her songs to begin with.

That’s why Alexander herself is the driving focus of this project, a talented vocalist with the weathered cracks and edges to her voice to come across with a huskier, lived-in sincerity. So you believe her when she’s reflecting on the hard-bitten reality of her childhood on the title track or using that experience to frame her weary journey to Nashville on “Damn Country Music,” and for as much as I enjoy Tim McGraw’s version, Alexander’s take just cuts a lot deeper. The whole front half of the project is pretty incredible, really, with “Mama Drank” only continuing to grow on me while the emotional complexity of “I Should Probably Go Now” is a real gut punch, finding Alexander in the throes of temptations and on the edges of infidelity without much remorse, if only because the subtext suggests her marriage is a pretty loveless and hopelessly lost cause at this point anyway.

It also helps that the production has the bite to match her, playing to swampier tones in the slow-rolling electric axes and atmospheric pedal steel. It’s dangerous to describe an album by “feeling,” I know, but this is truly a hazy project that sounds like it’s coming from the loneliest dive bar in town.

However, after that incredible first half, I will say the second half dwindles in comparison. The languid, dreamier tones kind of sap any real drama “My Problem Is You” is trying to conjure, and while Alexander nails the soulful tones of “Lonely Out Of Me,” it’s the one track here I’d describe as run-of-the-mill, lyrically. And even though Randy Houser does well opposite to her on “Country Music Made Me Do It,” for one, it’s not really meant to be a duet; if both sides are all right with one another going a bit overboard on the dance floor at this bar, what’s the real point of apologizing or making excuses for it? And I don’t know, maybe it’s that I prefer Dierks Bentley’s hangdog charisma for the track a bit more, or maybe it’s that the song is the last one on an album barely even 30 minutes long (meaning the payoff doesn’t feel as potent), but I didn’t get much out of her take of “How I’m Going Out.” Still, foundationally this is quite strong, and if there’s any songwriter I’d like to hear more (beyond just from her writing credits), it’s definitely Alexander. (Strong 7/10)

Ingrid Andress, Lady Like

With how well “More Hearts Than Mine” has aged over the past year, it’s legitimately frustrating to see this album get released at the worst possible time. It couldn’t be helped, of course, but it’s a moment that could have further catapulted Ingrid Andress’ momentum into even greater heights. At any rate, her debut album is finally here … and maybe those concerns were for nothing, because aside from opener “Bad Advice,” these songs were already available beforehand anyway. On that note, of all the albums featured here to only include eight tracks, I wouldn’t expect that from an artist’s major label debut, which is why, despite feeling overall positively about this release, I would still call it a slightly underwhelming, disappointing listen that feels mostly unfinished.

Now, the main area of contention, at least for country music fans, will likely be in the instrumentation and production, which is playing very much to mainstream pop sensibilities more than its lead single may imply. Unlike what, say, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt or Maren Morris are doing, however, there’s a lusher sensibility to Lady Like, enough to where I’d say it shares more in common with baroque pop than the sterile sensibilities of most Nashville releases. And Andress definitely knows how to write a hook and support it with a powerful melody too, which especially shows itself on “Both.”

Now, the blend of symphonic elements and flourishes of strings isn’t necessarily revolutionary for this brand of pop-country, but it is sharp and always keeps a mainstream sensibility for a bigger overall production. The banjo and pedal steel may only ever receive token representation here, but they’re also filling in the accent marks quite nicely all over this record. Though for as booming as the drums can feel on tracks like “We’re Not Friends” to capture that windswept affection, the overall mixing can feel a tad too loud at points; and the synthetic elements often work against the ethereal tones of the album by sounding blocky, especially on that aforementioned track.

But there is a warmer foundation not quite heard as often in this style and sound, which I do appreciate. If anything, it may be the tempered expectations I had from “More Hearts Than Mine,” but the real disappointing element may be the writing; which is mostly fine, but lacks the tighter charm and specificity that made that song stand out so well. That’s also not helped by Andress’ tendency to eschew the mature, distinct delivery evident in that song for a more generic pop vocalist timbre; she’s supposedly hurting on “Life For The Party,” for instance, but she’s playing things too cool and slick to emote the deeper pain she’s trying to conjure, and I’m just left reminded of a similar Jake Owen song that performs this theme much better. And given that she’s not really delving into controversial subject matter on this album like the title track implies, it sounds like she’s taking a page out of Maren Morris’ playbook of thinking her material is way cooler than it really is, and not for the better.

That’s not to say there aren’t potent moments, though. “The Stranger” is a beautifully detailed rewind of a relationship that plays to the mature framing that Andress excels best at, and I enjoy the blunt perspective of “Both.” But I’ll also say I expected a bit more from this, and while it is a good listen, it really should be better. (Very light 7/10)

Jesse Daniel, Rollin’ On

This is a fitting way to end off this album review roundup – a tight, no-frills collection of good country music. For those who don’t know, Jesse Daniel is a California native who introduced himself through a self-titled debut album a few years ago that played like a rougher slice of outlaw country, pulling from his hard-bitten, convict past. A good start, but also one that was a bit too rough around the edges at points, which is why it was fitting to see he had something more positive in mind for his followup, Rollin’ On.

So, with producer and steel guitar player Tommy Detamore helping to fill in those edges, I can safely say it’s a more well-produced and fulfilling listen than his debut album. Though it’s also an album I likely won’t have a lot to say about; it’s simple, carefree country music that’s a little bit of everything and goes down pretty easy, as intended. There’s a sharper bite to the telecaster lines than other throwback albums in this vein, and with the combination of distinct ‘90s tones and a Bakersfield palette, I’m oddly reminded of an older Brad Paisley album at points.

Of course, that’s also evident in the writing, which is aiming to be much more hopeful and slyly humorous than his debut, even if it means I do miss some of the more rugged, complex framing from before. Still, the little nuggets of wisdom dispersed throughout are pretty wry and filled with heartfelt experience. Being thankful for the moment is a familiar concept, for instance, but when it’s framed with the tongue-in-cheek bluntness of “If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be),” it just comes across with more tact.

And it’s a smart hook like that which gives an uplifting tone to odes of living life somewhere between the “Mayo and the Mustard.” Though I will say that, while the lighter sentiments are intentional, for me the album really hits it stride with a few of the more serious cuts toward the end, if only because they play well to the thematic arc while adding a bit more weight to their sentiments. “Sam,” for instance, is a bittersweet recollection of an old friend who was probably a worse influence on Daniel than he might have been able to see at the time, and yet there’s something potent about wishing that same person well today all the same; everyone deserves a little forgiveness, after all. And he certainly has enough wisdom and experience to let “Old At Heart” hit a bit too hard. And I appreciate how “Son Of The San Lorenzo” is an honest attempt to tether both of Daniel’s albums together – self-aware enough to understand the ramifications of his past, but also optimistic enough to know that the past is just that … the past.

The throwback aesthetic of the project isn’t just for show, either. There’s a ton of rollicking momentum and groove added to the solos all throughout, enough to where the instrumental “Chickadee” is a legitimate highlight of the album. And there’s a lot of little moments to love, like the frantic keys of the title track and the Dwight Yoakam-esque, juke joint jumpin’ intro of “If You Ain’t Happy Now.” The front half may be more of a showcase for the instrumental performances than the actual songwriting, but when it’s this good it’s hard to care. Though I will say the sunnier Spanish flavor of “Champion” is a bit of an odd tonal fit for the track, given how it’s about a devious titular character who never really finds the sort of happiness the tones here may imply. And I’ll also say that, for me, Daniel’s voice still lacks a bit of character to make these tracks stand out more. Granted, that’s something that will come with more time and experience, but considering some of these tracks are begging for a sunnier disposition, I’d like to hear him play into that a bit more rather than play everything strait-laced. Still, it’s the second album featured here today where I can say there’s no sophomore slump at all. (Light to decent 7/10)

3 thoughts on “Quick Draw Album Reviews: 8-Tracks Are Rollin’ On Into A New Age

  1. Great write-ups man! I’ll be writing my own reviews on the latter two albums, so I will withhold my opinions on them. But I will say I definitely lean positive with you on each. The first two however weren’t on my radar and I want to check them out after reading your reviews. Great to see two songs I’ve already enjoyed on Alexander’s album (Damn Country Music and Country Music Made Me Do It). And in regards to more rock undertones showing up in country I’m all for it and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a return to this sooner. Cody Canada is who I always think of when it comes to fusing together these sounds. But it makes sense it’s happening now, as it feels like a natural response to the smoothness of boyfriend country in the mainstream. Definitely a trend to keep an eye on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, man! But thanks, I guess that’s the whole point of doing this anyway, haha (btw, listened to the Weeknd’s album and will agree it’s quite great, so thanks!).

      But yeah, I’m definitely not the kind of fan who buys into the Texas mindset where everything is so much better than Nashville or anything like that, but I have enjoyed watching this trend. Don’t know if you’re familiar with names like Koe Wetzel or Austin Meade, but they’re mainly who I’m referring to (even if I think Austin’s attempt at the sound is better than Koe’s).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad you enjoyed The Weeknd album! And yes I’m of the same mindset with you on Texas country haha. I am familiar with both of them and I would agree that Meade is better at the sound. And his songwriting is also better suited for the sound.

        Liked by 1 person

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