Quick Draw Album Reviews: Feverdreamers Still Go To Rodeos

The short version: In the sixth edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I discuss the latest projects from Pam Tillis, Dalton Domino, Whitney Rose and Gwen Sebastian.

Pam Tillis, Looking For A Feeling

  • Favorite tracks: “Last Summer’s Wine,” “Dolly 1969,” “Lady Music,” “Burning Star,” “Karma”
  • Least favorite track: “Demolition Angel”
  • Rating: 8/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Dalton Domino, Feverdreamer

  • Favorite tracks: “Either Way,” “Best I Ever Had,” “Wild Horses,” “Instead We Sang”
  • Least favorite track: “We’re All Gonna Die”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Whitney Rose, We Still Go To Rodeos

  • Favorite tracks: “I’d Rather Be Alone,” “A Hundred Shades Of Blue,” “Just Circumstance,” “Believe Me, Angela”
  • Least favorite track: “You’d Blame Me For The Rain”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Gwen Sebastian, Once Upon A Time In The West: Act II


The full version:

https://m.soundcloud.com/user-678877246/looking-for-a-feeling

Pam Tillis, Looking For A Feeling

I think Pam Tillis would have had better luck making her comeback last year when stalwarts like Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, George Strait and Trisha Yearwood all released new projects, but it’s wonderful to have her back anyway. Looking For A Feeling is her first studio album in 13 years (not counting collaboration projects with Lorrie Morgan), and as for whether or not she’s truly “back” may depend on one’s own perspective. I wouldn’t go in expecting something akin to her ‘90s material; in fact, most critics have already likened the sound of this project to something out of Memphis with the heavier emphasis on soul and blues. By that same token, though, I wouldn’t agree with the assessment that it’s a slight shift away from country music. It feels very much like a Pam Tillis project, and “Dark Turn Of Mind” is likely her most traditional-sounding song yet (though I wouldn’t label it a highlight, honestly).

If anything, this project continuously grows on me with every listen, and with it I find something more to like every time I return to it. I love how warm and organic the production is – polished enough to never get in the way of any track here, but never to the point of lacking real warmth or gravitas, either. There’s many little moments to love: the interplay between the brittle acoustics and lush piano on “Last Summer’s Wine”; the slightly swampy bass driving “Lady Music” that may as well be about her father’s own music career; the burnished electric guitar driving the groove of “Dolly 1969” that fades out before the chorus and then swoops back in with a driving intensity; even the new wave-inspired “Karma” manages to work for me thanks to a heavier reliance on atmosphere and the darker undertones that give it some mystique.

Really, it’s a transition that makes sense when you consider Tillis herself. She sounds just as great as she did on those ‘90s hits, and with how her voice has settled into a somewhat lower register since then, it makes her performances more lived-in on the serious moments and sultry elsewhere, too. Like with most artists from this time period making comeback albums (think Reba McEntire or John Anderson, in particular), there’s a heavy, somewhat expected lyrical focus on the passage of time throughout this project. She’ll reach back, see that black and white picture of Dolly Parton and remember why she became country music star on “Dolly 1969” while outlining her father’s own journey to Music Row, and the difference in age and perspective is noticeable (it’s never confirmed the latter track is actually about Mel Tillis, but she did have him in mind when writing this song). Or she’ll remember a summer romance with aching sadness and wistfulness on “Last Summer’s Wine,” and if you want an example of how excellent she still sounds, this track is the best one. There’s a real sense of perspective to this project, and while some may see it as a reliance on nostalgia over anything else, Tillis has a way of really isolating those moments in time – painting the scene around her before diving into the actual story of that moment.

I do have some small nitpicks overall, though. The album really could have afforded a few more moments like “Dolly 1969” to keep the momentum rolling and keep the album from dragging, which really shows when the album opens with its two weakest songs. Plus, while the warm, organic foundation is nice, the choice to dial back many of these tracks means certain tracks lack a real groove when they’re clearly aiming for it; “Dolly 1969” is a blast, for instance, but “Demolition Angel” feels a bit too stifled. The same can be said for “Dark Turn Of Mind,” where even though I enjoy the fiddle work, I did expect a bit more bite out of a song with a title like that. And with “Karma,” while I am a fan of the song, the vocal production feels a bit sharp on the chorus, and that stuttered break toward the final chorus (you’ll know it when you hear it) is incredibly jarring. Small nitpicks here and there are all I can really muster up, though, and while I feel this has already been overlooked by far too many people, it’s an example of a veteran artist expanding her horizons and mostly sticking the landing quite well. (Very light 8/10)

OK, one other nitpick: put some of these songs on YouTube!

Dalton Domino, Feverdreamer

Due to some recent family troubles, I’m still playing catch-up with recent releases. But maybe it’s fitting that I finally say something about Dalton Domino’s Feverdreamer in this format – it’s a surprise release where the only noteworthy event leading up to it was a false rumor that Domino had quit his music career. To actually understand Domino may be missing the point, but considering the quick turnaround from previous album Songs From The Exile, if that album felt like a needed coda to 2017’s Corners, Feverdreamer feels like a coda for Songs From The Exile. Themes of redemption are still abound, and while Domino will eventually have to explore new thematic territory for future projects, there is something to be said about the framing of these tracks. They’re more hopeful and forward-thinking; devoid of any ugly, bitter feelings that may still (understandably) remain in favor of a more positive perspective. The character on “Better Days,” for instance, certainly didn’t fare well navigating the real world for his first time, but the only advice he’s getting is get up and keep pushing ahead. Similar case for “Wild Horses,” where despite this father’s reckless, carefree past, he’s remembered more by his daughter for overcoming his vices and cleaning up his act. And the subtext suggests that even though his past comes attached with a wild, outlaw fantasy, the real reward came from moving past it.

Of course, sometimes that optimism skirts around the larger points at hand. I appreciate what he was going for with “We’re All Gonna Die” for these troubled times, but boiling it down to “don’t worry, be happy” is conventional and lacks Domino’s wittier perspective. And while certain tracks like “Either Way” and “Best I Ever Had” show Domino’s knack for writing insightful explorations of the mind, when he’s explored this territory so many times before, it can make tracks like “Level Me” feel a bit more boilerplate and not among his sharpest work. Plus, it’s a low-key, mostly acoustic album, so while I still miss the more experimental tendencies of Corners, given the current situation it still manages to hit pretty excellently, especially when he’s willing to add some variety to the mix – the brighter, brittle acoustics of “Best I Ever Had” or the lonesome whistles accentuating the darker tendencies of closer “Instead We Sang,” for instance. At nine tracks, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and while I would say it’s punching a bit lower than his earlier projects because of the manner in which it was delivered, it’s still a nice, needed listen right now. (Strong 7/10)

Whitney Rose, We Still Go To Rodeos

We Still Go To Rodeos is only Whitney Rose’s fourth studio album, yet it’s the third time she’s shifted her artistic course. Not inherently a bad trait, but there’s a difference between versatile and scattershot, and while Rose broke through with the honky-tonk-flavored Heartbreaker Of The Year in 2015, she really hasn’t played well to her strengths since then. She went more soulful on her two projects from 2017 – South Texas Suite and Rule 62 – and for We Still Go To Rodeos she’s enlisted indie rock producer Paul Kolderie for an odd fusion of neotraditional country with rock elements thrown into the mix. On paper, it’s an interesting collaboration, but it’s the third album in a row where Rose’s voice is pushed to the back of the mix; and this may be the worst example, especially when she’s already a quiet, subtle performer.

Thankfully, the production is polished enough to stay out of her way, but at the same time the blending sometimes makes the instrumentation mellow out in the mix, stifling the grooves or sense of bite that songs like “Believe Me, Angela” are trying to emote. And for as much as Rose can handle the quieter mystique of “A Hundred Shades Of Blue” or surprise listeners with her frustration and presence on “I’d Rather Be Alone,” she’s not an incredibly charismatic performer. Granted, that’s a criticism for the songwriting, too, which feels a bit too blunt to really connect on a deeper level. I enjoy the twist at the end of “Believe Me, Angela,” for example, but considering Rose spends the entire time angry at the titular character, it’s missing that extra verse or line to explain why she’s changed her mind. Or take “Just Circumstance,” which follows a teenage girl dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and having to give the baby up, but sort of brushes it off as something that just “happens” rather than explore the deeper emotional complexity of the entire situation.

Unfortunately, those are actually the moments where the writing has a little more going on with it. Most of these songs otherwise are just caught in the aftermath of breakups, and again, without the deeper stakes added to the story or framing, they’re not all that interesting. And when the other elements aren’t making up for it either, all I can say is that We Still Go To Rodeos is a decent listen (for as negative as this review may seem, certain tracks like “Just Circumstance” and “Believe Me, Angela” are good in spite of the criticisms), but it’s another case where Rose isn’t playing well to her strengths. (Light to decent 6/10)

Gwen Sebastian, Once Upon A Time In The West: Act II

I can’t say I was expecting this, but the prospects of Gwen Sebastian following up her pretty good Once Upon A Time In The West: Act I album from 2017 certainly sounded enticing. After all, the jangly, theatrical tendencies of that album were among her best work to date, and though it wasn’t an actual concept album about the West, the loose focus on traveling and loneliness made songs like “Cry To Jackson” and “I’m Not With The Band” stand out in a great way regardless. This, however, isn’t quite like that – it’s an EP that was originally set for release last year, and though I’d argue now isn’t exactly a better release time, it’s here.

Unfortunately, Act II scans as little more than a B-sides project full of leftovers that would be among the worst tracks on Act I, save for maybe one song here. The theatrical flair is still there, but it feels much more forced this time around, with the wonky, sickly guitars on the opener “Circus Train” aiming for something akin to William Clark Green’s “Ringling Road,” but instead sounding incredibly curdled and lacking any sense of groove or actual heaviness. And though I see why they exercised the vocal production to give Sebastian’s delivery an old-time flair, again, it all feels like it’s forcing the mood rather than letting it come naturally. And that’s a criticism I’d levy at “Rock Stars,” too, with the guitars opting for darker atmospherics and instead sounding blown-out and canned. I suppose there’s a decent surf-rock swing to start “Crazy Ladies,” and there’s enough room for Sebastian’s voice to breathe on “Opium Angel”; but it’s an overall bad-sounding project.

As for the writing, there’s very little to highlight. “Circus Train” at least sets a stage for some mysterious figure rolling into town akin to Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” to lean into that theatrical flair, and “Opium Angel” tells an incredibly heartbreaking story about the death of a stripper that the town seemed to ridicule and then forget. However, after that there’s nothing contributing to any sort of thematic arc or Western-inspired plot. “Crazy Ladies” is about normal women who all secretly love having fun, but what exactly makes them crazy or what activities they enjoy is never explained (the song’s main point is a checklist of stereotypical women and how there’s more than meets the eye with them, and it feels like it’s missing an extra verse to tie it together). And “Rock Stars” is probably one of the most unflattering sex songs I’ve heard in a while. Who actually thought “trash me like a hotel room” was a good line? That, sadly, is how the “story” ends, and while Act I had me excited for more, Act II has me thinking the story should have just ended at “Opium Angel.” (Strong 4/10)

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