Quick Draw Album Reviews: The Trashcannon Jackpot

The short version: In the seventh edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I discuss the latest projects from Tessy Lou Williams, Caitlin Cannon, Steve Earle & the Dukes and Reckless Kelly.

Tessy Lou Williams, Tessy Lou Williams

  • Favorite tracks: “Mountain Time In Memphis,” “Someone Lonely,” “One More Night,” “Round and Round,” “Busy Counting Bridges”
  • Least favorite track: “Why Do I Still Want You”
  • Rating: 8/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Caitlin Cannon, The Trashcannon Album

  • Favorite tracks: “Toolbag,” “Drink Enough,” “Barbers & Bartenders,” “Dumb Blonde,” “Daddy-O Mine”
  • Least favorite track: “My Man”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Steve Earle & the Dukes, The Ghosts Of West Virginia

  • Favorite tracks: “It’s About Blood,” “If I Could See Your Face Again,” “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground”
  • Least favorite track: “Black Lung”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Reckless Kelly, American Jackpot/American Girls

American Jackpot

  • Favorite tracks: “Grandpa Was A Jack Of All Trades,” “Put On Your Brave Face Mary,” “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You All Night,” “North American Jackpot”
  • Least favorite track: “Mona”
  • Rating: 6/10

American Girls

  • Favorite tracks: “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed,” “Lonesome On My Own,” “Anyplace That’s Wild,” “No Dancing In Bristol,” “All over Again (Break up Blues)”
  • Least favorite track: “American Girls”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Overall: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album(s)

The full version:

Tessy Lou Williams, Tessy Lou Williams

In the first of two examples of artists featured here stepping out into the solo spotlight, Tessy Lou Williams truly had the deck stacked for her self-titled debut album. For one, she grew up in a family band, Montana Rose, started by her parents, which then split off – through Williams and her father – into the Shotgun Stars. But the real selling point was the names involved in the making of her own solo debut, including Ashley Campbell, Brennen Leigh, Jon Randall, Larry Cordle and more.

In other words, it’s the sort of ringing endorsement I like, and considering her new album sits somewhere between Pam Tillis and Alison Krauss, I’m definitely on board. The production is warm and organic, letting every sound swell and simmer in the mix. The acoustics have a firm presence, the fiddles squeal, the mandolin and steel guitar accents are mellow and gentle, and all of it is perfectly balanced in the mix. And, given the album’s main themes of heartache and regret, it helps that the instrumentation creates an incredibly intimate and decidedly real atmosphere.

If I were to nitpick, though, it’d be that the melody lines can scan as conventional for this brand of traditional country music. There’s still some unique Appalachian flavor evident on “Mountain Time In Memphis,” and I like the minor mystique running throughout “Someone Lonely.” But more often than not, I keep wishing for a break in tempo or chord structure to help liven the mix. The touring song “Round and Round” helps to add that needed punch – as does “Busy Counting Bridges” – but the album could have afforded a few more moments like that in the front half, too.

Of course, it also helps that on a decidedly mellow listen Williams’ voice shines above all else. She’s a wonderful singer with a strong emotive presence, able to convey the lingering pain she feels from these dead relationships while looking on emphatically at her partner going through the same pain.

Actually, that may be what I like most about the writing – a strong sense of balance. It’s a breakup album, for sure, but it’s never shaded or defined by any lingering bitterness. If anything, one gets the feeling that all Williams wants is peace and stability for both her and her ex-partner. She’ll wish him the best as she tries to start a new life on “Mountain Time In Memphis” while acknowledging that “moving on” isn’t that easy. She’ll say she needs just a little more time on “One More Night,” but it’s really the facade of stability that’s both inching her forward and holding her down. And even on “Somebody’s Drinking About You” – the one track that finds itself in the throes of that heated relationship – the subtext suggests she’s used to her partner’s fooling around, and though there’s room for righteous fury, all she wants to know is the “why” of it all.

With that said, like the instrumentation and production, sometimes the album feels a bit clumsy as it tries to make the common thematic arc a bit more interesting. “Why Do I Still Want You” is framed around a Bible verse, but it also feels a bit overlong and that it’s taking too long to get to its point. On an album, too, where heartache is the number one motivator of these characters and stories, the Webb Pierce cover of “Pathway Of Teardrops,” while good, is unneeded and doesn’t end the project as effectively as, say, “Round and Round” would have.

Still, for a debut album this is an absolutely strong listen. It’s a bit too conventional at points to make me love it even more, but I also foresee Williams’ potential blossoming into something fierce, because the talent definitely shines here. (Very light 8/10)

Caitlin Cannon, The Trashcannon Album

Now, in the second example of an artist featured here stepping out on her own, we have Caitlin Cannon. Unlike Tessy Lou Williams’ musical connections that show a more cohesive path, Cannon is the kind of artist who came in like a whirlwind. Which, granted, is sort of the point – she revels in the messiness that led to her solo debut album (solo, as in, she once fronted another band called Caitlin Cannon and the Artillery that released one EP in 2011), including her own bouts with alcoholism, addiction, messy breakups and more, making The TrashCannon Album a heavy listen.

Well, at least on the surface, that is. Truth be told, with Cannon’s own theater background, there’s a surprising amount of dramatic flair here that doesn’t revel in that darkness as much as one would think. If anything, the larger point of this album is to find acceptance with who one is; she’s got a brother in prison, her mother is a hairdresser working to fight the injustices of the justice system, and she herself isn’t going to let the negative conversation surrounding her or family members’ decisions weigh her down, either. And though I enjoy the band camaraderie on “Going For The Bronze” and “Toolbag,” for one – I would have loved to hear more – but two, I wouldn’t call it fun so much as I would quirky. She’s challenging you to judge her on a track like “Better Job,” because chances are your dirty laundry ain’t so hot, either.

Again, though, it’s never presented quite as directly as that, and the larger point of this album is Cannon trying to make the most of what she’s been given. That means she has to tap into the repressed memories of her flighty father on “Daddy-O Mine,” where even though she may have felt anger toward him for leaving, she’s more interested in figuring out the “why” instead, especially when she’s aware she’s repeating his mistakes in her own relationships. And while she can handle the ridicule and criticism on “Drink Enough,” it doesn’t mean she revels in it. She’d just like to find her own version of peace and stability.

On writing alone I’m impressed, but there are some noticeable issues hampering this album, the first of which comes through Cannon herself. She’s not necessarily a powerful singer, but she’s a strong personality behind the microphone with a lot of earnest charisma. But most of the material, for whatever reason, pushes her into her lower range, which is a bit more hushed, fast-paced and not as immediately gripping as when she can afford to show off a bit more range on tracks like “Barbers and Bartenders” and “Daddy-O Mine.” Granted, I can understand the more sinister performance for “Mama’s A Hairdresser,” but it’s that track which reflects a larger issue in the production and instrumentation. A lot of the tones are great, especially the jauntier saloon piano carrying “Toolbag,” the slight surf tones anchoring “Pin Cushion” and the minor atmosphere of “Dumb Blonde,” but it’s also an album that’s trying to be a little bit of everything and doesn’t always stick the landing.

As such, I’m left wishing “Mama’s A Hairdresser” had a more naturally meaty guitar line to anchor its edge over one drowned in distortion that overtakes the mix. The same can be said for “My Man,” only there it’s for the odd, robotic vocal filter. There’s also the title track closer, which pushes this album into more conventional, slightly atmospheric Americana that lacks the same edge as some of the more rockabilly and country-inspired tracks here. As a whole, though, while this is the kind of album no one can (or should) make twice, there’s a lot of interesting elements to The TrashCannon Album. With a bit more consistency and a tighter focus overall, I think Cannon could be a wonderfully unique new force in country music. (Very strong 7/10)

Steve Earle & the Dukes, The Ghosts Of West Virginia

With all due respect, for as much as I’m not surprised to hear of an artist wanting to start a dialogue between both spectrums of the political divide, I am surprised that that artist happens to be Steve Earle. Granted, I don’t mean that as a slight; but with Earle’s sense of reckless abandonment and hard-charged perspective coloring mostly all of his work (with his politics coloring some of it, too), starting that dialogue requires a tame demeanor that hasn’t ever really been his style.

Granted, one could also argue that Earle’s artistic fire has burned out over the past few years, with neither his blues-inspired Terraplane or the outlaw-tinged So You Wanna Be An Outlaw winning over many new fans and critics. So here it is – a sharp pivot into an album made for the coal miners in West Virginia who didn’t vote the way Earle did in the 2016 election, with backing band the Dukes once again bolstering Earle’s work for the resulting The Ghosts Of West Virginia.

Now, on one hand, my favorite album of last year – Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca – directly addressed these issues (without the direct political fervor), so I should somewhat of an easy sell for the setting, at least. To give Earle credit, too, given how there’s an entire separate play devoted to this album’s scope – and given how Earle interviewed and spoke with the very people he’s singing about on this record – Earle’s heart is fully invested in this project. But at the end of the day, this is still a New Yorker speaking from the outside in, and not to make this review a direct comparison to Seneca, but whereas that album dove into the historical framing and larger scope of the West Virginian land, The Ghosts Of West Virginia has a much smaller scope. It’s angry and bitter at both the businessmen and politicians looking to take those coal mining jobs away, even though everyone in that situation can admit it’s a dangerous profession.

As such, this album is mostly centered on the general scope over those grittier details, where the backstories often frame some of these tracks. Still, though, the actual material needs to stand on its own, and I’m not sure it always does. Take “Time Is Never On Our Side,” for example, centered around the four-day wait that four Upper Big Branch families endured because rescue teams found footprints in the mine they believed might belong to miners not yet found. Yet the song itself is mostly just centered around vague platitudes of the sentiment. “It’s About Blood” is righteous, too, if only because Earle lists all 29 names that perished in the Upper Big Branch Disaster inone of his most vicious growls yet, but it also feels like it’s trying too hard to make that aforementioned political connection without delving into the deeper points; it’s anger that lacks a tighter focus, in other words, and doesn’t actually address the names that deserve that blame for that incident.

Which, basically, is my biggest criticism for the project. It tries to delve into those deeper issues on “John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man,” but I’m not sure if the larger point is to make a character sketch of the titular fellow or go a bit deeper with the problems at hand. It’s all just a bit on the nose, and while the intention is admirable, the music, again, has to stand on its own. Even musically, while “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground” and “It’s About Blood” are two of Earle’s most pointed songs yet, the former runs a bit too close to Earle’s own “Satellite Radio” in the chord progressions. And I could say the same for “Fastest Man Alive” – dedicated to pilot and war hero Chuck Yeager – where Earle is trying to emulate the “Snake Oil” flow and can’t really keep up with it.

“If I Could See Your Face Again” is a beautiful moment, sung by Dukes fiddler and mandolinist Eleanor Whitmore about a widow dealing with that all too common loss of those with loved ones working in the mines, but I’m not really connecting with this as a whole. Granted, I believe the 29-minute run time is intentional because of “It’s About Blood,” but I’m ultimately left wishing for a tighter thematic focus or better sequencing. As such, I’m not among the critics calling it Earle’s best project in years. I would, however, call it one of his most passionate and important works. (Light to decent 6/10)

Reckless Kelly, American Jackpot/American Girls

It’s strange that, for as much as Reckless Kelly has earned their place as a veteran band of the Red Dirt scene, they’re not at the forefront of that conversation as often as they should be. Granted, that’s part of the point – it’s a band in it for the long haul that have never made “trendy” music of any variety, making their mark out on the road and seemingly only surfacing when they’re ready to announce new music; it’s not like the 2010s was their most prolific decade, after all. I’ll admit they’ve never been a personal favorite of mine, but without them we don’t have bands like the Randy Rogers Band or the Turnpike Troubadours; and “Long Night Moon” is an all-time favorite song of mine.

I’ll also admit I didn’t have high hopes for their newest project, slated to be a double album centered around American themes without getting overtly political that spans a whopping 20 songs. On the other hand, given how it’s felt like this band hasn’t been delivering their sharpest work with their most recent projects, perhaps this was a needed double shot of rejuvenation, too.

All of this makes American Jackpot/American Girls a lopsided effort to discuss. It’s their most ambitious project in years, but it’s not clearing the “all killer, no filler” bar, either. For the sake of consistency, though, I’m discussing these projects individually and starting with the first disc – American Jackpot.

American Jackpot

This is a criticism for both discs, really, but you’d think on an independent record label with the flexibility to try anything there would be greater risk involved on a project like this, especially with the album’s thematic scope. But many of these songs feel relatively safe and unchallenging. To be fair, the instrumentation and production is relatively solid across both records – Reckless Kelly have always let good tones and songs speak for themselves. It also helps that the bass guitars offer a lot in the way of texture and rollick – melodic while offering the needed foundation to stick the landing, even if I still think the production can leave the overall guitar work a bit flat on tracks like “Mona” and “42.” But there are some genuinely compelling moments here: the melodic piano flourishes anchoring the wistful “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You All Night”; the staunch country drive of “Grandpa Was A Jack Of All Trades”; and the interplay of the warmer piano, fiddle and mandolin on closer “Goodbye Colorado.”

But observations on production and instrumentation – good or bad – are tiny details, and the actual tunes need to have the right distinctive weight and punch, which not every track offers here. The American focus here centers more on common landmarks and icons that have shaped this country (with the second disc aimed at the human and emotional aspects of it), so while there’s, thankfully, no jingoism on display, we, instead, get cuts like “Tom Was A Friend Of Mine” and “42,” half-baked tributes to American icons Tom Petty and Jackie Robinson, respectively. The intentions are admirable, but the songwriting really leaves a lot to be desired here.

Like with the aforementioned Steve Earle album, most of these songs are best described through their backstories on the band’s website, but like with Earle’s album, the material has to stand on its own.

As such, genuinely compelling tracks like “Goodbye Colorado” – centered around a person of foreign descent deported out of America despite being born there – lacks the actual details to ever guess that’s what it’s about. The same goes for the lazy checklist jab of “Company Of Kings.”

It’s not like Reckless Kelly can’t still pen great material, though. “North American Jackpot” is a much more nuanced take on the political divide, where the privilege of living in North America in the modern day is acknowledged, but also comes with an awkward admission of guilt that we still have progress to make when it comes to making it a great land for everyone. And sure, there’s a degree of pride and patriotism coloring some of this record, but on “Grandpa Was A Jack Of All Trades,” the whole point is to salute an everyday man for his mundane accomplishments, and it’s a genuinely earnest, heartfelt take on the subject. Of course, grandpa is a war hero, too, hence why a moment of levity segues into “Put On Your Brave Face Mary,” about a woman fighting desperately to keep her husband suffering from PTSD from ending it all. If anything, this album is genuinely frustrating for its inconsistency; genuinely compelling in some spots while falling short in others. But on that note –

American Girls

– I’ll say that, while American Girls is only marginally better than Jackpot, it offers the band’s most ambitious material in years. The instrumentation and production is a bit less consistent, but it swings for the fences in ways I often like more than I don’t. They’re not, for example, good at channeling the Mavericks on “Lost Inside The Groove” – especially given how Willy Braun’s voice is more rugged and not built for that kind of material – but when they team up opposite Suzy Bogguss on the grimy western-inspired “Anyplace That’s Wild,” it’s an excellent fit. “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed” may be the best song among the two discs with that glittering, atmospheric guitar groove that only gains more tension as it progresses. It’s not what one expects from Reckless Kelly, typically, but it’s a true highlight. “No Dancing In Bristol” is a highlight too, and only makes me wonder why this band doesn’t tap into Celtic-material more – they’ve done it excellently before, and given how Braun’s voice offers a lot of natural regret in his performances, it’s the perfect fit here.

Though to categorize American Girls as a whole, it’s more sonically adventurous, but not quite offering the same lyrical heft as its sibling project. It’s mostly a relationship record, save for the title track, which, with the distorted vocal and shallow lyrical content, is easily the worst song on the two projects. Regardless, there’s still a strong sense of urgency to the second disc: from the frenetic tension built from years of trying to shake an old flame on “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed”; the maturity that rings from acknowledging when a relationship has run its course on “All over Again (Break up Blues)”; the lingering emptiness that rings through on chasing a dream alone on “No Dancing In Bristol”; or just the fact that both characters burnt each other out long before they were supposed to on “Anyplace That’s Wild.” Again, consistency remains an issue here just as it did on the other record – the character on “Don’t Give Up On Love” seems less concerned with consoling his female friend through a recent breakup and more concerned with seeking his opportunity to make his own move, which is never charming. It would have been better to just let “Dancing In Bristol” lead into “Home Is Where Your Heart Is” to end the record.

At 20 songs, too, that sort of filler material is to be expected. Still, even if it’s nice to have this band back, you could easily cut a good chunk of the overall project and have a much stronger single album that still makes a coherent point. As it is, like with Earle’s album, I wouldn’t call it the band’s best work, but I would call it their most passionate in some time. (Decent 6 for American Jackpot, Light 7 for American Girls, Strong 6 overall for the two projects)

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