This review roundup post features thoughts on new releases from Brennen Leigh, Brent Cobb and Brothers Osborne.
Brennen Leigh, Prairie Love Letter
You know, there’s something fitting about this being the first Brennen Leigh album I discuss for this blog, an album focused on returning to one’s roots and rekindling an old passion. Though she’s more associated with Austin and Nashville today, Leigh learned how to love country music from growing up in the Midwest, and as a return-to-form album, Prairie Love Letter is fairly solid. The melodies and instrumentation are rooted in an older country and bluegrass styling while speaking to a modern perspective, and I love how warm and pure the production makes these tones come across, especially in the fiddle lines. And I enjoy how this ‘love letter’ isn’t afraid to also dive into some of the deeper emotional complexities that can come with living in a culture that’s a bit old-fashioned, like the gay love story on “Billy & Beau,” or even how it starts with “Don’t You Know I’m From Here,” where Leigh has a fall from grace and is greeted with a cold shrug upon her return home. And while it’s not what one hopes for, she knows she somewhat deserves it. There’s nothing wrong with expanding one’s own horizons, but the framing implies that she abandoned friends and family just for a chance at something more. And that reintroduction to the prairie is what sets the thematic arc of reconnecting not just with the land, but with one’s self, too.
Of course, that also means that the album can scan as a bit too cornpone and gimmicky for me at points. “John Deere H” and “Little Blue Eyed Dog” are sweet, for sure, but almost to a fault. And when the album occasionally pivots into an “us versus them” mentality on tracks like “Elizabeth Minnesota” and “You’ve Never Been To North Dakota,” it’s obvious the album is playing to a very specific audience, even beyond the obvious regional aspects. Granted, I wouldn’t say the regionalism is the entire driving force of this project – it’s more about the reconnection and subsequent catharsis from it, which is universal, really. But I was left hoping the album could maintain the consistency of its first two tracks, rather than feel scattershot toward the backhalf, especially with a real lack in tempo. But I also like that it ends as it began, where the weariness rings on “Outside The Jurisdiction of Man” as she finally attains that release and rediscovers a part of herself. As a whole, though, while I’d slot myself as just outside the target audience for this, there is something to appreciate about how pure and warm this record is, and it’s an ode worth hearing, indeed.
- Favorite tracks: “Don’t You Know I’m From Here,” “Billy & Beau,” “Outside The Jurisdiction of Man,” “Prairie Funeral”
- Least favorite track: “The North Dakota Cowboy”
Brent Cobb, Keep ‘Em On They Toes
Well, here’s a shift in tone that’s pretty much welcome for the current times. Granted, Brent Cobb had planned an acoustic tour before everything went into disarray this year, and with him switching producers from cousin Dave Cobb to Brad Cook ahead of his newest project, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I enjoyed his foray into southern-rock and funk with Providence Canyon, but all of his moves ahead of this album signaled a step toward maturity, which would hopefully show itself in the content.
Unfortunately, while I wouldn’t call Keep ‘Em On They Toes a backslide so much as I would a transitional project, I would say it reflects most of my problems with his 2016 album, Shine on Rainy Day – namely that’s it operating on very low-key and breezy acoustics, hints of fiddle (finally!) and gentle percussion for something of a live feel, but almost feels too subdued for its own good. On some level, I get it; the point is to let the message shine above any noise that may potentially bog it down. But when there’s not a lot of variety to the tempos or melodies outside of the campy, old-school blues cut in “Dust Under My Rug,” all it really does is push the message to the back, and this is definitely the sort of project that settles for being background noise and little more.
Granted, I’d be more forgiving of that if there was a clearly consistent message worth supporting here, but the album mostly relegates itself to being indecisive and somewhat scattershot, where he’ll criticize others for getting on their own soapboxes while simultaneously asserting that he’s got the right to sing about the topics he wants to sing about. To be fair, I think the ultimate point here is one of indecisiveness and an uncertainty of how to wade through the current cultural climate we find ourselves in, and when he taps into the self-critical side of himself on “Sometimes I’m A Clown,” “Good Times and Good Love,” and “Little Stuff,” it adds a nuance to this album that just may outright save it. But it can also feel preachy at other points like the title track and “When You Go,” the latter opting for a weird echo in the vocal pickup that gives it a foreboding feel, but also feels a bit overcooked as a whole. I get what it’s going for in offering a small note of comfort without sugarcoating the darker details, but I’d also say there’s much better releases in 2020 aiming to offer that type of relief.
- Favorite tracks: “Sometimes I’m A Clown,” “Good Times and Good Love,” “Little Stuff,” “Shut Up and Sing”
- Least favorite track: “Soapbox” (w/ Nikki Lane)
Brothers Osborne, Skeletons
Have you ever heard the potential with an act you want to like more, only for everyone else to hop on the bandwagon and make you feel like you’re missing out? That’s where I’ve been at with the Brothers Osborne since their debut, and I think the blame is two-pronged. On one hand, they’re still trying to find their balance between laidback, melodic, easy-going, soulful country music and hard-hitting, lumbering southern-rock, and I’d easily cite that inconsistency as the reason why I haven’t been on board yet; I’m still not sure how “Shoot Me Straight” led to a forgettable beach album in 2018’s Port Saint Joe. But speaking as someone who liked the swaggering pivot of “All Night” ahead of their newest album – even if it’s not a particularly good song – if Port Saint Joe represented the relaxed side of the duo, Skeletons swings in a completely opposite direction. It’s still missing that ultimate identity, for sure, but considering I always wanted them to tap into the side that crafted cuts like “It Ain’t My Fault,” I’m surprisingly pretty happy with what we have here.
Granted, I still wouldn’t say either brother is a particularly good songwriter, and when they throw in a few more serious cuts toward the back, it just reveals how clumsy they can get with their sentiments. Plus, given that TJ Osborne’s thick, low growl is the one behind the microphone, I don’t understand why the muddier multi-tracking nearly washes him out too many times here. I do, however, want to stress that he’s still a unique presence, and while critics have been throwing around the Toby Keith comparisons for years, one subtle aspect I appreciate about his delivery – along with how John Osborne’s guitar tones never sound the same from one track to the next – is his choice to underplay his sentiments. Given how the album can delve into some seedier territory and questionable framing with “Back on the Bottle” and the title track, it never feels like a gimmick, nor does it feel like the swagger on display comes from some attempt at meat-headed posturing. It’s a loose, easy-going ride that goes down pretty smooth and, admittedly, makes something short-circuit with my critical faculties every time I revisit it.
Still, there are some bad lines in “Lighten Up” and “All Night” that don’t start this album on the right foot, and while I appreciate what they’re going for in “Make It A Good One” and “Hatin’ Somebody,” the sentiments are incredibly basic and one-dimensional, and it doesn’t help that the latter not only drags way longer than it should, but is also easily the most sloppily produced cut here. But it swings back around with the pretty sweet “Old Man’s Boots,” and of the other tracks aiming for a break from the party, I like how the blend of warm acoustics and hazier reverb can make the inevitable goodbye in “High Note” ring with a tinge of happiness for the memories made.
Let’s get real, though; this album doesn’t offer many chances for one to catch their breath, and I’m OK with that, especially when these are some of the nastiest grooves I think I’ve heard this side of Eric Church in mainstream country music. Again, it’s a side of theirs I had always hoped they’d tap into more often, and between cuts like “Back on the Bottle” and “I’m Not For Everyone” that cement themselves equally well as country songs and the one-two punch of “Muskrat Greene” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” this may not always be the smartest listen, but it’s a ton of fun.
(Very light 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Muskrat Greene,” “Back on the Bottle,” “High Note,” “Skeletons,” “All The Good Ones Are”
- Least favorite track: “Hatin’ Somebody”