This review roundup post was surprisingly easy to put together, mostly because the albums discussed aimed for simplicity and likely worked better because of it. It might just be the first time the ‘quick’ part actually lives up to its name! Two of these are new releases, and two have been sitting in my backlog. At any rate, this roundup post features thoughts on recent releases from the Josh Abbott Band, Easton Corbin, Lindsay Ell, and Alecia Nugent.
Josh Abbott Band, The Highway Kind
If there’s an elephant in the room I didn’t discuss when I reviewed the Panhandlers’ self-titled project way back when, it’s that, of the four artists involved, Josh Abbott was the weakest link in pretty much every area. And I do hate saying that, because his intentions and artistic instincts have always been solid with his own work – especially on recent albums – if lacking in the finer details and sharper presentation to better stick the landing. Like with Maren Morris and the Highwomen, though, I was excited to hear how that experience would help him grow as a writer and performer, which leads us to his latest project, The Highway Kind.
Ironic as it is, while this is Abbott’s most straightforward project and isn’t aiming for the same heights as, say, Front Row Seat or Until My Voice Goes Out, this is probably the album I’ve enjoyed from him most thus far, if just for pure consistency and nothing else. It’s playing to very straightforward themes and ideas and is largely conventional for neotraditional standards, but I’ve always appreciated his knack for melodic interplay and deeper, atmospheric mixes. And there’s something to appreciate about the richer, liquid groove bouncing off the bass driving the title track for a sense of general calm and optimism for the future, and that’s what I mostly enjoy about tracks like “Settle Me Down” and “Women & Wishes,” too. The hooks will stick, and when the fiddle cuts in for a harder edge against the meatier electric guitars on “24-7-365” and “Where I Wanna Be,” they make for fun, lighthearted moments that keep the momentum going. Heck, I might just like “One More Two Step” for that key change alone. But there’s also the lone wolf track in “Little More You” that just sounds chintzy with the choppier flow and canned percussion on the verses.
Plus, considering that track is tilting into borderline bro-country territory, I will say this album isn’t so much underwritten as it is aiming for noticeably lighter stakes. There’s love songs and the party songs and pretty much … nothing else, which, for a brisk listen, isn’t bad. But the writing does mostly stem from a checklist structure that gets predictable and old fast, especially on “Real Damn Good” and “Where I Wanna Be” that, save for the gender swap, are pretty much the same song. But the tracks of commitment in “Settle Me Down,” “The Luckiest” and especially “Women & Wishes” do ring as sincere when factoring in Abbott’s recent marriage, and while I still wouldn’t call him a particularly great singer, he’s got the charisma to make the more lighthearted moments in “24-7-365” and “One More Two Step” work, too. “Old Men & Rain” is a pretty campy, overblown way to close it out, though. As a whole, however, it’s nothing revolutionary in terms of sound or style, but I genuinely had more fun with this release than I expected to. (Light 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Women & Wishes,” “One More Two Step,” “The Highway Kind,” “Settle Me Down,” “24-7-365”
- Least favorite track: “Little More You”
Easton Corbin, Didn’t Miss A Beat
There’s a part of me that feels genuinely bad for Easton Corbin and his career run over the 2010s. He started off in a fairly promising neotraditional lane alongside Chris Young when he debuted at the tail end of the 2000s … but that actual neotraditional revival never happened, and we just got stuck with Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and Dan + Shay, among others, sadly.
Now, Corbin’s music was always more solid than spectacular, but whereas his peers found ways to adapt – for better but mostly worse – his attempts just sounded more awkward than bad; Josh Turner is the easiest comparison point, in that case. And you’d think an EP released on an independent label just three years after Corbin’s major label deal expiration date would result in something more grounded and consistent, but Didn’t Miss A Beat is mostly just a mixed bag altogether. Again, it’s not so much bad as it is awkward, where the crisp acoustic lines, pedal steel and fiddle will crop up, but usually against canned percussion and snap tracks, synthetic backing lines and slick, uninteresting electric guitar melodies. And the production certainly isn’t emphasizing any warmth in the mix, so the whole thing lacks a strong identity and punch, even on the few ballads in “Back to Me” and “Before You Wish You Had.”
And there’s not much to the writing, either, which finds Corbin playing to stale tropes that went of out of style in the mainstream years ago. The bro-country tilt of “Here’s to the Next One” and “Turn Up” may offend me more on a purely philosophical level, but the generic life advice offered on “Before You Wish You Had” that tilts into lukewarm platitudes also isn’t drawing much from me. And look, I’m probably overanalyzing it more than I should, but there’s something off-putting about the smug attitude shaping “Back to Me,” where a man wishes his significant other the best as she leaves to chase her dreams … if she eventually stops and comes crawling back to him, that is. Because that’s mature. “Old Lovers Don’t Make Good Friends” at least aims for something more interesting in its admittance that two ex-lovers should probably just break contact altogether, as the title suggests, even if Corbin really doesn’t handle the unneeded faster flow all that well. What’s disappointing overall, though, is that Corbin has the stakes now to reach higher and just doesn’t – I remember “Raising Humans” from last year, and it would have been the easy highlight here. This is just a bland listen that won’t help relaunch any sort of momentum. (Light 5/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Old Lovers Don’t Make Good Friends,” “Didn’t Miss A Beat”
- Least favorite track: “Back to Me”
Lindsay Ell, heart theory
I’m happy to finally get around to covering this, mostly because, while my reviews of Lindsay Ell’s work thus far may scan as more negative than intended, I’ve always appreciated her artistic instincts. She’s a Canadian artist and proficient multi-instrumentalist … who, unfortunately, faces two roadblocks over here in the United States from the country music industry: she’s a female artist, and they’ve never given them or our friends up north of the border long-lasting careers in general, even when they succeed in their home country.
And I’ve come around on heart theory in the months since its release in a big way – a breakup album aiming to explore the seven stages of grief in a cohesive order. It’s not the most revolutionary idea on a purely foundational level, but the specific scope means the sequencing is solid from beginning to end. Now, it’s still an album aimed at mainstream country radio, so the concept is still fairly loose, and for an album playing to pop-country sensibilities, it can lack the right distinctive punch in the guitar tones and over-usage of drum machines in its overall slicker sound, especially when certain songs will just switch to real drums halfway through anyway. But the one thing I’ve noticed with every listen, however, is how often these songs build from minor chords and melodies for something darker and more emotive. I go back to “i don’t lovE you,” for instance, which isn’t offering much in the way of instrumental presentation, but is able to draw a huge emotive presence out of Ell herself that I didn’t credit enough when I reviewed it, and hits with more impact than expected.
Now, if anything, it’s playing closer to 2000s pop and what you might expect from, say, Avril Lavigne of the time than country music, but when the melodies and hooks of “wrong girl,” “hits me,” “wAnt me back” and “body language of a breakup” stick excellently in the mind, that’s not a bad thing. Not the most revolutionary sound in terms of foundation, and I do wish she’d finally let her guitar skills shine a little more, especially when there are some terribly generic, unimpressive solos here. But it’s proof that a well-aimed scope can do some real heavy lifting in other ways.
And that extends to the content, too, where the story starts with the immediate aftermath of the breakup and stages of denial and anger before generally finding closure, and it’s an album where the sum is greater than its individual parts. I may not have loved the general posturing shown on “wAnt me back,” but it works here in the context of framing how both parties are dealing with the breakup pretty badly in their own ways, and coming off “i don’t lovE you,” where she herself catches herself on a bad night, that hits with more impact. Now, I would say the deeper details in the individual tracks don’t always fluctuate as much as they could, and that the subtext is doing most of the heavy lifting here, but there’s also a track like “body language of a breakup” that’s among Ell’s best yet – an observation of a couple from afar heading toward the end, with Ell predicting where the situation is going because she’s been there before.
Now, it’s not quite a cohesive listen, and between the wonkier bass and awkward rhymes of “how good” and the rebound of “gO to” that’s handled much better on “ReadY to love,” there is certainly filler material here. But there’s also “make you,” a self-isolated moment about surviving sexual assault that certainly fits the larger thematic arc in a broad sense, but delves into the deeper psychological effects of that specific trauma and doesn’t shy away from the deeper uncomfortable pain it brings, even when the ultimate lesson is that it doesn’t define a person. Powerful song and a pretty good listen overall to boot. (Decent 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “body language of a breakup,” “make you,” “wrong girl,” “ReadY to love,” “i don’t lovE you”
- Least favorite track: “how good”
Alecia Nugent, The Old Side of Town
Here’s an easy pivot for an artist to make – a bluegrass aficionado looking to release a traditional country record after a decade-long studio absence, complete with a few covers from the likes of Trisha Yearwood and Tom T. Hall, plus a few unearthed songwriting gems from Erin Enderlin and Brandy Clark, and … good Lord, this already sounds amazing on idea alone.
Yet judging by the actual music on The Old Side of Town, this is a pivot that feels almost too natural for Alecia Nugent, and I mean that in a good way. The easy vocal timbre caught somewhere between Reba McEntire and the aforementioned Clark is already there, and I’d argue Nugent’s technical and emotive range is even stronger. Now, it is playing to some conventional country tones in the content and sound, especially with the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeate the album. But it’s a brisk listen that never manages to drag and even includes a few moments of levity that don’t feel jarringly out of the place in the slightest – which can actually be a problem for albums like this!
If anything, though, it’s a bit too brisk. Like I said, it sports two covers and seven originals, and while, again, the Enderlin and Clark cuts aren’t their most well-known ones, it can feel a bit abrupt as a whole. And the bluegrass-meets-country divide means this album can tilt into old-fashioned nostalgia on more than one occasion – including on the Tom T. Hall cover of the title track – and doesn’t resonate with me quite as much because of it. But there’s also a devastating track like “I Might Have One Too,” where the meaning of that hook takes on a new form with every verse in the unraveling confession of a guilty affair from a man to his wife, where the shock of the moment catches her by devastating surprise. And it’s a track like that which reflects the general tone of the framing, and how the writing isn’t so much empathetic as it is understanding, and where the bitter feelings are equally reciprocated. Even that track, for example, alludes to alcohol abuse being the cause of his downward spiral, and while the damage is done, there’s also a complex sort of forgiveness in the moment, too. Or take “The Other Woman,” where despite the titular character knowing of her lover’s marriage, when she has to come face-to-face with his wife, her reprimand is more of a warning to her to get out while she can, because the wife herself used to be that “other woman” caught under a cheater’s spell.
And that’s why the upbeat tracks aiming for levity and humor with similar themes on “Tell Fort Worth I Said Hello” and “I Thought He’d Never Leave” not only feel fun and welcome, but also help keep the momentum going. On the former track, she completely understands that their different dreams eventually pushed them away from each other – and maybe for the better – but there’s still a generally good-natured, rollicking expression of wishing that ex-significant other the best so many years after the fact, too. And the latter track is just a riot that speaks for itself. I do think certain tracks like “Sad Song” can feel a tad broadly written on an album where filler sticks out a bit more with the length, and for as tragic as “Way Too Young For Wings” is, I was left wishing the track focused more on the deceased’s humanity and time on earth, rather than just the unfortunate nature of the tragedy at hand. But between the heavy but supple grooves, liquid pedal steel, fiddle and well-mixed guitar pickups and vocals, this is an easy album for any country music fan to enjoy. (Very strong 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “I Might Have One Too,” “Too Bad You’re No Good,” “Tell Fort Worth I Said Hello,” “The Other Woman,” “I Thought He’d Never Leave”
- Least favorite track: “The Old Side of Town”