I had originally planned for this to publish last Friday, and then a certain pair of artists said “nope” to that. Anyway, this final album review roundup of the year features unfortunate mediocrity from Dean Brody, a fascinating but messy listen from Koe Wetzel, a solid return for Lauren Mascitti, a huge step up in quality for Zach Bryan, and genuine greatness from Randall King, Sturgill Simpson and Taylor Swift. Be on the lookout for the Musical Divide’s year-end lists later this week, too!
Dean Brody, Boys
I’ve always found Dean Brody to be an interesting presence in the Canadian country scene. On one hand, he’s got the sort of hangdog charisma that lends his material a nice, loose, breezy feel at its best – with 2015’s Gypsy Road being a particular high point for me. On the other hand, he’s shifted away from that in favor of hampering his works with bad production and even worse writing in recent years. I’m not sure what happened with 2016’s Beautiful Freakshow, but it was a surprisingly steep drop in quality across the board.
Sadly, latest project Boys is only a slight improvement. Sure, it’s nice to hear Mickey Guyton on the opening title track, and even nicer to hear her actually sing an entire verse. But not when it’s a condescending “boys versus men” perspective that gets contradicted by tracks here that tilt into borderline bro-country. There’s no consistency to this project, and there’s only two types of tracks here: the aforementioned bro-country tracks, and ones about being a “real man” in the title track, “Always You” and “I’d Go To Jail,” which is so sickly sweet and overwrought that it’s hard to take seriously at all.
And not that there’s anything wrong with good-natured party songs, either. “Can’t Help Myself” is pretty dumb, all things considered, but it’s got a monster groove driving it, and again, I think Brody can be a lively presence behind the microphone, even if his flow and cadence on “Always You” is utterly terrible. And he’s got a knack for strong hooks, which is pretty much why “Canadian Summer” is the only decent track here. But you’ll also get these huge, blocky swells of reverb and other synthetic elements driving tracks like “Lightning Bug” that sound overcompressed and ill-fitting for Brody’s style. It’s a summer album released at the tail end of the year, and honestly, I’ve had way more fun with projects with better intentions this year anyway. (4/10)
- Favorite track: “Canadian Summer”
- Least favorite track: “Always You”
Zach Bryan, Quiet, Heavy Dreams
At this point, following the Zach Bryan story is a bit of a puzzler, the sort of viral sensation and active U.S. Navy member who’s still pursuing music almost strictly as a hobby, yet has also been quite prolific since that breakout moment in last year’s DeAnn. I enjoyed that project, but I didn’t have the energy to sit through an even longer followup in Elisabeth earlier this year, especially when the overall presentation was kept low-key and felt lacking in comparison with that debut.
On the other hand, it’s not often you get to witness an artist pursue this craft simply for the love of it, and with this new EP released seemingly out of the blue, it’s a surprisingly huge step up in quality for Bryan. Now, the lo-fi recording is still present here (recorded in a barn, no less), and while it’s starting to wear a bit thin, Eddie Spear’s production is a huge benefit, never abandoning the spirit in which the songs were intended, but certainly giving them the lively presence they need to stand out.
And it may be even more important for this project than either of Bryan’s past two projects yet, mostly because this is a more distinctly narrative-driven work, where the focus isn’t on Bryan, but rather seedy characters in long, forgotten times. It’s drenched in old-time folklore in the best possible way, and props to him for finding room for two murder ballads here. I’ve got a soft spot for albums exploring the arc of the lonesome rambler out there trying to find himself, and while it’s not quite a concept record, per se – especially at only six tracks – there is a tortured, isolationist streak running throughout that gives its darkest moments in “Crooked Teeth” and “Birmingham” plenty of bite while also lending “November Air” and the title track an air of melancholic hope to crawl out of that darkness. And I don’t think one can discount the basic compositions this time around, either, from the uptick in percussion and backing vocal contributions that happens at just the right moment on “Crooked Teeth,” the creaking, steady rhythm of “November Air” that’s probably the one track here to speak to the crossroads Bryan is currently at in his life, the chugging bass and huge kickdrum anchoring “Birmingham,” and the blast of harmonica driving “Traveling Man.” Now, I would say the opening track, “Let You Down,” gets a bit repetitive and probably isn’t the best opener, and while the campfire backing vocals add heft to “Crooked Teeth” and “Birmingham,” they feel distracting on “Traveling Man,” especially when the focus there is a bit lonelier in the actual content and, as such, doesn’t make much sense for them to be there to begin with. But as a whole, this is definitely an improvement across the board, and while it’s tough to say where Bryan goes from here, this is an excellent next step. (Light 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Crooked Teeth,” “November Air,” “Birmingham,” “Quiet, Heavy Dreams”
- Least favorite track: “Let You Down”
Randall King, Leanna
I know I’m only stating the obvious, but Randall King’s rollout for his Warner Music Nashville debut shouldn’t have happened like this – not with a four-song EP dropped in December. But between the general course that this year took and the death of his sister, Leanna, who the project is named after, there’s also something comforting in releasing a short tribute, too, if only to find a sense of needed closure. That debut will come, especially when multiple standalone singles from King are currently just floating around out there. But for now, this is a surprisingly comforting listen, where even though there’s no arc explored, the general simplicity is a welcome asset anyway. It’s generally playing to a moody, contemplative sonic palette in the rich, 2000s-inspired blend of acoustics, liquid pedal steel and fiddle, and, like I said when I reviewed “Hey Moon,” I’m a sucker for that sound. But there’s also the slightly more energetic “Takin’ It As It Comes” to open the project and let the audience know that King is healing one day a time, as well as a gorgeous take on “I’ll Fly Away” to close out the project. There’s also “Around Forever,” which is the one track to explore a deeper theme of time itself, but does so from a familiar, broadly written perspective that, I’ll admit, doesn’t resonate as much as the other tracks here. It’s a careful balance between saying something and making it true to your own experience, and while this isn’t necessarily trending in the latter direction, it’s a solid listen nonetheless. Solid 7/10, definitely check it out.
- Favorite tracks: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Hey Moon,” “Takin’ It As It Comes”
- Least favorite track: “Around Forever”
Lauren Mascitti, God Made A Woman
Here’s an interesting fact I missed, an artist who competed on American Idol this year and is a registered nurse – which really resonates with the general tone of this year – released a solid project, featuring an impressive selection of musicians, including Ricky Skaggs. And I’m just now covering it!
Now, God Made A Woman is far from Lauren Mascitti’s first project, but it is her first in five years and, after digging through her backlog, is probably her best yet. She’s a great vocalist with plenty of natural charisma and energy … which is why I wish this album didn’t trap her in her lower register so often, which is a bit more hushed and not as effective as when she stretches her range more on, say, “Ballad of a Broken Heart,” especially when her flow can often be a bit choppy otherwise.
But in terms of pure sound, it’s a great country record, with plenty of well-balanced, firm, rich instrumental pickups anchoring the project and plenty of versatility, at that. I love the cold piano opening of “All The Words He Never Said,” and when the album aims for those darker, minor moments in the bluegrass-tinged “Ready for the Sun to Shine Again” and the pronounced bass line of “Ballad of a Broken Heart,” it’s a great fit. Conversely, even though this album can feel a bit too lightweight at points – which is more of a note on the content – the delicate, bouncy interweaving of the fiddle and piano adds a surprisingly nice touch to “Never Been in Love Like This.” And that’s before mentioning the “Lovin’ All Night” and “My Love Will Not Change” covers (the latter of which being the better of the two covers of that song I heard this year) that add a nice amount of uptempo punch, along with the bluster that comes through on “Faded Love, Faded Love.”
Now, an album aiming for a pure traditional palette like this can tend to be a bit lacking in the actual content, and while I wouldn’t say that’s quite the case here, I would call it a tad inconsistent. “All The Words He Never Said” is a pretty brutal reflection on how this character meant nothing to her ex-significant other for anything other than those intimate needs, and as an opener, it’s a bold choice. But then there’s similar tracks in “Ready for the Sun to Shine Again” and “Love Grown Cold” that can feel a bit lacking beyond the actual point, and when there isn’t really a consistent arc running throughout this project, that stands out even more. Not to mention, too, how tracks like “I Wanna Show You My Town” and “Hello Sad Eyes” can feel a bit too twee and sickly sweet for my personal tastes, or how the title track plays to the recent (and tired) mainstream country trope of women solely acting as gifts from God to do the man’s bidding. Still, while I wouldn’t quite call it one of the best country albums of the year, there is room for improvement here, and I think the underlying potential could really lead to something great. As it is, it’s a solid return, and I’m happy I got to it before the end of the year.
Oh, and she’s a nurse working on the front lines right now taking care of COVID patients, so if you’re looking for one more reason to appreciate her, that’s an easy one. (Light to decent 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “All The Words He Never Said,” “Ballad of a Broken Heart,” “My Love Will Not Change,” “Play Me Like A Song,” “Lovin’ All Night”
- Least favorite track: “God Made A Woman”
Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 2 (The Cowboy Arms Sessions)
OK, sure, I’m game, especially given how unpredictability has always been the name of the game with Sturgill Simpson. And since I’ve already offered a lengthy conversation on him once this year, I might as well get straight to the point with Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 2, which features the remaining tracks from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as well as a few other very welcome oddities. It’s absolutely a leaner project, but one that may offer more to love anyway. Granted, many have already broached the conversation of how, unlike the first volume, this is more newgrass than bluegrass. But considering he’s got some of the best players in the business here once again, I’m not exactly mad that they have more room to stretch out their instrumental chops, especially on two of the album’s best moments right away in “Call to Arms” and “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” But that’s also a note on the content, where the Sailor’s Guide era in general saw a noticeable shift from Simpson toward a moodier, more personal, family-driven songwriting perspective. And, in the additional wake of his ensuing stardom, it’s fitting that the mental tug-of-war that presented for him is explored in greater detail here through the content and performances. And unlike the first volume, while there isn’t much to make of the overall sequencing, it’s telling what else was included, too. “Hero,” one of the few tracks left to cover from High Top Mountain and a song dedicated to Simpson’s grandfather, sits in between “Sea Stories” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” both of which reference Simpson’s hero and speak to his own role as a father looking to help his son navigate his own journey, and it’s more fitting that it’s included here.
There’s also something new in “Hobo Cartoon,” written with the late Merle Haggard (!), and maybe it’s just resonating a little more loudly in a year where we’ve lost so many country music legends, but that thematic point of a passing of a torch really resonates here, especially when the scattered Jimmie Rodgers references prove all the more that Haggard helped to write this. But to repeat what I said about the first volume, this is the sound of a rejuvenated Simpson, one who’s even willing to bring back “You Can Have The Crown” and finally find that rhyme for Bronco. It’s also a more cohesive listen, where the length doesn’t feel nearly as emphasized, the only real dud is “Keep It Between The Lines,” which has never been Simpson’s greatest write anyway, and the general attempt at crafting another larger narrative – even with mostly rerecorded material – brings a greater life to the “new” – or, in this case, long-forgotten – gems like “Jesus Boogie” and “Tennessee.” If you’ve, for some reason, been living under a rock since last Friday, check it out. (Decent to strong 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” “Oh Sarah,” “Hero,” “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “Jesus Boogie”
- Least favorite track: “Keep It Between The Lines”
Taylor Swift, evermore
Hey, speaking of other artists who released two projects in a year in a generally quick amount of time, I suddenly don’t feel bad for covering folklore so late. And like with Sturgill Simpson, this move both is and isn’t surprising for Taylor Swift. Unsurprising, in that, it was pretty clear that she enjoyed working with the team that brought folklore to life, and the general surprise factor of its release certainly worked in her favor. Her crafting another project in that vein isn’t surprising; what is surprising, however, is that we now have that sister project before the end of 2020.
Now, there is an irony in Swift, of all artists, marketing herself as “indie,” but it’s more of a sound and aesthetic she’s stepped into, rather than shaped around her own artistic identity. And it just so happens that she’s done it pretty well so far, though I don’t think any critic would disagree with that aforementioned point – not even the ones who rushed to put folklore on their year-end lists right after Thanksgiving. Anyway, here’s Swift having some fun with that by surprise-dropping evermore, and while the folklore comparisons are inevitable, the actual similarities are few and far between. If anything, it’s even more quaint than folklore, where the naturally stronger organic swell is stronger overall, but also emphasizes its length much more with the mid-to-low tempo presentation, even despite being the slightly shorter project.
Plus, with the surprise factor gone – as far as sonic soundscape expectations are concerned, that is – I’m pleased to hear most of the inorganic percussion tossed aside here, but I also notice more points here than on folklore where the greater richness of the mix could have been further emphasized and just doesn’t happen. It happens in spurts, like in the bouncy rollick off the piano on “dorothea,” the faint acoustic groove and echoed drums that emphasize the atmosphere on “coney island,” the rapid-fire flow of “long story short” that brings a needed shot of tempo to this project, and the swampy, murky textures of “no body, no crime,” where I didn’t know how much I needed a Taylor Swift murder ballad until I heard it. But there’s also “cowboy like me,” which feels oddly lacking until the slightly smoldered guitar and faint harmonica creep their way in, which should have happened way sooner. That’s a two-pronged statement overall, though. On one hand, while Swift is playing into more willowy vocal territory and the same lusher, overproduced tendencies that bogged down certain parts of folklore, all while not quite sticking the landing all the way, that can work when matched against the darker feel of “willow” or the general angst of “long story short,” even if I’m not wild about how she stretches certain words out on that song, and reflects my general problems with her choppy flow on “closure.”
But the moments that stand out here do so much more with so much less, which is another note on how the general soundscape is used to bolster the content, just as it did with folklore. Now, while I would say this album is less adventurous in the narrative it crafts in favor of sketching out slightly more complex relationship songs, it’s more adventurous in how far it’s willing to go with its framing and general consequences and aftermath. “no body, no crime” is pretty familiar for anyone who knows their country murder ballad archetypes, but Swift’s eye for detail strengthens her fiction to stand a cut above the average affair. And what’s emphasized more here is both a strong sense of duality in the framing and a note on mental health problems that can often contribute to those downfalls and responses to it. I mean, “champagne problems” is like an indie-Speak Now cut I never knew I wanted, and to not hear Swift absolve herself of guilt in her actions is devastatingly potent. It’s what makes “happiness” remind me of the best cuts from Lydia Loveless’ most recent album, Daughter, especially in the way she catches herself cutting into her ex-significant other before coming back around to acknowledge both of their faults, and how forgiveness is easier to come by when you realize those happy memories can remain intact … if you want them to, that is. And it’s the stark piano ballads like that, the crushing perspective of her grandfather’s loneliness in the wake of facing his final days without his significant other by his side on “marjorie,” or the title track speaking directly to the crushing weight and loneliness we’ve all felt this year that just may be the best track in that vein, which craft the album’s best moments.
Again, though, while the highlights do feel more consistent across the board here, they’re also more scattered than before, which is a frustrating note on sequencing that’s always marred Swift’s releases. Which, once again, points back to that length feeling emphasized by the general presentation, especially when there’s another sub-narrative dominating both “’tis the damn season,” where that electric guitar doesn’t carry a lot of pronounced groove to it even though it’s trying, and “dorothea,” and that only the latter track is strong enough to stand on its own, sort of like how the character on “betty” wasn’t likable in that standalone moment. Still, to answer that lingering, burning question, I do think this is the stronger project over folklore, where the sweeping, overproduced, reverb-satured moments in “gold rush” and “tolerate it” don’t feel as pronounced here and the writing is generally sharper all around, even if it’s lacking the same high points as “last great american dynasty” or “exile.” But I’d also say that most of the criticisms I had for folklore carry over to here, and for as much as I want to love it, I’m left really liking, appreciating and respecting it instead. Still, for what is, ultimately, Swift stepping into a style, she’s made vast improvements and refinements that suggest she may go even farther, and I do want to stress that this is the best she’s sounded in years. For me, extremely strong 7/10, but worth every bit of acclaim it’s bound to receive, even if certain critics now have to wait until 2021 to properly recognize that.
- Favorite tracks: “evermore” (feat. Bon Iver), “marjorie,” “no body, no crime” (feat. HAIM), “champagne problems,” “happiness”
- Least favorite track: “ivy”
Koe Wetzel, Sellout
Fun fact: my review of Koe Wetzel’s Harold Saul High is my most popular post on this blog by far, and if there is a review I look back at and wince, it’s that one, among others. And that speaks to the weirdly complicated feelings I have toward Wetzel’s music, where there’s actually something genuinely potent underneath the goofball, frat-bro gimmick in the downward spirals he sketches… but also where you have to question how much that actually matters to the core audience. I mean, despite Wetzel himself claiming he doesn’t really make country music (but will someday), it’s telling that the Texas-country crowd is the one that labeled him a “sellout” for signing with Columbia Records earlier this year, but that’s opening another can of worms altogether.
But it’s also a sign of where he’s headed and how much longer he can milk his current image, and while I didn’t expect to talk about him again so soon … or ever, given that it’s worth pondering if this is even a conversation worth having anyway, Sellout gave me more to say than I anticipated.
Note, however, that that statement doesn’t necessarily equate to a jump in quality. If anything, I probably enjoyed Harold Saul High more, as a whole. But there’s also a much darker undercurrent running throughout this project, where the dark, drunken, drugged-out spirals are starting to take their tolls on him. Now, it’s Wetzel, so there’s not exactly any culpability in the untangling of those thoughts or his toxic fights with ex-significant others, but I do still think he’s a talented writer in the way he hammers on the darkest details of that underlying depression that causes him to lash out to begin with. “Good Die Young” may have been written for a late friend, but with that huge hook, it’s telling how much it fits Wetzel’s narrative, too. And really, in terms of huge melodies and hooks, Wetzel can craft some genuinely great tunes at his best, and I’d say both “Good Die Young” and “FGA” are among them and just excellent songs to boot.
But there’s also decidedly something murkier about the soured tones here. Sure, you’ll get the thicker strumming and tinges of atmosphere driving tracks like “Kuntry & Wistern” and “Cold & Alone” that feel familiar for his sound, and you’ll even get an unexpected honky-tonk-meets-rockabilly stomp in “Lubbock” that works surprisingly well. But if there was a moment where the gimmick was starting to taint the actual music, it’s this album. The skits are what they are, I suppose, but they’re not exactly contributing to any noticeable arc, especially “Post-Sellout.” And when he opts for a live, echoed vocal pickup on “SideChick,” it only hammers how oddly empty and repetitive this album can feel, both in its sound and content. And speaking to that aforementioned drugged-out haze, tracks like “SideChick,” “Crying from the Bathroom,” “Sundy or Mundy,” “Drug Problem” and “Drunk Driving” feel more like overly murky placeholders here, and while “Outcast” is a particularly revealing moment of insight into Weztel’s darker mindset … it’s also a William Clark Green cover, and all I can think of is how he handles these themes and this sound better and more consistently with his own work. Again, this is more fascinating than I anticipated, but I’d also say this is where Wetzel’s shtick is starting to wear thin, and for a major label debut, that’s not good. (Light 6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Good Die Young,” “FGA,” “Cold & Alone,” “Lubbock”
- Least favorite track: “Drug Problem”