Well, if The Musical Divide had any fans before today, I’m sure I won’t after today’s review roundup. It happens, folks, and I apologize in advance. Anyway … onward.
Larry Fleet, Stack of Records
I have to be the only person left on the planet who wonders what happened to that Real Country television show. Yes, it was your basic singing competition show that could skew a little cheesy at points, but it brought some real talent aboard in its only season. Case in point: Larry Fleet, an artist who found his breakthrough through his connections with Jake Owen and has a voice that could split the difference between Travis Tritt and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard depending on the song. And if that sounds like a strange mix, it’s because his sophomore release is a little more rough around the edges than I prefer.
Now, before we get into that, let me stress that for a contemporary country radio act, I like where a lot of Fleet’s production and sound pulls from in the distinctly 2000s-leaning tones that remind me somewhat of what Luke Combs does on his rowdier cuts or even what a more polished Chris Stapleton might sound like. There’s a careful balance between the warmer acoustics, touches of pedal steel and mandolin as well as the meatier electric axes that lean into southern-rock on the album’s best moments in “Quittin’ Ain’t Workin’,” with that great hook reminiscent of Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” and the more reserved cuts like “Where I Find God” and “Three Chords and a Lie,” where his huge presence gets to shine. And outside of the spacey “Different Shade of Red” that tries for your average boyfriend country sentiments yet feels too dark and foreboding to really work – hence the Hubbard comparisons – it’s a mostly consistent listen, and Fleet is such a charismatic performer that he always comes across as likable and sincere.
I think if I had to pinpoint my main issues with the project, then, it’d be in the writing, which isn’t so much bad as it is lacking in deeper detail in places where it matters. The title track is your average track that references musical heroes and feels far too overdone at this point, and while the Robert Earl Keen shoutout is cool, it, along with the nondescript checklist sketch of “Lifetime Guarantee” that could have worked if played with more rollicking humor and self-awareness, both feel like weaker cuts to open the album. And really, for as much as I like Fleet as a performer, I wish he would loosen up a little more here, because when he plays to good-natured, rollicking fun like on the barn-burning closer, “One for the Road,” and “Quittin’ Ain’t Workin’” or plays things more reserved on “Where I Find God,” “A Life Worth Living,” and especially “Three Chords and a Lie,” which is another track playing to plausible deniability of a significant other’s cheating before snapping back into reality for that hook, it’s a really solid fit for him. Flip the script, though, and you have filler material like “Church Parking Lot” about your nondescript ode to small town life, the clunky soul touches that don’t have much potency on “Never Wanna Meet Another Woman,” or “In Love With My Problems,” which is a track brought over from HARDY’s upcoming second Hixtape compilation (joy) and is every bit as meat-headed as you’d expect given the mastermind behind it. As a whole, though, it’s a solid next step, and between the family-minded “Heart on My Sleeve” and “One For the Road,” it ends well. I just want to hear something a little more focused, because the potential is easily there.
- Favorite tracks: “Quittin’ Ain’t Workin’,” “Where I Find God,” “Three Chords and a Lie,” “One For the Road”
- Least favorite track: “Different Shade of Red”
Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name
Well, it’s about time, right? For as much as I thought I originally had a fuller review planned for this, I have to admit that I said most of what I wanted to say last year when I reviewed Mickey Guyton’s Bridges EP for Country Universe. And really, for as much as country radio is to blame for a good chunk of the genre’s problems, labels are just as often the biggest culprits, so it’s nice to see Capitol Nashville not hold this album hostage any longer and actually promote her worth a damn. It’s still six years late, but Remember Her Name is here, and … I’m not sure exactly where to start. On one hand, let’s address the elephant in the room and call a spade a spade – there are going to be supposed country music fans who won’t even give this album of Guyton herself the time of day because of “identity politics” or some other malarkey like that and hold the genre back, especially when she hasn’t been afraid to call out the uneven power structures ruling the industry or call out certain artists who perpetually act like dumbasses and benefit from said system. After all, what else is there for her to really lose? Especially when one said artist will bounce back with no problems whatsoever while Guyton’s biggest hit will likely remain the top 40 “Better Than You Left Me” from, you know, 2015. It’s great that she’s found a real breakthrough over the past year and a half, but it’s wrong on so many levels that it came from continued racial injustice in the United States and not a breakthrough hit like “Better Than You Left Me” or “Nice Things.”
OK … I guess I did have a lot to say there. Setting aside the background context, though, is Remember Her Name the explosive debut we’ve all been waiting for? Well, yes and no, and the odd comparisons I kept coming back to were for Kacey Musgraves star-crossed: The concepts are well-crafted, bold, and unique if lacking in the actual execution, the production can feel pretty thin and lacking in grander swell across the board, and I’m not sure it ultimately hits with as much punch as it could. But on that note, while I have seen some critics note that this album should have aimed darker in its tones to complement the main themes of racial inequality and Guyton’s own experiences with it – especially with a title track inspired by Breonna Taylor – can you really fault her for keeping things bright and optimistic after everything she’s been through? Indeed, one thing I do really love about this album is how much she aims for soaring country-pop hooks in the vein of, say, Dolly Parton in the ‘80s or so, and the brighter tones are a great fit for songs like “Love My Hair” or said title track that are aiming to shatter expectations and reclaim self-confidence. But you will, inevitably, also get those moments that tap into something darker and more personal, like her battles with alcoholism on “Do You Really Wanna Know” or how calling out that aforementioned country star – oh, let’s say it: Morgan Wallen – only led to more grief from her from fans that refuse to understand the deeper implications behind it all.
And what I love is how she doesn’t let that darkness be the defining moment of the album. There’s a late-album track in here called “Indigo” which may be my personal favorite, if only because it shows Guyton moving beyond herself and reaching out to others left oppressed for other various reasons and trying to foster that connection – the next step in truly coming together, in other words. But if I’m being honest, at 16 tracks, there are also songs that feel a lot less unique in their overall framing and weigh the project down. “All-American” is your basic checklist unity anthem that country bros, of all acts, have tried and failed to make work. And there are other songs that just don’t really fit the album arc at all and feel out of place, from the clunky Meghan Trainor throwaway cut in “Different” to the even clunkier cheating song “Smoke” that seems to be more interested in the drop on the hook than the actual story, and “Rosé,” brought over from that aforementioned EP when we could have had “Salt” or “Heaven Down Here” instead.
Circling back to the positives, though, Guyton is still one hell of a huge and empathetic performer who doesn’t need to try that hard to make tracks like “Love My Hair” feel devastatingly real in her triumph to embrace herself, or even just lend “Higher” a pretty potent hook. I do wish some of the electronic elements didn’t feel so thin here or that the touches of reverb felt as overproduced as they often do here. I also wish that the electric guitars had more potent flair and swell to support some of these hooks when they do creep in, and it is an album lacking in greater variety in overall sound that can make it somewhat blend together after a while, which is probably best evidenced on the newer version of “Better Than You Left Me” that lacks the warmth of the original. But while there’s really not a “Nice Things” here, either, this is still a really good listen and one that’s been far too long in coming. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another six years for a follow-up, but that may be putting too much faith in Nashville.
- Favorite tracks: “Indigo,” “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” “Words,” “Do You Really Wanna Know,” “Love My Hair,” “Remember Her Name”
- Least favorite track: “All-American”
Billy Strings, Renewal
Look, my expectations for new Billy Strings music are pretty high. His previous two projects, 2017’s Turmoil and Tinfoil and 2019’s Home, were both excellent, the latter being among my favorite albums of that year, with “Away From the Mire” being my favorite song of that year, too. Even with that said, I would say my fandom is kept at a distance from, say, the jam band fans that follow Strings religiously, and it is fair to ask where he goes from here, especially following his deserved Grammy win for Home. I mean, he collaborated with everyone from Del McCoury to Fences, RMR, and Luke Combs ahead of his newest album’s release, and yet none of those tracks show up here and the hype suggested something different altogether.
What we get instead is something I didn’t expect – a mostly traditional bluegrass project, where the “renewal” comes in finding that next step forward from a lot of the tumultuous atmosphere that characterized his most recent releases. And while many are hailing it as his best project yet … ugh, folks, I really want to be right there with them, but this is a project that just hasn’t clicked with me nearly as much as I would like, and it’s the result of an album that feels both undercooked and yet too overly ambitious in its actual execution. And it isn’t a change in approach I’m necessarily against, either. I like classic bluegrass that recalls pioneers like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, and I absolutely want to point out how fine-tuned and technically proficient as ever Strings and his band and other various players are here, especially when he even brings in some fantastic pedal steel accents on “Show Me the Door.”
It’s just that it’s fine-tuned to a certain extent where I’m left wishing for more moments where Strings threw caution to the wind and gave us those mind-blowing moments of experimentation that have characterized his best work to date. But I’m not even sure that’s it, because the few tracks we do get in that vein like “Heartbeat of America” and “Ice Bridges” feel like they meander simply for the sake of doing so rather than building around the song itself. The former is slightly more chaotic and could easily capture the mood of the nation over the past year and a half – not that I want to frame this entirely around the pandemic – but there’s never anything to suggest that other than a few middle verses that just scan more as scattershot ramblings than anything else. And “Ice Bridges” is an instrumental that comes after a nine-minute track in “Hide and Seek” … that’s also mostly an instrumental and is at least somewhat epic in framing itself as a battle between good and evil, silly as it all is in concept. It’s kind of awesome.
But really, a more simplistic approach is not the issue here. It does place an increased emphasis on the songwriting and the vocalist behind it, though, and I’ve honestly never gotten much out of Strings as an actual singer. And while the middle run of the album starting with the excellent “In the Morning Light” off of those liquid minor textures and ending with a pretty good epic in “The Fire on My Tongue” before giving way to more adventurous tracks are fine enough, it also highlights how long this album runs and how much it can start to run together when it doesn’t differentiate much in tempo or theme. Of course, that brings us to the writing, and where I’m always left describing Strings’ albums as being tied together by mood over consistent theme or lyrical structure, with the basic feelings of uneasy tension and anxiety in how to approach a new day carrying over a lot of the deeper stakes I loved about Home and “Away From the Mire” specifically, even if this isn’t nearly as consistent. Even then, I wouldn’t say this explores it in any deeper way beyond vague social commentary on “Heartbeat of America,” “Fire Line” and “Leaders” that’s more apocalyptic than insightful. My favorite moment probably came through in “Hide and Seek,” and that’s all driven by pure fantasy and better for it, to be frank. But still, there’s nothing here that matches his best work from before, and while I can see this winning over a lot of fans perhaps put off his more experimental tendencies, to me it scans more as a transitional project. Fine enough, but this renewal wasn’t very refreshing.
- Favorite tracks: “Hide and Seek,” “Nothing’s Working,” “In the Morning Light”
- Least favorite track: “Leaders”