With the exception of one project featured here, this expanded review roundup is mostly my way of knocking out albums that have been sitting in my backlog. Anyway, onward!
Tenille Arts, Girl to Girl
So I’ll admit that the fan in me who enjoyed Tenille Arts’ major label debut album from very early 2020 was excited to see her find a real and unexpected – and, in the age of chart manipulation, genuine – breakthrough with “Somebody Like That.” The critic in me, however, couldn’t help but question what would come next. Canadian acts that cross over to the United States don’t tend to have lasting success there, try as they may. And that did have me worried for what lengths Arts and her team would go to in ensuring they further the momentum, especially given how that album era pretty much lived and died by that hit single and we now have a new project so soon after the last one. It also didn’t help that the lead single to her newest project, “Back Then, Right Now,” tried to go for cheap throwback nostalgia while embodying all of the worst tendencies of modern mainstream country music.
And now with Girl to Girl as a whole … yes, this is a step back, but not quite across the board like I had feared. Arts still possesses a ton of natural, easygoing charisma and is a likable performer. And her writing talent in pop-country that taps into more personal territory puts her in the same league as, say, Lauren Alaina or Kelsea Ballerini, especially considering that, like them, she’s often singing to a younger audience. But like with those artists’ recent projects, this feels like a more compromised effort as a whole in trying to balance the fine line between the atmospheric country-pop of her last project that actually blended the two genres effectively with the more modern trappings of what will succeed at radio here, including a heavier reliance on badly blended electronic elements, overmixed percussion that completely stifles any sense of groove or melody this project tries for, and an overly polished presentation that doesn’t feel as unique for Arts this time around. Put it this way: there’s nothing that captures the natural swell or hook that “Somebody Like That” had, and it doesn’t help that her vocal inflections are trying to imitate Maren Morris on more than a few occasions here, which is frustrating considering she had a style that was almost her own.
Now, circling around to the songwriting, that last album may feel like the more mature project in terms of concept and execution, but if there’s anything that saves this one, it comes through in this area. Yes, the title track is a blatant ripoff of Carly Pearce’s “Next Girl,” and the overall theme of handing down life advice based off of personal experience to younger women feels reminiscent of 2000s Taylor Swift. But Arts is a slightly older performer and emphatic presence who can lend gravitas to those themes, especially when she has to look inward to grow up on tracks like the excellent “One Bedroom Apartment” or “Breakup Songs.” The final three tracks even bring back in some of the warmer country-leaning touches I liked from that last project and end this album on a great note, particularly “Growing Old Young.” But while there’s nothing here I would describe as a dud outside of “Back Then, Right Now,” there’s a lot of filler in the middle, and outside of a few tracks I’d struggle to call it a consistently engaging listen. I want to see her find continued success south of the border, but I’m not sure it’ll happen with this project.
- Favorite tracks: “One Bedroom Apartment,” “Growing Old Young,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “High School Sweetheart,” “Breakup Songs” (feat. Callista Clark)
- Least favorite track: “Back Then, Right Now”
Rodney Crowell, Triage
Well, it’s about time. I’ve written about Rodney Crowell indirectly in several historical posts featured here over the years, but I’ve never had the chance to dig into one of his projects to review properly. Even then, despite what I’ve written about his influence, when it comes to Crowell himself, the best parts of that conversation come in what he did after the radio hits dried up, including releasing a near-classic in The Houston Kid and several other late-career gems that could easily rank among his best … even if “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway” will always be hard to beat as my favorite individual song of his.
So no one of you know how disappointed I am to review what is easily a weaker effort from him, if not his worst album to date. To put it simply, this is another project to get “reflective” and “personal” in the wake of the pandemic, and even a songwriter like Crowell can’t avoid going about it in the most cloyingly shrill and preachiest manner possible, including a cringey attempt at a joke of unity on “I’m All About Love” that may be his worst song ever. Now, before this goes downhill too much further, I do think this project is Crowell’s punchiest and most passionate one in quite some time, including a welcome and unexpected shift in tempo that occurs on the opener, “Don’t Leave Me Now,” that really adds weight and momentum to the project as a whole; this project carries a surprising amount of groove to it.
Of course, it’s that song that basically sets the tone for the project – a reflective track where Crowell admits to very vague faults and promises to do better in the new age, which just feels hollow and maddeningly unspecific in concept and execution, especially when he’s going to preach to the audience to do the same. “Something” has to change, on a track aptly called that, but there’s no defining it beyond that, which wouldn’t be bad if there wasn’t also a track here called “Girl on the Street” that wants to play the virtue signaling card in reminding us that this displaced prostitute was once someone’s daughter and friend … only for Crowell himself to later reveal that he did nothing to save her and that this is mostly all directed at him. And now we’re just back to cloying. Look, it begins and ends well with “This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am” – mostly because it’s a reflection on aging that’s actually grounded in realer stakes – and if I was high I might find the existential wisdom of “Transient Global Amnesia Blues” appealing. But there’s a reason I’ve been avoiding this project until now, because when even a legend can’t pull off a “pandemic project,” it’s proof of how no one can or really even should try to do so at this point.
- Favorite tracks: “ This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am,” “Don’t Leave Me Now,” “Here Goes Nothing”
- Least favorite track: “I’m All About Love”
Erin Enderlin, Barroom Mirrors (EP)
I’m a tad leery about covering this, mostly because the last time Erin Enderlin released an EP she eventually steamrolled it and others into a full-length project that was among the best of that year but still felt oddly disjointed. But with no other news on the horizon and this new project clocking it at six songs as it is, I can safely say that it’s the palette cleanser I’ve needed and that Enderlin delivered again. I mean, I still want a full-length project soon, but in terms of cathartic slow burns within the genre that provide a comforting sense of devastation for a miserable soundtrack, there’s arguably no one doing it better than Enderlin right now.
Granted, this does feel like it’s intended to be a tad more lighthearted than her previous two fuller projects, not just in the length, but in the fact that there’s a riotous duet with Terri Clark here and that the overall tone is looking to move beyond the basic themes of heartbreak and misery. Outside of the clunkier “Somebody’s Shot of Whiskey,” too, which tries to go for hell-raiser vibes she can’t quite pull off, she nails it. She may be drinking whiskey to soothe her pain on “When I’m Drinking Whiskey,” but catch her on another night and she just may have found the strength to move on. Even the aforementioned duet is all about embracing country music clichés and trying to work around them so that Enderlin and Clark don’t paint themselves as mere characters themselves. Still, when you’ve got a sound that’s wonderfully ragged and drenched in a lot of its heavy but supple grooves, liquid pedal steel that’s meant to linger, and some excellent fiddle work, there comes a point when you can retreat to the basics and still mine gold from it, and I’d argue “Cut Through Me,” the title track, and especially “If I’m Not in Hell” are excellent examples of that. And I really want to highlight that last one, which finds its character’s home life in disarray not because of a lover that left, but because of a lover that died and forced her to grapple with her faith and stability here on Earth in a way that’s as devastating as Brandy Clark’s “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” In other words, I’ve needed a project like this, and it’s always great to have something new from Erin Enderlin.
- Favorite tracks: “When I’m Drinking Whiskey,” “Barroom Mirrors,” “If I’m Not in Hell,” “Cut Through Me,” “If There Weren’t So Many Damn Songs”
- Least favorite track: “Somebody’s Shot of Whiskey”
Natalie Hemby, Pins and Needles
Speaking of songwriters within country music who usually deliver greatness, between her excellent work on 2017’s Puxico and her involvement with the Highwomen – in addition to her original role as a songwriter behind the scenes for plenty of well-established artists – there’s always a reason to look forward to a new Natalie Hemby project … and I wish I could still say that after sitting with her newest one for a few weeks now. The overall shift to a darker pop-leaning direction doesn’t quite surprise me as much as it should – she has written for both Miranda Lambert AND Maren Morris and Little Big Town, after all – nor is it the issue by itself here. At its best, the album taps into more wistful, atmospheric touches to accentuate the melodies and hooks, particularly on tracks like “New Madrid” or “Lake Air” that are insights into old relationships she looks at with both fondness and sadness. No, the issues are, unfortunately, presented right at the forefront early on, and they come through in consistently heavy vocal production that doesn’t flatter Hemby’s delivery whatsoever, and especially not when she’s trying for a Maren Morris inflection, at that.
Actually, overproduction and overmixing are the two basic problems of this album in general, where instead of aiming to capture sweeping melodies with real groove behind them and even a hook or two on the aforementioned highlights, we get dark, heavily compressed stabs of keys driving the clunky title track, or the programmed handclaps that make “Hardest Part About Business” stumble just as hard in its execution alongside the cheap-sounding synthetic elements of “Banshee” that don’t sound properly blended in the slightest. Which is also to say that Puxico isn’t an appropriate comparison point for the sonic landscape at all, nor is The Highwomen, but this doesn’t have the hooks or tonal consistency to match the Sheryl Crow influence she’s trying to emulate, either. Although, like Puxico, it does indulge in its moody and dreamy textures a fair too often, enough to it starts to run together fairly quickly. And while this would normally be the part where I’d say that the writing redeems it all, I can’t say it does, outside of a few highlights that speak to crumbling or past relationships in “New Madrid,” “Lake Air,” “Radio Silence” or “Heart Condition” with a sense of either fondness, regret, or welcome anger on “Radio Silence.” As it is, I respect the intent. I just wish it stuck the landing a fair bit better.
- Favorite tracks: “New Madrid,” “Lake Air,” “It Takes One to Know One”
- Least favorite track: “Hardest Part About Business”
The Royal Hounds, A Whole Lot of Nothin’
I’m struggling for a good introduction here, mostly because this is a band I’ve been championing for years but know is also a tough sell for others due to their niche presentation and style. But for context, I’ve been a fan of The Royal Hounds’ wildly fun blend of country and rockabilly going back all the way to 2016’s Poker All Night Long – which I hold as one of the greatest albums from the decade that you probably haven’t heard – and even farther back to their debut and then beyond. I’m always tempted to call them a parody act in the vein of, say, Hot Country Knights, but the more appropriate comparison point is Roger Miller, in that this is a band that doesn’t have to rely solely on humor when their writing and technical skills are absolutely stellar and they can shred with the best of ‘em, hence why they’re a Lower Broadway staple.
Still, the best parts about their projects are always how much of a blast they are to burn through, and I’m happy to say that their newest collection is one of their strongest releases yet. Guitarist Matheus Canteri is quickly becoming a secret weapon for this group, particularly for his rapid-paced picking on, fittingly, “Pickin’ in the Graveyard,” the heavier “In the Rickety Pines,” and even the two instrumental tracks that actually feel surprisingly essential to the project. But this is also a band that’s always excelled by having every member play off one another, and between lead singer Scott Hinds’ more reserved vocal style that aims for subtlety in letting the twists and punches roll on naturally, The Royal Hounds can play it straight or go for overblown corniness and still make it work. Granted, it’s still very much a niche listen that won’t be for everyone – particularly for a few jaw-dropping one-liners on “Bring Out the Barrel of Beer” that one must experience at least once – and how much that resonates with listeners will vary wildly; I myself think “I Just Can’t Two Step” and the title track fall a bit flat in comparison with the others here. But there’s also a track here called “Krismastofferson,” which is the story of how Kris Kristofferson saved Christmas and is filled with so many clever and subtle references to his life and career and is about as awesome as you’d expect. And then there’s “Pickin’ in the Graveyard,” which aims to resurrect dead musicians within the country music genre for a jam session in the titular setting and really brings some unexpected references to the table.
And really, I could go on explaining how these songs are great simply based on what they’re about without even digging deeper into the finer points of the execution, but even more conventional tracks like the murder ballad “In the Rickety Pines” blazes like few others, and when the band leans into a rare sad country heartache track (well, rare for them) on “The Jukebox Is Broken,” they’re surprisingly extremely effective. But it’s the cheerful rollick and upbeat spirit that really gives this album its heart … along with a great closing track that I shall not spoil, too. Again, a tough sell in concept that won’t be for everyone, but an incredibly easy sell in terms of an excellent barn-burning country-meets-rockabilly palette that’s filled with some of the wittiest writing I’ve heard all year. I had way too much fun with this.
- Favorite tracks: “Krismastofferson,” “Pickin’ in the Graveyard,” “In the Rickety Pines,” “The Jukebox Is Broken,” “I Hope You Go to Hell”
- Least favorite track: “I Got a Whole Lot of Nothin’”
The Wild Feathers, Alvarado
It shouldn’t have taken me this long to write about Nashville-based country-rockers The Wild Feathers, but in truth, beyond mentioning how they started as an independent band known for their layered harmonies that drew comparisons to The Band and The Eagles, I’m not sure there’s much more to add, which is why I can’t say they’re a band that’s ever really stuck with me outside of a few decent cuts. They signed to New West Records ahead of their newest release and were reportedly aiming to capture a sound that’s truly theirs with their newest project, and while I’m not sure they achieved that, necessarily, they did manage to create a very breezy and listenable project with plenty of strong melodies, hooks, and grooves. Again, I’m not sure what to add beyond that, mostly because on a compositional level they absolutely nail the basics but rarely go beyond them, with plenty of strong bass grooves anchored by touches of organ or other glistening textures to add some tighter heft to the songs themselves. Granted, I say “tight” rather than “heavy,” because if you’re aware of those aforementioned influences, you’ll expect to find a very polished-sounding band that basically lives and dies by those harmonies and doesn’t push beyond that.
To my surprise though, they’re actually able to tear into scuzzy bar-band territory on cuts like “Ain’t Lookin’” and “Side Street Shakedown” fairly effectively, and the title track is just so strikingly phenomenal on a compositional level that it wins me over pretty much on that alone. Of course, that’s also to say that, like most bands in this vein, they sound better together than they do individually, as I’ve never been gripped by any member here as an actual vocalist or emotive performer. And sadly, they try to go for those more individualistic moments on some of the slower and more reflective tracks, which also mostly highlight how fairly one-dimensional the content is. It’s not bad in playing to its very simple and broad sketches, but it lacks a unifying vision and never really stands out as much as it could. I mean, the road warrior song “Out on the Road” is the one track here they should absolutely nail, and yet it tries to play things with a little rough-edged swagger and can’t pull it off without feeling incredibly clunky. And considering the relationship songs aren’t exactly mining any sense of reflection or depth (“Take your time forgiving me,” on “Off Your Shoulders.” Oof) this album hits a stumbling point halfway through that’s only brought back around thanks to “Flashback,” which is a song about how we use music as our own personal time machine; of course that’s going to work for me. But beyond that, while this is certainly pleasant and enjoyable, if I’m looking for what sets this band apart or could take them to that next level beyond simply nailing the basics effectively, I’m not sure this project gets there. There’s a few good cuts, but not much that’s going to stick with me beyond the review.
- Favorite tracks: “Alvarado,” “Ain’t Lookin’,” “Side Street Shakedown,” “Flashback”
- Least favorite track: “Get Out Of My Own Way”