Considering that there’s very few new projects left in 2021 I’m interested in covering, most of these review roundups from now until the end of the year will be devoted to albums that have been sitting in my backlog. In other words, if there’s something you want me to check out before the end of the year, let me know; I’m open to suggestions. Anyway, onward!
Hayes Carll, You Get It All
This is my second time discussing Hayes Carll on this blog, and I don’t think I’ve truly delved into my actual thoughts on him, a Texas singer-songwriter who started as a Ray Wylie Hubbard disciple and released a string of critically acclaimed projects in the 2000s. I still hold 2008’s Trouble in Mind as his best, if only for featuring “She Left Me For Jesus.” But while Hayes has drawn the obvious and perhaps predictable comparisons to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt for his songwriting – especially on 2016’s Lovers and Leavers – his quirkier presentation and offbeat melodic flow has always reminded me more of, say, Jerry Jeff Walker and his drunken musings. But to be honest, while I think Carll makes fun music at times, to me he’s never been an amazing songwriter, and I’d struggle to say that any of his 2010s work really clicks with me.
But then again, one could also argue that Carll has been trying to find his footing again ever since the KMAG YOYO experiment anyway, and while my usual reservations about Carll’s work keep me from loving his newest album more, You Get It All is likely the closest he’s come in over a decade in recapturing some of the old magic of his earlier projects. It’s loose, it’s breezy courtesy of the ragged production emphasizing a lot of hard country and stridently Texas-flavorted textures – particularly in the fiddle lines and rougher acoustics – and sometimes a little too corny for its own good. But for a mildly enjoyable experience, it’s fine. I’m still not wild about his aforementioned flow or his tired and fried delivery, but that can work opposite Brandy Clark on the great impending divorce song on “In The Mean Time” that shows how a couple has burned each other down to nothing and has nothing to show for the fighting, either. And as far as the tracks leaning on shitkicking, screwball antics go, the escapism of “To Keep From Being Found” is pretty fun – certainly more so than “Any Other Way,” which is just sort of insufferable as a whole. The track about God’s chaotic day on Earth was pretty cute, too, I guess. I think my main criticisms come in a lack of a strong anchoring point of this project beyond just being a mildly enjoyable experience. One could argue his relationship with fellow musician Allison Moorer is an even stronger influence on this project than past ones, even if, of all the tracks dedicated to her, I think I might actually like “Leave It All Behind” way more than the title track or especially the clunky “The Way I Love You,” if only for feeling a bit more grounded in actual dramatic stakes, adding a bit more immediate punch to the guitar tones, and sporting one of the few potent hooks on this album.
But that also brings us squarely to the songwriting … and again, how it’ll go down depends on how much one has bought in to Carll’s quirky style. For me, again, he’s a fun performer, but his tracks that aim for something deeper just often fall flat for me. I appreciate how “Help Me Remember” examines an Alzheimer’s victim’s point of view and their struggle, but the track feels like it’s trying too hard to make sweeping, broadly sketched statements about mortality itself rather than tap into the personal details of this character’s life and their own personal journey in facing that disease. I get trying to make the universal sound personal, but it’s often the opposite approach that works, and I say that as someone who had a grandmother who had dementia and doesn’t get a lot out of this song. On less serious notes, we have “Different Boats” and “She’ll Come Back to Me,” both of which feel oddly overly serious and aggressive in what they’re going for, and “If It Was Up to Me,” a surprisingly heartfelt ballad that leans on a checklist writing structure but actually has continuity to its message and progression of it. Carll tries to go for something soulful, and he actually kind of gets there in noting how he’d love to undo all of his regrets yet knows he can’t, forcing him to live in the present knowing that, at the very least, he has the perspective and clarity to make the here and now work in his favor; and that has to be good enough for him. It’s a great ending, and as a whole … again, Carll has never been a favorite of mine, but this is likely his best project since Trouble in Mind, and that’s an accomplishment worth noting.
- Favorite tracks: “Nice Things,” “In the Mean Time” (feat. Brandy Clark), “To Keep From Being Found,” “Leave It All Behind,” “If It Was Up to Me”
- Least favorite track: “The Way I Love You”
Ashland Craft, The Travelin’ Kind
I can tell how much I keep up with general popular culture when I stumble onto a project by happy accident and think I’ve found a hidden gem … only for me to realize that South Carolina native Ashland Craft actually placed a top ten finish on The Voice a few years ago and isn’t as unknown as I thought she was (although, fun fact, I care way more about the show after learning that someone from my hometown is actually doing fairly well on it this season). Honestly, though, what surprised me more is that she’s signed to Big Loud Records – responsible for some of my personal least favorite acts in the genre right now – and released her debut in a low-key manner without so much as even trying to push a single to radio, at least to the best of my knowledge.
And I guess I get why, considering that Craft’s style and presentation on her debut remind me stylistically of a space somewhere between Lainey Wilson and Ashley McBryde, both of whom have had some success over on that platform without a lot of consistency behind it. And that’s a shame, because as far as the music goes, I mean it as a high compliment. Between Craft’s husky, damn-near coarse delivery and production that leans surprisingly meaty courtesy of the rougher electric axes, darker bass grooves, and fiddle pickups, this is a project with enough more than rough edges to support its country-rock swell. Honestly, it’s one of those rare projects where I’m short on elements to criticize … and yet haven’t been able to pinpoint why this project hasn’t grabbed me even further after repeated listens. And I think it comes to understanding the influences behind the project and wishing for a little more unique dynamics in the actual production to help Craft’s melodies and hooks stick out a little more and make this sound truly her own. Yeah, I get how that’s nitpicking of the highest variety, but then I hear tracks like the justifiable rage in wishing for closure from a flighty ex-lover on “Your Momma Still Does,” or the liquid minor swell of the downbeat “Day By Day” that may provide the anchor of this project and show where Craft could further refine her sound and presentation. A lot of the main thematic points, to perhaps no one’s surprise, boil down to hard living and bad relationships that end even worse, and I think what I find compelling about a lot of the writing here is how much Craft doesn’t absolve herself of any culpability. “Day By Day” is the self-aware moment where she knows her string of one-night stands isn’t going to ever provide that sense of closure for her, but it’s enough to ease the pain for now, and her questioning whether she actually deserves to move on anyway provides a really potent and dark framing device for the project as a whole.
Granted, it’s the one track here she didn’t write, and I think that’s where my other nitpick comes in, in that this album plays to very familiar themes really well but doesn’t quite take the next steps in exploring them to transcend excellence. Not to say that there aren’t exceptions. I like how she keeps a relationship going with her ex-partner’s mother on “Your Momma Still Does,” offering a more complex note on how entering into a relationship with someone else means connecting with their whole life rather than just the person themselves … and how not everyone that partner knew before is going to excuse their behavior in how they treat their significant other. I also like how “Make It Past Georgia” slowly reveals how she was the heartbreaker in the relationship sketched and that this is mostly her living with the consequences of that decision, or how “Letcha Fly” is about her coming to grips with the fact that she needs to let a partner go off and follow their dreams to find happiness, even if that journey doesn’t include her. There’s a grounded sense of lived-in maturity to the writing that’s exciting to see on a debut project. And for straightforward odes to the rebellious spirit, the title track and “Last 20 Dollars” are both pretty fun, especially the latter with those chunkier honky-tonk tones. And “Highway Like Me” is an excellent slow burn that’s also proving how much I like Marcus King on other artist’s songs as opposed to his own. Outside of the closer, “That’s the Kinda Place,” which is a formless, checklist ode to small town pride that’s been done to death, there isn’t really a dud here, but I’d call this more of a good first step rather than an explosive start. Solid, though, and I’m interested to see where she goes from here.
- Favorite tracks: “Day By Day,” “Your Momma Still Does,” “Last 20 Dollars,” “Travelin’ Kind,” “Make It Past Georgia,” “Highway Like Me” (feat. Marcus King)
- Least favorite track: “That’s the Kinda Place”
Elvie Shane, Backslider
My usual gut reaction with any new male country act in Nashville these days is to feign caution until proven otherwise. And while that’s usually a safe method, there are exceptions to the rule; the first time I heard Elvie Shane’s “My Boy” last year was one of them. Simply put, I was impressed by the generally organic flavor and well-balanced production supported by Shane’s twangier tone, and even more by the lyrical perspective of a stepfather seeing his impact on the son he’s helping to raise, all of which was inspired by his real life situation. Which, on the note of background context, is also worth noting that Shane was a contestant very briefly on American Idol in 2016, and while “My Boy” quickly proved itself as a sleeper hit of 2020, I didn’t expect it to top the charts this year. I am, however, glad to see it.
And as for his debut album … well, I’m oddly fascinated once again, because while “My Boy” definitely sticks out a little in terms of tone and lyrical content, it doesn’t do so in a way that suggests a weaker album as a whole. Actually, compared to the mostly acoustic yet still noticeable rough edges of that debut single, this mostly plays to the same hardscrabble ideology, with a country-rock production that’s well-balanced across the board and likely places Shane alongside contemporaries such as, say, Eric Church or Kip Moore, or even past ones like Frankie Ballard. Which, yes, is also to say that this album is a bit overly gratuitous in mining something of an “outlaw” facade at times that can get kind of grating, but for the most part I’m really impressed by the presentation. The guitars have a ton of potent melodic swell that lend themselves nicely to some great hooks here, and the choice to incorporate some rougher distortion in spots gives some of these tracks some real bite and standout appeal. And you’d think I would be describing a Jay Joyce project by that description, but no, credit goes to producer Oscar Charles for this, who has kinda-sorta been involved with other indie acts in the past but who really gets to shine here.
Not to say that some of grooves aren’t a bit clunky or overproduced in spots like “Sundays in the South” or especially “County Roads,” or that the overly aggressive swagger of those songs is a good fit for Shane as an interpreter who can’t really sell them. But the moments that do work are special, like the glistening keys augmenting the spacious mix against the gentler acoustics of “Sundress” that, coupled with the rickety percussion, really ramps itself up to support a great hook, or how the equally spacious yet far more melancholic “Rocket Science” has a noticeable heaviness to it through the distortion that plays nicely to the isolated reflections of a breakup that occur there. And that’s where the Church comparisons come back into play, because I’d argue Shane is far better when he taps into his reflective side than when he tries to go for swaggering machismo, even if the obvious Steve Earle-influenced “My Kinda Trouble” is kind of fun. This project is indebted to its influences in sound and the writing that goes for very obvious and broadly sketched ideas, and while I’d argue there’s enough to unique edge in the former department, the latter is a bit more hit-and-miss. Still, light and breezy is a good fit for this project, and as far as solid melodic hooks go, “Love, Cold Beer, Cheap Smoke,” “Keep On Strummin’,” and “My Mississippi” go down easy. But the real highlight for me is “Nothin’ Lasts Forever,” where even if I wish Tenille Townes had a verse of her own to provide an even stronger balance, I still think both she and Shane have great chemistry together – especially toward the end – in going for youthful, reckless abandonment in concept and trying to find something more together out of it; it’s possibly my favorite track here. And as far as moving from that recklessness toward something more sustainable … well, yeah, I guess “My Boy” fits better here more than I initially thought, but I think the even better examination of aging and responsibility comes through in the surprisingly earnest closer, “Miles,” even if it drags on way too long. That’s probably a good note on the project itself, too, where the fat could have easily been trimmed down to craft a great album over a really good one, given that this project doesn’t deviate much in scope or concept – not to mentioned how there’s a weird gospel interlude … thing featured here. But, starting with that final third, the album ends really strongly, and as a new name to the scene, Shane definitely has my interest. I’m just hoping now that he’s not a one-hit wonder.
- Favorite tracks: “Nothin’ Lasts Forever” (feat. Tenille Townes), “Rocket Science,” “My Boy,” “Miles,” “Sundress,” “My Mississippi”
- Least favorite tracks: “Kickin’ Stones” (w/ The Fletch), “County Roads”