I really, really didn’t want to have to resort to this clustered review style yet again so soon after the last time, but with last Friday being an absolutely crazy release day and the bulk of the projects I want to discuss not quite requiring that deeper dive to dig into them … well, here we are. And that’s before mentioning that I haven’t even gotten to everything I wanted to from last week! As for what I have heard … well, I’ll admit that I’m surprisingly cooler on a lot of big-name projects here than others seem to be. So I might as well disappoint all at once. Anyway, onward?
Zach Bryan, Summertime Blues
It’s been kind of hard to miss Zach Bryan’s meteoric rise over the past few years and especially this year, thanks to the release of the commercial phenomenon that is American Heartbreak thus far. And look, I do enjoy the bulk of that album on a deep level. But dropping an EP just two months after that gargantuan album’s release just scans as unnecessary. There’s a clear difference between taking an unconventional route to your release schedule and just outright flooding the market. And with his manic pace, I’m worried he’s going to pull a Sturgill Simpson on us one day – release a ton into the wind and tire of stardom and fade into the limelight on his own terms much quicker than he probably should.
A roundabout way of saying that, while Summertime Blues is undoubtedly the more accessible and leaner project that Bryan has released (thus far?) this year, this also just feels more like an extension for the die-hard fans who will take all they can get, rather than a project with any cohesive narrative or unique standing in Bryan’s discography. And for what it is, it’s still pretty good … though more on a baseline level of quality that Bryan has established for himself these days, because I’m not sure there’s a true highlight here that will stand up with his best.
Maybe it’s the production pulling less from the robust refinement of the best of American Heartbreak and feeling more emblematic of his earlier work – stripped-down, raw, and somewhat lacking in greater dynamics, outside of the snaky banjo and fiddle interplay anchoring an otherwise conventional “working man blues” tale of “Quittin’ Time,” or the AM-esque sheen of “Motorcycle Drive By.” And even then, I kept hoping for that ending to really explode on the former track until it jist abruptly ended, and for “Oklahoma Sideshow” to open up a little more as well. Or maybe it’s writing that, while still fine-eyed in the surrounding details, nevertheless feels undercooked for what Bryan has delivered at his best and slightly repetitive by design – almost as if some of these songs could have benefited from another verse or bridge to tie them together.
Even some of the more storytelling-driven tracks leave me with more questions than answers, like just what’s going to become of the distraught, haunted titular character spiraling downward in depression and alcoholism over the death of his partner on “Jamie” (a track that I wish could say didn’t underwhelm me, given that Charles Wesley Godwin shows up here … even though this isn’t really a duet and neither him nor Bryan sound great together). And then there’s “Matt & Audie,” which sets up the stereotypical Bonnie & Clyde-esque couple on the run but doesn’t really do much with it. I don’t know – this just serves me all as something akin to a late-night snack for the die-hard fans only, as while American Heartbreak may be the more challenging and longer listen, it feels more fulfilling than this; just sayin’. (6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Motorcycle Drive By,” “Quittin’ Time,” “Jamie” (feat. Charles Wesley Godwin)
- Least favorite track: “Us Then”
Kimberly Kelly, “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen”
I swear, some of the buzziest releases as of late are seemingly just coming out of nowhere. Granted, to call Kimberly Kelly a new name to the scene would be somewhat unfair. She originally kicked around Nashville and Texas and was poised to have a proper recording career … until she figured college would be the better, safer option and pursued that instead, with her debut album now feeling more like an overdue return over anything else. Granted, given that these ‘90s and 2000s-inspired neotraditional tones have been making a comeback in recent years, maybe it’s for the best anyway. Because while this isn’t really the type of album that will surprise country fans who grew up with and are fans of this sound (like me), it is a really easy album to like – there’s plenty of warm acoustics, pedal steel and fiddle to drive the melodies, and even a healthy amount of telecaster to push some well-rounded grooves on opener “Honky Tonk Town” and the excellent Billy Joe Shaver cover closer of “Black Rose,” as well (the title of the project is even pulled from a Shaver quote).
And with a bevvy of excellent songwriters behind the pen of these tracks – including Jessi Alexander, Lori McKenna, Bob DiPiero, Karyn Rochelle, and Wynn Varble, among others, my God – it only reinforces that surface-level appeal. But I don’t know, this is also an album that can feel a bit anonymous in establishing Kelly as a distinct performer as well, perhaps due to an album that mostly plays to familiar and conventional chord and melodic progressions and somewhat lacks the deeper dynamics to stick out more, outside of some beautifully liquid, melancholic touches anchoring the tones of “Summers Like That” I really did enjoy. And I think that sense of anonymity can extend toward the writing as well, which, again, is still pretty frequently excellent, even if it’s lacking a stronger core and can make this album feel more like a collection of great songs over anything else.
But again, when you’ve got that baseline level of appeal, there’s a lot to appreciate here – like the classic cheating-centered “Some Things Have a Name” with the clever play on words, the simultaneous foolish desire and desperation that comes with being unable to let someone go on “First Fool in Line,” the heartbreaking divorce-centered “Person That You Marry” that carries the sort of lived-in detail you’d expect from the aforementioned McKenna, and even the fun ascending melodic progression of the hook on “No Thanks (I Just Had One).” If anything, the album opens and ends really strongly, and the only real flaws of the moments in between are that they can feel undercooked in theme and concept compared to the more striking highlights. Even “Summers Like That” surprised me – the sort of track built around other past songs that’s been done to death recently, but feels more creative in its actual execution (I appreciate the subtle nod to the delivery reminiscent of George Strait’s “Carried Away” after its own reference), based around how those ‘90s country songs shaped who Kelly is as a performer. No, she didn’t write it, but it still feels believable for this album. All in all, then, a very solid listen, but also one that could afford to maybe just take one or two steps toward something more unique to achieve true greatness. This comes close, though. (7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Black Rose,” “First Fool in Line,” “Summers Like That,” “Some Things Have a Name,” “Person That You Marry,” “No Thanks (I Just Had One)”
- Least favorite track: “Why Can’t I”
Tami Neilson, Kingmaker
At this point, I think it’s fair to say there are certain expectations with a Tami Neilson album. You’re going to get her usual smattering of influences ranging everywhere from classic country to vintage soul and rockabillly, songs that usually carry a strong feminist streak to the writing, and a hell of a lead performer to carry it all. And for the most part, that formula has worked excellently for me – from 2014’s explosive (pun intended) breakthrough Dynamite! to the more heartbreaking Don’t Be Afraid from 2016 and the more thought-provoking Sassafrass! from 2018. If anything, it’s why it’s hard to pinpoint why 2020’s Chickaboom! just didn’t click nearly as well for me, outside of a heavier reliance on quippy one-liners and over-the-top theactrics over stronger songwriting.
And I hate to say I’m in the exact same boat with Kingmaker – especially after loving the lead duet with Willie Nelson ahead of this release – but … yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at with it. I’d say this album leans closer to Sassafrass! over anything else, with a strong feminist attitude and a heavier reliance on bold statements made toward a male-dominated music industry. And at best, that gives us the heartbreakingly familiar sketch of a woman musician judged before she can even unleash her true talents on “Baby You’re a Gun,” and at worst just gives us tracks reliant on campy humor, punchy one-liners that don’t leave much of an impact, and weak character sketches like on “Careless Woman,” which feels supremely lacking in the low-end overall and is probably one of Neilson’s worst tracks yet in how empty it feels otherwise.
And for what it’s worth, that broader sketching can actually work well at points for tracks that have the actual muscle and snarl in their compositions to match them, like the short but effective sprawling firestorm of “Mama’s Talkin’.” Granted, that can also get taken a step too far, like on the overproduced, messy swamp-blues fusion that “Ain’t My Job” tries to aim for but never really reaches effectively, no thanks to a lack of groove overall. I think it’s just the lack of stronger or more well-defined writing holding this back for me, because there are highlights that dial things back and are better off for it: “Beyond the Stars” is a classic heartbreaker in which Neilson and Nelson sound great together; “Green Peaches” feels heavily reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry and is sensual as hell; “King of Country Music” is another track to pull from her family band experience and show that she viewed her role as a country music singer quite differently from what those in power within might have saw for her; and “I Can Forget” was pulled from an old demo of her father’s and, next to “Beyond the Stars,” gives another genuine highlight inspired by him in its longing for closure in the loss of true love. But it’s also a project that can feel incredibly inconsistent, lacking in real momentum thanks to songs that end abruptly, and one that, at least to me, stands in the shadows of her past work. (7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Beyond the Stars” (feat. Willie Nelson), “Baby You’re a Gun,” “I Can Forget,” “Mama’s Talkin’,” “King of Country Music”
- Least favorite track: “Careless Woman”