I’m back, and with six album reviews ready to go, at that. As always, though the clustered review style is much rarer for me to resort to these days, it does offer a way for me to be even more concise with my thoughts – and to get caught up with everything. Onward!
Courtney Marie Andrews, Loose Future
You know, after two critically acclaimed efforts in 2016’s Honest Life and 2018’s soul-scorching May Your Kindness Remain, it really felt like Courtney Marie Andrews got screwed over with 2020’s Old Flowers – not helped by its release timing or by folks thinking it was a much sparer effort that lacked the grandeur of its predecessor. A damn shame, too, as while I do think the project can feel a bit too hollow for its own good at points, the heartbreak-centered writing and raw emotional details really helped put it above for me as one of my favorites of that year.
And thus far, it feels like Loose Future has flown under the radar as well, though this time, I sadly get why. Don’t get me wrong; in many ways, this was the logical next step for Andrews to take her sound and ideas: an album free from the post-breakup blues of its predecessor that, true its title, is overall much looser and more free-spirited in taking the next steps forward, even if Andrews is still unsure of herself in where those next steps might take her. But I think my issues are twofold. For one, this is an album seeped in a lot of brighter folk-pop textures, which, when the same potent, organic warmth that’s characterized her best work gets to shine, can result in a lot of warm, liquid, ramshackle grooves like the opening title track or especially the shimmering atmospheric elegance of the excellent “Let Her Go.” On the other hand, however, we also get the same reliant on willowy, synthetic backing vocals and echoes that can feel distracting and a bit shrill and sleepy with this type of sound. It’s the sort of album aimed at more ambient textures and moods to set the scene, which can definitely feel intentional n the overall setup but not really that compelling in the actual execution. That’s also a note on the lyrics and themes, which are carried by a lot of broadly sketched, abstract thoughts and ideas in moving forward that lack the same sharp wit I loved from her past few projects. It follows the sort of arc you’d expect, all the way through to a surprisingly disconnected and clunky closing track where she finds love again. And along the way there are those nuggets of deeper introspection and wit – including a fantastic character sketch in “Let Her Go” – but it’s a bit too loose to come together more effectively, the sort of album where I’ll take a few good moments and just move forward from it myself.
- Favorite tracks: “Loose Future,” “These Are the Good Old Days,” “Let Her Go”
- Least favorite track: “Me & Jerry”
John Fullbright, The Liar
This is one of those moments where a potentially unknown or lesser-heard name returning is a bigger deal than one may think. John Fullbright may have once received attention as an early member of the Turnpike Troubadours, but he established his own momentum with a string of singer-songwriter solo records afterwards in the early 2010s … and then just sorta disappeared, favoring being more of a sideman in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now he’s back with an album reportedly more true to what he wants out of his sound than those earlier records, and while I’m not overly sold on it, I can see the appeal with this record. It’s quirky, it’s full of character – it opens with a track built around a love for a piano chord, for God’s sake – and it’s delivered by the sort of boozy performer singing with a wink and a grin who means well and wears his heart on his sleeve.
With that said, he’s also the sort of gravelly vocalist who’s not really loose enough to have all of the humor and quirkier moments land that effectively. He’s a bit stiffer and more straightlaced, and while that can help in adding sincerity to the quirky, off-kilter moments here – “Social Skills” is, after all, all about addressing the awkward anxiousness of having to … well, talk to people, and “Unlocked Doors” portrays him as the hapless lover and hopeless romantic trying his best – he does have a tendency to oversell his delivery as well; I really wasn’t wild about him nearly howling on “Stars,” a fairly saccharine piano ballad, all things considered anyway. And there are moments that can feel clumsy either in the writing or general execution to work more effectively, like his attempt at putting the pieces back together in the post-breakup of “Where We Belong,” or the weirdly cacophonous echo trying to add a darker swell but instead ruining “Poster Child”; he ain’t Hozier, after all. But hey, sometimes that frantic, awkward urgency can work – “Paranoid Heart” is a real highlight with a blast of a hook. I just wish I clicked a little more with the album’s unique spirit, that’s all.
- Favorite tracks: “Paranoid Heart,” “Unlocked Doors,” “Social Skills”
- Least favorite track: “Poster Child”
Nikki Lane, Denim & Diamonds
The highway queen makes her return after five years … with a project that, sadly, splits the difference between warmed-over ‘80s-inspired heartland rock and the same smatterings of country and Americana that have defined her previous work but without as much unique flair. Yeah, I’ve been struggling with this project for a little while now, because on one hand, having a more immediately direct, sharper presence like Lane working with Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme sounds like a good idea on paper, if only from a pure musical perspective. And indeed, occasionally the album will lock into a decent groove with some driving punch, like on “Born Tough.” But far more often than not, Lane just isn’t a dynamic enough singer to rise above some of the overproduction and ragged heaviness that defines this album and doesn’t offer a lot of pulsating momentum. I already noted this elsewhere with “First High,” but it also plagues the very QOTSA-inspired title track and the atmospheric country ballad “Faded” that’s just drowning in its own reverb. Not to say it’s without its more unique or dynamic moments: “Live/Love” features a gentle rollick in a lot of its liquid melodic touches, and “Chimayo,” though out of place for this particular album, does bring the focus back down with the Spanish-flavored acoustics to something more grounded with a good story song Lane is better suited for.
But I think my bigger issue comes through in the writing, which, true to the influences and sounds, plays to a lot of heartland Americana tropes in the details and framing but often feels lifted more by clichés than anything else. I mean, “Try Harder” is built around an empty hook and platitudes of just needing to work harder when things don’t come your way, all with a silly first verse, to boot (if your doctor tells you they can’t do anything and that you just need to try harder, you need a new doctor). And she’s otherwise built around the arc of the strong, independent woman better and more convincingly on previous projects that had more of a stomp and edge to their sound and framing as well without relying on basic rock iconography, like on “Black Widow.” It has its moments here and there, but this was a comeback that didn’t excite me as much as I had hoped.
- Favorite tracks: “Born Tough,” “Live/Love,” “Chimayo”
- Least favorite track: “Try Harder”
Courtney Patton, Electrostatic
If I’m being honest, though I have enjoyed Courtney Patton’s previous work featuring a lot of lived-in detail to her songs, her production has sometimes felt a bit inconsistent and lacking. Rough around the edges in a way that supports the writing, for sure, but also to the point of being a bit sleepy and challenging to love further. It’s why I was excited ahead of Electrostatic, a reportedly more full-bodied experience even pulling from elements of jazz and soul – with some great lead singles, to boot.
And, though I do think this is great and may arguably be Patton’s best album to date, I’m not quite sure it’s the full leap forward I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – strip away the rougher edges and you lose a lot of what makes her work captivating in the first place. But it is still very much a slow burn that will test a listener’s patience, and the moments that have a bit more driving punch to them in “Do You Feel Love” and “Never On the Hurting End” are a bit more scattered and few and far between than they should be. With that said, this is definitely a more full-bodied experience that fits Patton’s more traditional Americana-inspired sound better than expected, with a lot of muted, blues-inspired bass grooves supplementing very warm, rich mixes to add some weight and heft alongside the prominent organ, fiddle, and tempered acoustics. And I think the writing is as strong as ever, given that Patton has always been the sort of writer to bring a direct edge to her work in painting her very mature and realistic pictures – made all the more gutting when she stares into the throes of death on the title track remembering her sister … and finds beauty and peace from that hard confrontation.
But I also think that as far as her relationship-inspired tracks are concerned, there are moments here that feel a bit more quaint and lacking in greater dynamic and dramatic impact to stand up with her best, like “Hold Fast” and “Night Like the Old Days,” even if I do like a lot of the burnished potency that shines through on the latter track. And “Dog Gettin’ Blues” is the sort of loose, self-deprecating silly cut she can’t really sell as convincingly. But those heftier moments do come, like the meatier kiss-off on “Never On the Hurting End” where she calls out a partner’s willingness to run away from love before it gets too serious, the weary resignation shining through on “So Flies the Crow,” the catchy-as-hell “Do You Feel Love,” and the soaring “Casualty.” I might have preferred a bit more muscle in the actual compositional weight at times, but this is the sort of songwriter-driven, mature, tempered country music I can always appreciate – it’s worth supporting.
- Favorite tracks: “Never On the Hurting End,” “Electrostatic,” “So Flies the Crow,” “Do You Feel Love,” “Casualty”
- Least favorite track: “Dog Gettin’ Blues”
Randy Rogers Band, Homecoming
Twenty years and nine albums into their career, Homecoming is actually a pretty fitting way to describe the Randy Rogers Band arc – and in more ways than one. After all, between a mid-2000s major label deal that didn’t really forward their mainstream momentum, a Jay Joyce-produced project that dropped squarely during the bro-country era, and collaborative efforts between the titular lead singer and Wade Bowen that seemed to outshine the actual band’s late 2010s projects, it’s fair to say they’ve gotten lost in the shuffle along the way to where they’re going. But with them working once again with Radney Foster to recapture the glory of their earliest albums, sometimes all it takes is that return home to find what’s been missing.
And you know, to the band’s credit, this certainly is the sort of rock-solid project you’d expect from them, with a lot of that organic, neotraditional flavor shining through as always that’s provided the very foundation of their sound since day one – and with overall better melodic hooks this time around, perhaps thanks to Foster. But it’s also the type of release that goes down easy but feels like it’s missing the true highlights that could place it in higher territory for me. Maybe it’s just the actual tunes not having a lot of distinctive weight or punch in their compositions or writing – there’s quite a few breakup tracks here, but they feel oddly upbeat and brighter than they should be to hit as well as they could. Like with their last project, there’s something that feels almost workmanlike in the execution, particularly in the writing, which is good at setting the details and the scene but doesn’t really follow through for a greater story or deeper gravitas.
Rarely bad, mind you, outside of a clunky closing track where Rogers’ gravelly voice seems to have a hard time maintaining a consistent flow. Actually, I think the first three tracks all set up this album for great success, because they anchor themselves more in slightly darker melodic grooves bolstered by that terrific-as-ever fiddle play (though it does seem ironic that one of the more straightforward love songs here, “I Won’t Give Up,” is the one played with a darker sense of unease). “Fast Car” isn’t the Tracy Chapman song, but it’s a potent slow-burn worth appreciating, especially for those sticky fiddle flourishes during the chorus. And “Heart For Just One Team,” a song about cherishing sports memories with one’s father and ending with their inevitable death by the final verse and reminiscing on times past, though perhaps predictable because of that setup, is still pretty heartfelt, too. So yeah, all in all it’s solid; no more, no less.
- Favorite tracks: “I Won’t Give Up,” “Nothing But Love Songs,” “Fast Car,” “Heart For Just One Team”
- Least favorite track: “Bottle of Mine”
Bailey Zimmerman, Leave the Light On
I was in a weird spot with Bailey Zimmerman’s music even before going into this project. You see, upon first glance (and song), he comes across as a Morgan Wallen copycat … except he’s good, and unproblematic (though it is a trend I’ve seen lately that I hope gets quashed real soon). But for as toxic and juvenile as the bitter burn out of “Fall in Love” was ahead of this release, there was something about it and his other singles I liked. And after hearing this newest EP – not sure why we couldn’t have tacked another track or two on to call it a full album, but OK – I think I can nail down why. For one, for as noxious as these bitter fallouts and sour relationships tend to come across, Zimmerman is willing to point the finger of blame both ways. So it comes across way less as angry machismo and more just embarrassingly vulnerable and emotionally honest in a good way. I don’t want to say “more raw and real,” given what that usually implies with worthless notions of authenticity and the like, but it fits. He’ll wait for a partner who’s gone for good knowing it’s in vain and that he deserves the blame anyway, but if the tables are turned and a partner betrays his trust – like on “Where It Ends” – he’ll let the daggers fly, and it actually feels earned.
I won’t say he’s necessarily a detailed writer – heck, “From the Fall” feels like he’s trying to aim for the same poetic detail as, say, Zach Bryan and coming up kind of short, when in reality Zimmerman’s biggest asset is a knack for nailing emotional vulnerability and mood – and he does tend to paint in overly broad strokes; the album can feel stretched on bigger ideas despite the shorter runtime. But there is a progression and growth worth appreciating here even from the more one-note sourness of “Fall in Love.” And though I won’t say he necessarily outright escapes the copycat comparison I made earlier, he does lean more on a genuine fusion between early 2000s post-grunge and surprisingly organic country tones that can feel grounded in a sound that’s more his own – and with way better production, at that. All in all, then, there may be something more here worth hearing; a surprisingly good first step.
- Favorite tracks: “Waiting,” “Trainwreck,” “Fall in Love,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” “Where It Ends”
- Least favorite track: “Never Leave”