Sundy Best, Feel Good Country
OK, this had me intrigued. Sundy Best is a duo that was most prominent in the early-to-mid 2010s as a suitable alternative to a certain other duo in the wake of the bro-country movement. And while they themselves leaned into the same hangdog rambunctiousness with a younger, wilder perspective, they were also able to balance it out effectively with more nuanced material; “Painted Blue” still gets to me. Now, I’d argue that 2014’s Bring Up the Sun is the crowning achievement in their discography, and their follow-up projects sacrificed some of the rougher edges of that project and felt a bit lacking, as a result. Anyway, following a breakup later on in the decade and subsequent reunion during this one, they’re now back with their latest effort.
Now, the hard part about a band’s follow-up project coming several years after their last one is knowing where to place expectations, and I’ll admit I wasn’t quite prepared for Feel Good Country. Yes, it’s looser and not as sprawling or adventurous as the duo’s previous work, but unlike other previous projects of theirs that struggled with those same issues, this feels more like a product of time and weight adding a healthy dose of maturity into the mix. That means it’s a lighter, more acoustic-driven affair with plenty of fiddle and gentle keys augmenting the mix, especially in the gospel touches that define this project sonically and lyrically in its focus on faith in a higher power for stability and comfort. It’s not the type of album that immediately grips you, and I’ll admit that upon the first few listens, I was a bit underwhelmed. And if not for Kris Bentley’s signature cajon adding a lot of subtle but pulsating momentum to the mix, I would say this lacks a stronger personality against the crop of countless other projects in this vein in independent country at the moment.
But this is a duo that has always possessed incredibly strong melodic capabilities, and it’s impressive how much staying power this album has, not only in the way the gentler melodies linger, but also in the refined focus overall. Nicholas Jamerson has always been an exuberant vocalist, and with a more settled focus on fatherhood and a grounded perspective on togetherness – really, “Brother” is a sweet closer in that regard – the lighter perspective overall feels earned and executed well. And while I do still miss the sharper, wilder edges of those earlier projects, it’s probably for the best, especially given how this album opens with its clunky, funk-driven title track that seems to be opting as joke track but feels misleading regardless. “Escapee” is the closest we get to a “Mean Old Woman” epic with its snaky fiddle and mandolin interplay and lyrical content focused around newfound freedom that still oddly fits well within the album. But this really is one of those albums where the subtler touches do the heavy lifting, like the gentle march and thumping rhythm driving the aptly titled “Walk By Faith” in marching onward in life regardless of stumbles, or the jangly melodic flow of “Above Ground” that hasn’t left my head.
Basically, it’s a comfort album, but a pretty great one, and also one formed after Bentley’s father’s car accident and Jamerson’s newfound fatherhood that feels earned and welcome. Even against the booming echo of “Bad Imagination” in which faith is shaken, it still bounces back often with plenty of jangly tunes – restrained, but still catchy nonetheless. It’s an album where the sum is better than any one individual part, which is kind of fitting, even if there are moments like “Stay With Me” that can sound a bit repetitive and redundant against other similar tracks here. Still, in leaning on the positive, this is a comeback worth the attention – check it out.
- Favorite tracks: “I Won’t Be Bothered,” “Walk By Faith,” “Bad Imagination,” “Above Ground,” “Escapee,” “Brother”
- Least favorite track: “Feel Good Country”
Brit Taylor, Kentucky Blue
Brit Taylor is one of those newer artists I’ve wanted to hear more from for a while now. This Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson-produced sophomore effort is quickly nabbing the main discussion point for her and her work, but I first heard her through her excellent duet with Dee White in 2021 called “At Least There’s No Babies.” And I liked her sound outside of that, leaning – likely intentionally, given his role as a frequent co-writer – on Dan Auerbach’s lusher approach that calls back to the countrypolitan sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
And while, thankfully, that’s still an element of the sound on her latest album in augmenting the mix with lush keys and strings to complement her wonderfully clear tone – especially on the upbeat “For a Night” playing wonderfully off the warped bass and warm organ to sound like a long-lost classic – this is an overall more expansive record. Heck, just in calling back to her Kentucky-based roots, this is an album drenched in plenty of pluckier banjo, fiddle, acoustics, and organ to just stand as a wonderfully warm country project. You can ready the pitchforks if you’d like, but for as much as I’ve had my issues with Simpson as a producer for other artists’ work, I have no complaints here.
Granted, given that this album can sometimes can lean on its homespun charm a bit too effectively at points through some of its cornier moments in “Cabin in the Woods,” the attempt at funk on the kissoff of “If You Don’t Wanna Love Me,” or the beyond tired country-versus-city living underbelly of “Rich Little Girls” (that I think is executed a bit better on the not-so-subtly Nashville-based protest song “No Cowboys”), it is probably the heftier, countrypolitan-leaning back half that clicks with me most. I already noted “For a Night,” but the sweeter ballad “Love’s Never Been That Good to Me” carried by that gorgeous piano and accordion is another highlight, a vulnerable track in which Taylor’s character tries to find the strength to open back up and love again. It’s definitely an album characertized more by its lighter touch, though, for better or worse. I already noted the latter, but for as cutesy as the love songs in “Anything But You” and “Ain’t a Hard Livin’” get, when they’re carried with great melodic hooks off of the fiddle and plenty of charm, they help comprise an album that’s generally easy to like, even if it’s maybe lacking another standout or two to really push it over the edge, or a stronger thematic anchoring point. As it is, the title track is a lovely breakup-centered track that serves as an example of how much I love Taylor as a pure vocalist and an emotive interpreter, and the album itself is such a consistently warm and charming listen. It’s another great listen worth seeking out.
- Favorite tracks: “Kentucky Blue,” “No Cowboys,” “Ain’t a Hard Livin’,” “Love’s Never Been That Good to Me,” “For a Night”
- Least favorite track: “Rich Little Girls”
Shania Twain, Queen of Me
I hate opening this review by stating I had rock-bottom expectations for this album. Shania Twain is who I credit for planting my earliest country music memories, with plenty of upbeat, hook-laden pop-country providing my earliest soundtrack in life. And if there’s a reason I focused so squarely on her as an artist in my country music history deep-dive beyond just her commercial success, it’s because her actual story is underrated in voicing her ascent to superstardom and subsequent legendary status – in country music and beyond.
But … between a disastrous comeback effort in 2017’s Now! and most of my issues with that album echoing themselves through the lead singles to her latest album, it’s been rough watching her return without the same level of flair or firepower as she had in that late ‘90s to early 2000s heyday. And I hate to say that streak continues with her newest album fully in hand now, but sadly, this met those rock-bottom expectations in nearly every capacity. At least I could somewhat forgive Now! for being a murky, choppy experience, given that it was meant to capture the harrowing trauma of her divorce and battle with Lyme disease. Queen of Me is, instead, branded as the “fun” album: the comeback effort aimed more at the upbeat, more pop-leaning side of her work that’s meant to be much lighter in tone.
Yeah … no. Not when despite boasting an entirely new team of producers minus Twain herself once again (making the issues feel all the more baffling and frustrating), the album is still marred by horribly cheap vocal production that makes Twain sound stiff and flat. At the absolute very least, it’s good to hear her in better spirits from before; I just wish it was reflected in the actual album, because this isn’t a fun experience. And given how chintzy and polished the overblown percussion-over-melody approach operates and consumes this album’s personality, these cuts sound mostly like dated and slapdash Meghan Trainor cuts, at best – particularly in the robotic backing vocals – and you don’t know how much I hate saying that!
But look, given my view that ageism is an underrated issue critics unfortunately lean on in determining what artists of a certain age can and cannot sing about, my issue with this album isn’t that it’s mostly juvenile in capturing a younger energy reliant on cringeworthy modern idioms. No, my issue is that a line like “Drunk in the city, got a litty in the cup” on “Giddy Up!” is terrible no matter who’s singing it, and that’s before mentioning the stuttered acoustic line that never lends that track any sense of groove or momentum. And that, for the record, is an issue with this album as a whole. It’s plastic and anonymous, where despite the personal focus in theory, the album sounds consistently distanced and broadly sketched – and that’s me being nice and leaving it at that without further exploring songs like “Pretty Liar,” built around the “liar, liar, pants on fire” conceit, I kid you not, or “Inhale/Exhale AIR,” a song about the importance of breathing, in case you didn’t know. Twain can still pen a great hook, which is probably the only element that saves tracks like “Brand New” or “Number One.” Still, there are artists where the expectation for bad music is a given, and anything further is a pleasant surprise I’ll gladly champion. This is a case where the bad just hurts. It’s good to see in her better spirits, but I’ll forget this album in record time.
- Favorite tracks: “Brand New,” “Number One”
- Least favorite tracks: “Giddy Up!,” “Waking Up Dreaming,” “Pretty Liar,” “Inhale/Exhale AIR”
Buy or stream the album
(or just … don’t).
4 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Sundy Best, Brit Taylor, and Shania Twain”
Shania Twain, good lord. With auto tune and the other gimmicks for recording and live signing, this women would be busking on a street corner. Once a pretty gal, now just a nice looking middle age lady who wants to take off her clothes. She made a ton of money, and I do hope she saved it. Not much good in the world of female country music these days. Maybe Kacey Musgraves, but then, she is too darn pretty. Nice take.
Brit Taylor’s album is probably my favourite one of the year so far. On the first few listens, I couldn’t really get into the switch in style on the back half of the album (particularly the last three songs), but I’ve really come around on this. For A Night and Best We Can Do are now two of my favourites on this album.
I know the Sundy Best album has been generally well-received, but it just isn’t for me for some reason.
I, too, had low expectations for the Shania Twain album, but I gave it a try and, unfortunately, I have very similar thoughts as you. It’s too bad, as I’d love to see her put out some really good music again, but nothing worked on this album.
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I hear you on the Brit Taylor and Sundy Best records. I couldn’t really get into either one at first, but with every repeat listen I found more and more to like. Oddly enough, that’s been the theme of 2023 releases for me thus far.
I will say I like Sundy Best’s earlier work better, so your reaction is totally understandable!
Yes, I agree; most of what I’ve listened to and liked this year has taken a few listens to really get into. So far, the early part of the year has been quite solid overall.
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