Friday, 23 December 2011

My favourite Christmas album

It's that time of year again. Just two days to go and the shops are full of people running around like headless chickens trying to find that last elusive Christmas gift, while through the sound systems wafts an endless onslaught of inane, relentlessly joyful and soulless 'classics'. And because they're classics, it's the same twenty songs going round and round in every shop you'll visit in December, on every TV program and, if you're really unlucky (I am), even in your office.
Gretchen Peters' Northern Lights is the perfect antidote to all that. The album combines Peters' clear soprano with a bleak, Appalachian feel to produce an album that's just the thing for sitting indoors with on a cold, snowy winter's night in front of the fire (whiskey optional). It's an album of solitude and contemplation, a world away from the forced jollity that can often characterise the festive season, and, while it may sound potentially depressing, that melancholy is warming and comforting.

The album contains songs by contemporary songwriters, as well as traditional carols and newly written tracks, all in Peters' own distinctive style. My personal favourites come from all three categories: 'Waitin' On Mary', drawing beautiful parallels between the nativity story and the poor and destitute around the world today; the Gordon Lightfoot-penned 'Song for A Winter's Night', which sets the bleak, melancholy feel of the album perfectly; and the carols 'Coventry Carol' and 'In the Bleak Midwinter', two songs that I've loved for many years but which are given new life by Peters' take on them.

Because she's a lovely lady, Gretchen has put all twelve of the tracks on YouTube in a playlist (though not in the right order, tsk Gretchen!), but if you enjoy listening to the album, please consider buying it, either from your usual digital retailer or from Peters' own store.

Have a lovely Christmas. I know what I'll be listening to.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Hunter Hayes - the 30-instrument marketing hype

Part of the marketing campaign for teen country star Hunter Hayes, who debuted earlier this year, was the bold and proud statement that he played every instrument (30 of them) on his self-titled album. It was a clear sign that they were trying to push him as some kind of uber-talented, authentic young prodigy.

But why? Frankly I couldn't care less whether Hayes spent what must have been days and days in the studio putting down unnecessary drum tracks, strumming his guitar and tinkling the ivories. And I think that goes for the majority of people who would listen to his music on the radio or purchase his CDs. To the ordinary man, it's irrelevant whether you played your own instruments, hired studio players or brought in your live touring band. All that ultimately matters is whether it sounds good. Not why.

I remember when I was younger and was into pop acts when my friends were getting into rock and indie bands. Criticisms levelled at my favourite artists were that they didn't play their own instruments, and, more frequently, that they didn't write their own material.

But why does it matter? Why should I care that Claire, Faye, Lisa, H and Lee didn't program the keyboards on 'Tragedy', or that Max Martin wrote 'Baby One More Time' instead of Britney? When I'm dancing, or just enjoying my music, I'm not thinking about those things - I'm just enjoying it. Similarly, why does the fact that the Red Hot Chilli Peppers played the instruments on 'Californication' or that Muse wrote 'Time Is Running Out' automatically make them better songs?

Ultimately, the thing that decides if something is a good song or not is just that - whether it's good or not, whether you enjoy it or not. Hunter Hayes is, I'm afraid to say, rather a mediocre album, and no amount of grandstanding over who played on it is going to change that.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Artist profile - Abalone Dots (Sweden)

In 2012, Västervik trio Abalone Dots will become the latest country act to try to qualify to the Eurovision Song Contest from Sweden's Melodifestivalen. Groups like Calaisa and Cookies 'N' Beans could only place 5th in their semi-finals, while in 2011 Pernilla Andersson dropped out in the second chance round. Can Abalone Dots be the first to make it to the Swedish final, or even further?

The three members of Abalone Dots are Rebecka Hjukström, Sophia Hogman and Louise Holmer. A fourth member, Elin Mörk, left the group in 2010. An abalone dot is, so I learned today, a little spot made of mother of pearl that is placed on guitar or banjo necks. There you go, who said the internet wasn't educational?

Among others, the group has collaborated with Marit Bergman, Kristofer Åström and Al Perkins, and have released four albums. Softgrass Music and Avalanche Music were independently published, but two albums have followed for Sony BMG, both of which charted in the Top 10 in Sweden. From A Safe Distance came out in 2007, followed by Traveler in 2008, the latter of which won them a Swedish Grammis for Best Folk Music.

They describe their style of music with their own term, 'softgrass', which personally think is doing themselves a disservice, as that makes it sound rather bland and un-edgy. On the contrary, there's something very authentic about their output, with expert picking and folk and bluegrass sounds adding to the Nashville vibe of their country, reminiscent of acts like SHeDAISY or even Alison Krauss, with more than a little taste of the alt-country of Kasey Chambers. The fact that the biography on their website mentions the fact that Hjukström plays the dobro in its first line is telling, and very encouraging.

The group is now reportedly working on a third album and, in a slight change of direction, some of the tracks will be recorded in Swedish, and it is one of these that has been submitted for Melodifestivalen 2012. Abalone Dots will take part in the first semi-final in Växjö on 4th February with the song 'På väg'.

Watch the video for their single 'Solo' below, and if you like that, you can check out their 2008 album Traveler on Spotify.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Country counting

The ESC Nation Message Board recently had a music competition where participants entered songs from around the world, the only criterion being that they had to have numbers in the title. It got me thinking, so here's twelve country songs, connected by nothing more than their numbers.

Bomshel - 19 and Crazy
I wish that we could always stay 19 and crazy

Barrelling along at 200mph, the vibe of this song suits its message of youth and freedom perfectly, with just a hint of the regret of growing up, but with the knowledge that a great pairing is always young at heart. I'm also a sucker for a good 'craaay-zay', and this song provides that over and over.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette - Two Story House
How sad it is, we now live, in a two story house

Playing on the typical country knack for double meanings, Jones and Wynette sing about their journey to buying their own house, before their married life disintegrates, leaving them each living their own story. The two story house shifts from being something to aspire towards to being a sad representation of their lives.

Taylor Swift - Fifteen
When you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe it

One of Taylor Swift's strengths is her skill in speaking to young people and showing just how well she knows their lives and what they're thinking, by providing just the right amount of detail and honesty among the empathy. This song is one of the best examples of that.

Kristy Lee Cook - 15 Minutes of Shame
I hope you enjoy your 15 minutes of shame

A very typical kiss-off from the American Idol 8th-placer, pretty predictable, doesn't cover any new or innovative ground - but it is a whole lot of fun... JASON!

Jessica Rae - 24 Hour Church

There's always a seat at the 24 hour church in Memphis

Independent artist Jessica Rae sings this strummy acoustic number, about a 24 hour church and all the people who find their salvation there. I've never been entirely sure if there's a subtly drawn link here between turning to God for inspiration and turning to music (and specifically Elvis), but it works with either interpretation.

Sara Evans - Three Chords and the Truth
Just when I thought I was over you, he changed my mind with three chords and the truth

The very description of country music and what it can do. The narrator is leaving her husband but when on the radio she hears a country song, she realises the error of her ways and turns back. The title refers to the two key ingredients of a country song - three chords and the truth.

Ashley Gearing - Five More Minutes
He needs five more minutes

A by-the-book example of the classic country three-verse format. In the first verse, the narrator needs 'five more minutes' with her boyfriend on the front porch, before her father wants five more minutes with his daughter on her wedding day. Someone's clearly going to die in a hospital bed in the third verse.

Jewel - Ten
By the time I get to ten I'm right back in your arms again

Even before she turned to country music, one of Jewel's greatest skills was always her way with words and turn of phrase. Here she takes the idea of counting to ten before leaving and takes the listener with her on the emotional journey of the count, from "I still want to hate you" to "take a deep breath" and "right back in your arms again".

Kathy Mattea - Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses
Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses, ten more miles on his four day run

Charlie's on his last day of driving a juggernaut, he has his retirement gift in his cab, along with a bunch of flowers and he's on the way home to "spend the rest of his life with the one that he loves". A lovely, gentle song about ordinary people and long-lasting love.

Alan Jackson - It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
It's only half past twelve, but I don't care - it's five o'clock somewhere

Neither I, nor Alan Jackson, nor Jimmy Buffett accept any responsibility for the consequences if you use this excuse with your boss.

LeAnn Rimes - One Way Ticket (Because I Can)
Gonna buy a one way ticket on a westbound train, and see how far I can go

LeAnn Rimes' only country No 1, and it came early in her career. A simple and enjoyable song combining the kiss-off and the coming-of-age, it contains one of the best key-changes in country music.

Jennifer Hanson - '73
Mom holding Dad, Dad holding me, in '73

A song that never fails to touch me. Hanson uses the standard country metaphor of looking through old photos, and remembering family times in the past, taking the listener along on a story of her childhood. On the way she chronicles her parents' divorce, Christmas in two different homes, her new half-brother and, finally, her graduation photo, where she stands, once again, flanked by both her mother and father.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Eurovision goes country

Those of you who know me will probably know that my two great musical passions are country music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Not two genres that naturally fit well together, I admit, but in this blog entry I'll take a look at nine of the songs that were entered for this year's contest (though didn't get there), which wouldn't necessarily sound out of place on US country radio.

Babel Fish – Depend On Me
Who'd sing it? Rascal Flatts

The first time I heard this song, I was immediately reminded of the group Rascal Flatts. The slightly straining falsetto in the chorus and the sentimental lyrics are very reminiscent of their work, and this song would fit right in on one of their recent albums. I'm not sure they've ever had a stage show that involved looking through the window of a cardboard house though.

Dalma – Song for Him
Who'd sing it? Gretchen Wilson

Dalma puts on the growls a little too much for them to sound authentic, but there's a decent country song at the heart of this – or possibly two or three different country songs. There's a bit of a kiss-off and there's a couple of broken hearts; I'm not so sure about the silliness at the end though – it works well enough as a song without having to be a pastiche.

Evija Sloka – Don't Stop the Dance
Who'd sing it? Pam Tillis

The lyrics are a little questionable, and the accent is all over the place, but there's no mistaking the country influences on this song that never really stood much chance of making it through a Latvian selection. Sloka lists Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson as her dream duet partners.

Hanne Sørvaag – You're Like A Melody
Who'd sing it? Jewel

In 2010, Eurovision fans were comparing Swedish singer Anna Bergendahl and her song 'This Is My Life' to Jewel's earlier work, but nowadays she'd be more likely to record songs like this Norwegian finalist. It's very much at the pop end of pop country, right where Jewel's recent albums have positioned her, and the feelgood similes hold together very well and would fit right in on contemporary country radio.

CH – Gid nid uf
Who'd sing it? Keith Urban (he basically already did!)

Other than being sung in Swiss German, this song sits right in the Keith Urban-school of country music, with pumping beats and a prominent electric guitar line, but it's grounded by the fiddle that runs right through the arrangement. The song's so committed to sounding like Keith Urban that it even steals the entire chorus melody of the Australian's 'I Told You So'.

Yohanna – Nótt
Who'd sing it? Carrie Underwood

It's not really country, but this track would fit right in on a Carrie Underwood album, particularly in its English version, with its considered lyrics and a silky melody that takes off into a crescendo for the last chorus.

Carmel Eckman - Nosa'at el ga'agu'ay
Who'd sing it? Sarah Jarosz

To be honest with you, Israel is more or less the last place where I'd expect to find a song like this. It's a gentle, acoustic ballad, with a lovely strummy guitar and a fiddle break in the middle. Unsurprisingly, it came almost last.

The Lucky Bullets – Fire Below
Who'd sing it? Justin Townes Earle

I was absolutely astounded when I first heard this in the Norwegian preselection, as it sounds so authentically rockabilly – not a hint of the slight 'foreignness' that often blights Eurovision songs that are trying to be very American. I was even more impressed when the Norwegians voted it into third place in the final, and I even got to cheer for it in person!

Pernilla Andersson – Desperados
Who'd sing it? Kathleen Edwards

Perhaps less country and more Americana than some of the songs on this list, 'Desperados' was one step away from making it into the Melodifestivalen final. The gentle chugging beat, the savoured chords and Andersson's velvety voice combine to make this my favourite song of the Eurovision season.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with the singers I've chosen to record these songs, so I invite you to post your suggestions below. And clearly, some of them would need quite a bit of changing and improvement before the singers mentioned would even consider going near them, and they might not take too kindly to being connected to them (sorry Pam Tillis!). But this is Eurovision, I have to take what I can get!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Discovering Tanya Tucker: a personal Top 10

I recently decided that I knew next to nothing about Tanya Tucker, one of the big female country artists throughout the years, and that it was time to educate myself. So I listened to several of her Greatest Hits albums; like many artists who've had long careers, Tucker has been released by several record labels, all of whom have put out their own collections of her work. So after listening to around 70 of her (supposedly) best recordings, I've chosen ten that were my favourites. It's by no means a comprehensive list, as I don't claim to have listened to all of her extensive catalogue, and I'm certainly no expert! It's just a summary of what I listened to.

And if you'd like to listen along with the list and you have Spotify, click here for a playlist.

#10 – Down To My Last Teardrop

An enjoyable example of pop-country done well, Tucker's character has cried all her tears over her man, and she won't cry anymore. Despite sounding from the title like it might be quite a sad song, it's actually a fun kiss-off number with a catchy melody, a great example of the genre.

#9 – Baby I'm Yours

This song comes from Tucker's sole release for the Arista label, 'Changes', the cover of which features her wearing the ugliest jumper known to man. Tucker sounds surprisingly childlike considering the date on this straightforward song of eternal love, with its simple call-and-response structure, but her performance is emotional and convincing.

#8 – Spring

Released by Columbia in 1975 after Tucker's move to MCA, this song was presumably recorded and not used on a previous album. It has an unusual narrative structure for a three-verse country song, but the optimistic ending works, as does Tucker's interpretation of both the good and bad times.

#7 – Strong Enough To Bend

A simple metaphor, executed simply. The tree in the backyard is never broken by the storm, because its limbs bend with the wind. The same is true of a good relationship, where both parties learn to compromise – an important lesson to be learned, that can be applied in many situations. The minimal arrangement and uncomplicated melody line complement the message well.

#6 – We Don't Have To Do This

The characters in this song would do well to learn from the lessons of 'Strong Enough To Bend'. Both partners are too proud to put aside their differences, even though the narrator agonisingly recognises that she doesn't want the relationship to be over – “Tell me where it's written that we can't change our minds”, she sings. Tucker's performance is exquisite, bringing across the despair and sense of horrible inevitability in the song perfectly.

#5 – What's Your Mama's Name

The painful story of a man who spends thirty years trying to track down his lost love and their child, going to prison for child-grooming and being driven to drink in the process, this song manages to be catchy and sing-along despite the dark subject matter – a frequent theme of much of Tucker's early work.

#4 – Texas (When I Die)

An iconic song that really set the scene for some of the singers who have been popular in recent years, like Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert. This song's just a whole lot of fun to listen, and shows a different side to Tucker's voice to many of the songs on this list.

#3 – Delta Dawn

Tucker's first single, and reflective of the complex material she would tackle during her career, particularly during her younger years. At the age of just 13, Tucker's already found her distinctive, mature voice on this recording and it's incredibly powerful. Perhaps best known to international and younger audiences as the song where Monica's shirt goes see-through at the piano bar in Friends.

#2 – Two Sparrows In a Hurricane

A beautiful song, one that could have just been a standard 'lovers making it against the odds' ditty, but is set apart by an expressive performance and a skilful use of the three-verse structure, juxtaposing and comparing the youth and age of the characters through the near-identical first and third verses. The end-result is something that feels almost quite life-affirming, and always makes me feel happy and content.

#1 – Lizzie and the Rainman

Easily top of my list before I even started putting it together. The characters in this song are so strongly drawn that I even looked up the song to see if it was based on a true story. Tucker's performance is brilliant, with strains of a gospel preacher complemented by the choir behind her, and the arrangement is exquisite. Try listening to it through headphones to hear the sounds of the rain, the violin glissandos and the beating of the drums going around your head that uses the best effects of stereo to make the whole scenario feel real and present. All the elements come together to produce an excellent song.

So, do you agree? If you're a fan of Tanya Tucker, would you have put different songs on this list? And if I've managed to introduce you to her music, would you have ranked them in this way? I'd be interested to see what people think.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

What do I know or care about your backwoods?

A recurrent theme on country music blogs in recent weeks has been debating what makes country music truly country. One criticism often levelled is how obligatory it has become in the last couple of years on country radio to shout out about how country you, the person, are, and how artificial and forced this is.

"All day, you've been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It's been 'dirt road' this and 'back road' that, and 'party in the woods' this and 'redneck, hillbilly' that.
"I don't believe you"

To me, it's perhaps less about the issue of the music itself 'not really being country' (or rather, while sometimes it is, that's not what I'm going to focus on in this blog entry). It's more about how this focus on 'being a real country boy' excludes people like me. I'm a fan of country music, and have been for a few years (though not as long as many), but I'm not from the country. Hell, I'm not even from America. Therefore, I don't really care much about that big green tractor you probably didn't actually drive around, or the backwoods you've probably never driven out to in your pick-up with a keg on the back. Because I can't identify with that. And I really don't appreciate being told that 'the countryside is the only place you'll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women'*.

What I can identify with is stories. Stories about real people and real emotions. Stories about life's struggles and dilemmas, about loss and heartache, about what's wrong but feels right. It's what Reba McEntire does so right. So many of her songs are identifiable to so many people, and she sings them like she's experienced them, like they're her own words of wisdom. She doesn't need to shout at me about how she's so country. She just is. I can tell that by listening to her music. Someone else who is clearly identifiable as country, from her own songwriting this time, is Taylor Swift. Sure, she's basically a pop singer – again, it's not about the music 'not being country' here. It's about telling those stories about real people, and that's what Swift pulls off every time.

But, you could argue, why is it a problem? Why can't I just ignore this music that I don't like? And it's a fair argument, I really could. But the problem for me is, I know country music can do better. Sure, I could hunt it down on the dwindling independent recordings, but I don't want to have to do that. I want to be able to hear it on the radio, and in the mainstream. I don't want to go to a bar in Nashville and effectively be insulted for being who I am.

In addition, I know that the artists themselves can do better. Blake Shelton's first few albums are great, full of complex themes and strong melodies, before they degenerate into the Hillbilly Bone posturing of the last few years. Jason Aldean's The Truth is an excellent song, passionately delivered and full of real emotion that anyone can identify with (and he even pretends to be away in the city!). Effectively, it's a selfish wish on my behalf: I want country music to be what I want it to be – the real people and the real stories I fell in love with.

I'd also add as a postscript that much of the problem is that I feel these songs are relying on the hook of 'I'm a true country boy and I'm proud of it, the country is the best place on earth' to substitute for actually having a good song. Because there are songs that play on this and also have engaging melodies and arrangements that build to a crescendo to really engage the listener and complement the lyrical themes. An example I'd give (and I know this is where I'm going to lose a lot of people) is Jason Michael Carroll's Where I'm From. The song is sappy, completely typical and predictable once you know the formula and even mentions the big C word (Brad Paisley would be proud). But I love it. The emotion in it gets me every time, even if that emotion is totally manipulative. And that's the key for me – country music is about emotions, and it's about people and it's about storytelling.

*this quote is stolen from CM Wilcox over at Thanks for summing up how I feel so succinctly!