26 November 2007

2007 Greatest Hits

Since 2007 has seen so many hits packages in country music, I thought I'd take a blog to run 'em down.  Here goes, in original release order:

Gary Allan Greatest Hits (3/6/07)The problem here is that Gary Allan has always been a stronger album artist than he has been a singles artist. Smoke Rings in the DarkSee If I Care and Tough All Over stand strong as solid, rewarding albums as anyone has released in the same time period.  Yet, somehow, Greatest Hits, despite drawing chiefly from these three albums, is not greater than the sum of its parts.  Maybe the exclusion of singles that didn't fare well on the charts (like "From Where I'm Sitting") from his earlier works has to do with the perfunctory feel of this collection, given that in concert (where Allan really shines) he's still prone to playing album cuts.  Perhaps it's the generic quality of the two new recordings, "Feelin' Like That" and "As the Crow Flies" that has to do with the disappointment of this hits volume.  Recommended as an introduction to Gary's music only, and even then I would strongly advise one of the previously cited albums over this collection.

Alison Krauss A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection 4/3/07
Not strictly a hits collection, but rather a collection of recordings, A Hundred Miles or More is akin to Dwight Yoakam's Dwight's Used Records and In Others' Words compilations.  Essentially, these are songs that Krauss has recorded in recent years, but not for her own albums.  There's material from tribute albums, soundtracks, other people's albums...pretty much everything except commercial jingles, but that's probably because she hasn't recorded any.  Like those Yoakam collections, though, somehow the collection manages to work quite well.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the quality of work Krauss has turned in over the years that songs recorded entirely independent of one another can manage to feel like a solitary volume.  Still, if you're looking for an introduction to Krauss's material, or at least a primer in case you're going to see her in concert for the first time, look elsewhere.  This volume is really more of a companion piece to a Krauss library.

Sara Evans Greatest Hits 10/9/07Sara Evans has become a strong presence on radio in the last ten years, and a trip down memory lane via herGreatest Hits package makes one ask, "Has it really been ten years?"  Then one reflects on the decade since her debut and wonders how it is that in ten years' worth of singles, the absence of only one is even noticeable ("Backseat of a Greyhound Bus").  Upon closer inspection, though, like Gary Allan, several singles are missing from her earlier years, but one could argue against their inclusion based on their chart success (or lack thereof).  Unlike Gary Allan's missing early singles, hers aren't as keenly felt here, perhaps because her image and sound have transformed so radically over the course of five albums.  So the question remains, is this package intended for new fans making their first purchase of Sara Evans's music or the loyal fans who already own most of this volume?  With only fourteen tracks, and four of them new, this is one of those rare hits packages that manages to somehow cater to both demographics.

Garth Brooks The Ultimate Hits 11/6/07
I've written much about The Ultimate Hits already, but here I would like to note where this set addresses the two primary question of a hits collection: Is it better for new listeners or hardcore fans?  The answer is, honestly, either.  Fans new to Garth's music will be hard pressed to find a more economical way of surveying his entire career, though to be honest new fans should really start with The Entertainer DVD package since live shows were where Garth made his name.  Older fans will find four new recordings, each rewarding in its own, along with a hit-or-miss DVD with a music video for 33 of the 34 songs on the CD's ("Leave a Light On" is classified as a "bonus track" and therefore exempt from receiving a video).  The DVD collects nine music videos with a ton of concert special excerpts; it wears a little thin re-watching many of the same performances from the same specials again, but there are performances from two of CBS's three Garth Brooks Coast to Coast specials sprinkled throughout to spice things up.

George Strait 22 More Hits 11/13However impressive Garth Brooks's 34 song The Ultimate Hits is, perhaps even more impressive is Strait's 22 More Hits.  Is it twelve songs shorter?  Yes.  But consider that these 22 songs include staples such as "Unwound," "Amarillo by Morning" and "The Cowboy Rides Away"...and these were songs that didn't make it to Strait's previously issued 50 Number Ones by virtue of not having hit 1 on at least one major trade chart.  That's right...these are the "not good enoughs" of George Strait's illustrious career.

For most artists, a career spanning collection like this would be a monumental achievement.  For King George, it's just another reminder how consistently good he's been over the years.  Unlike 50 Number Ones22 More Hits is not sequenced chronologically, nor does it include any new material.  In fact, the album opening "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls" seems out of place as it's the only single Strait has issued since 50 Number Ones to be included.  Serious Strait fans already own these songs, but will probably appreciate having them remastered, as many of the older songs haven't been remastered since their initial issue on CD quite some time ago.  Newer Strait fans would benefit more from 50 Number Ones, but that's not to say 22 More Hits isn't just as good; it's just not as prolific.

Keith Urban Greatest Hits: 18 Kids 11/20
To be honest, I don't have this volume yet.  Still, I thought I'd remark that I am impressed by at least one part of it: They did not include the album versions of most songs, as nearly every other hits package has done over the years.  This is nice as an Urban fan, because when I do get around to buying a copy of his Greatest Hits, I won't be getting the exact same versions of most of these songs I already have on his albums.  And, given that Urban has become self-indulgent in regards to running times of his songs, radio edits are nice for someone who often makes his own playlist and would rather have four three-minute songs than three four-minute songs.  (Or, in Urban's case, four three-minute songs instead of two six-minute songs.)  That fact, plus the two new recordings and the option of buying a limited edition of the CD with accompanying DVD (with a video for each song that had one) means that new and old fans alike can find a reason to add 18 Kids to their Keith Urban library.

07 November 2007

Carrie Underwood - "Carnival Ride"

Carnival Ride
Carrie Underwood
Date of Release: 23 October 2007

Being that Carrie Underwood is a 24 year old living The Dream, it is really no surprise that Carnival Ride exudes youthful optimism and ideals. "Crazy Dream" and "Wheel of the World" are both celebrations of dreamers and the mysteries of life, and while neither necessarily says anything new about the subject, it is clear that is how they appear to Underwood and her audience. To say the songs are naive would be too harsh, but there is an element of innocence present, which is why two songs on this set really do stand out.

The first standout is "Last Name," a story song in which the point of view character goes out, gets drunk and runs off to Vegas with some guy. This easily recalls Alan Jackson's "I Don't Even Know Your Name," but somehow having the young woman who sang "Jesus, Take the Wheel" telling the story makes it all the more appealing. Hopefully, this one warrants commercial release as a single with accompanying video. Drunken Carrie Underwood is a sight the world needs, even if it's staged.

Much of Underwood's audience is probably too young to even know why the second standout song means so much, and the song is Randy Travis's "I Told You So." Travis originally wrote and recorded the song an astounding twenty years ago for his second album, Always & Forever. His original version's legacy isn't threatened by this pop-influenced arrangement, but that's not the point. Maybe Underwood grew up with Randy Travis and this just happened to be the song she picked, but if her next album could find some modern day "I Told You Sos" her already bright star will shine a little bit more.

Toby Keith - "Big Dog Daddy"

Big Dog Daddy
Toby Keith
CD Release Date: 12 June 2007

The artist who writes for himself lives and dies by his own hand.  Such is true of Toby Keith, who has written for himself since day one.  Starting with 1999's How Do You Like Me Now?! breakthrough, Keith's output has been almost staggering.  Big Doggy Daddy is the sixth studio album he's released since then, and that doesn't include his second greatest hits package or the soundtrack album to his film, Broken Bridges.  If nothing else, you have to hand it to Toby Keith for keeping new product out there on a pretty consistent basis.

And yet...There is a sense throughout Big Dog Daddy that Toby, the songwriter, has run out of things to say.  He has often spun a catchphrase into a song, scoring hits such as "Who's Your Daddy" in the process.  Which is why hearing him resort to a song built entirely around the phrase, "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya" so disappointing.  "Get My Drink On,""Pump Jack" and "Hit It" are supposed to be club anthems, but they're too generic.  The title song, "Big Dog Daddy" is similarly generic, only the tune is a near-plagiarism of "Johnny B. Goode."  Perhaps now that Toby works for himself there's no one standing over his shoulder to say, "One more draft."  There should be, because the only song from this set that really seems to have taken Toby more than five minutes to make up in the shower is the second single, "Love Me If You Can."

"Love Me If You Can" might just be the best written song Toby has had in a few albums now; certainly, its novelty lies in that it's not a novelty song.  His earlier career was full of songs like "Dream Walkin'," "Who's That Man" and "Me Too," and while there's nothing to complain about his vocals, the quality of the songs just hasn't been there for a while now.  "Love Me" is a strong step back in that direction, even if the rest of the album takes nine steps back afterward.

Mary Gauthier - "Between Daylight and Dark"

Between Daylight and Dark
Mary Gauthier
CD Release Date: 18 September 2007

Between Daylight and Dark, as a title, calls to mind twilight, that unusual part of the day when the daily grind gives way to night life.  Oddly, none of the ten songs of this set really explore either.  "Snakebit" is a swampy sounding song with very dark lyrics about a life of seediness and violence.  That it opens the album is interesting, because it's the sort of thing that would be quietly tucked away in the interior of most albums.  Whomever sequenced the album need not have worried that "Snakebit" would have been lost elsewhere in the album; it's the only song of the ten that has its own sound.

It's not that the acoustic, folk nature of the album is unappealing.  It's not that Mary Guathier's scratchy Louisiana vocals are monotonous.  The problem is that the songs just don't seem to be different from one another.  Part of the problem may be that six of the ten songs have a running time of at least five minutes.  Perhaps the old standard of three minutes for commercial airplay is unnecessarily restrictive, but there does come a point as a listener when the importance of editing becomes apparent.  Simply put, there is nothing about any of these songs that really demands to keep going.  They just...do.

Between Daylight and Dark is hardly an album designed for driving or hosting friends.  It does, however, lend itself to a quiet night by yourself, perhaps with a bourbon and Coke, and maybe a cigar.  There is clear promise at work throughout the album, though.  Gauthier's vocals never try to strongarm the lyrics, and the arrangements are inviting.  Perhaps on her next album, though, she will explore more sounds and moods and give us an album that takes us different places.

Note: I received this CD free as a member of the Lost Highway Street Team.

06 November 2007

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - "Follow the Lights" EP

Follow the Lights
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
EP Release Date: 23 October 2007 
List Price: $7.85

Follow the Lights is something of a filler EP for Ryan Adams.  Released just months after the full album Easy TigerFollow the Lights is neither an extension of that album nor does it feel like a precursor to his next.  Rather, this EP plays out like a brief little album all its own.  This feels like a jam session or garage band practice, only done by a completely professional band.  The songs are all fairly consistent in mood and sound, and like a middle school dance, it's hard to know when one song has ended and another begun.  Perhaps the most noticeable element of Follow the Lights is Brad Pemberton's drum kit.  It's front and center, not muted the way drums usually are on albums, and this has the effect of bringing to mind an intimate bar setting, dimly lit and probably not smokey because, well, no one can smoke in bars anymore, it seems.

This is the kind of music you want to hear while you're on your fifth screwdriver of the night and your buddies are all into something off to the side and all you want to do is just get lost in the music...  And then, just as it would happen in real life, the moment is ruined.  Only it's not your drunk buddies who won't shut up that ruin it, it's the fact that at only seven songs, you just don't get that much music in which to lose yourself.

Note: I received this CD free as a member of the Lost Highway Street Team.

Bon Jovi - "Lost Highway"

Lost Highway
Bon Jovi
CD Release Date: 19 June 2007

Lost Highway is Bon Jovi's first album explicitly marketed as a country release.  A title straight from Hank Williams isn't a bad start, and while Bon Jovi's album bears little resemblance to Lovesick, it easily holds its own against modern Nashville.  In fact, what becomes unclear is just how much Bon Jovi "went country" and how much country has "gone rock" in the last couple of decades.  Certainly, any of the songs on this album would have been comfortable fits for artists such as Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban.

Maybe that's what makes Lost Highway simultaneously an enjoyable listen and a disappointment.  While there are no songs whose lyrics demand particularly close inspection, they do reflect maturely on life (especially on the album opener, "Lost Highway") and love (the particularly well crafted duet with LeAnn Rimes, "Till We Ain't Strangers Anymore").  The arrangements are all fairly clear and don't overwhelm; the one cut on the album where the production is conspicuous is "We Got It Going On," which features Big & Rich, so it's perfectly natural that the song burst at the seams with instrumentation and distractions.  Commercially, there is absolutely no reason each and every song on Lost Highway couldn't reach the top of the country radio charts.

And that's the rub.  Somehow, Lost Highway is so perfectly crafted as a mainstream country album that it leaves one wondering how much Bon Jovi went into it.  There's something a little too familiar to a country audience to this album that begs the question why Bon Jovi had to be the artist.  It's the musical equivalent of an A-list actor being cast in an adaptation of a well known book and you want to see something special in his performance, but then he plays it straight and you think, "Well, anyone could've done it that way.  I wanted to see you do something more...you."  Still, this is a minor caveat.  On the whole, the album is enjoyable and if Bon Jovi is interested in pursuing a crossover career, Lost Highway makes an impressive inroads.

05 November 2007

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band - "It's Not Big It's Large"

It's Not Big, It's Large
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
CD Release Date: 28 August 2007
List Price: $11.98 (Deluxe Edition: $16.98)

Perhaps no album in the history of recorded music has been more accurately titled than It's Not Big, It's Large.  Including Lyle Lovett, the Large Band numbers nineteen musicians (counting from those pictured in the booklet and promotional material), and that doesn't include guest artist Guy Clark.  The album opens with an instrumental number, "Tickle Toe," which is fun, loose and energetic.  That full sound and enthusiasm is sustained throughout most of the album, making for an easy-to-get-into listening experience.

Throughout the album, Lovett explores coming of age in Texas ("South Texas Girl"), love ("Up in Indiana"), spirituality ("I Will Rise Up/Ain't No More Cane") and the prospect that things might have peaked ("All Downhill").  Lovett's vocals are relaxed, yet raspy, and slide comfortably through the varying moods of the album.  It's Not Big, It's Large was recorded in a studio, and yet one can't help but wish to hear this material performed in concert live, in album sequence.

It's Not Big, It's Large is perfectly suited for anything from a wine party to doing housework in the middle of the afternoon.  Its energy and thoughtful lyrics are engaging throughout, and the only real problem with the album is that it ends.  Fortunately, it takes little effort to simply hit "play" again.

Note: I received this CD free as a member of the Lost Highway Street Team.

Norah Jones - "Not Too Late"

Not Too Late
Norah Jones
Original release date: 30 January 2007
CD list price: $18.98

Not Too Late may as well have been called Corpse Bride: Alternate Soundtrack.  Between the melancholy, often morose lyrics and the alternatively dreary and bombastic arrangements, this album feels as though it were Jones' tribute to Danny Elfman more than an artistic outgrowth of her own.  The album's opening number, "Wish I Could," tells of a woman who has not only lost her love to time and another woman, but to war.  It is a peculiar album opener, in that it does not instantly draw one's ear to the album.  In truth, on nearly any other album, this kind of song would be toward the middle or end.  The fact that Jones starts with it is telling; this is not an album meant for the background while you do housework.  This is a work of art and much as one cannot appreciate Claude Monet's efforts to create a snapshot with paint in one glance, one must truly listen to connect with Not Too Late.

Lyrically, as mentioned above, Not Too Late walks the line between melancholy and morose.  Indeed, one of the most upbeat lines from the entire album is on "Little Room": "There's bars on the window and if there was a fire, we'd burn up for sure/But that's just fine by me because we would be together ever more."  "My Dear Country" starts with a description of the ghosts of Halloween, and how quickly they were overshadowed by something far more sinister: Election Day.  It's at first unclear whether the song is in jest, but soon  Jones scathingly takes the media to task, remarking that they "know less than what they say," and bemoans the absence of a hero candidate.

If there is one chief complaint about Not Too Late, it might be that by its conclusion, the album feels dark.  Sometimes, a darker album makes sense in an artist's career (a perfect example being Gary Allan's Tough All Over, made in response to his wife's suicide).  Not Too Late leaves one wondering not what Jones was feeling or thinking while producing this album, but rather where she will go next.  Will she continue down this darker path, or will this album excise whatever demons rattled around in her this go-round?

For dedicated fans, there is a deluxe edition with an accompanying DVD, and you can also purchase five live tracks from iTunes.