Album Review – Rascal Flatts: Back to Us
Rascal Flatts return to their roots with their tenth studio album, Back to Us. The country trio are well known for their spot-on harmonies, impressive guitar skills and energetic live show and their latest effort showcases the best of each of these qualities.
Their 10-track album kicks off with lead single, “Yours If You Want It,” which recalls early Rascal Flatts with their sing-along chorus and upbeat music. Other tracks, like the heartbreaking piano-driven “I Know You Won’t,” highlight Gary LeVox’s emotive vocals and brings to mind previous No. 1 hit “What Hurts the Most” with his ability to reel the listener into the lives of the characters within the song.
“I Know You Won’t,” written by Steve McEwan, Wendell Lee Mobley and Neil Thrasher, details a man trying his best to move on from a relationship that appears to be at the end of its lifespan. “I know you don’t mean to be mean to me / ‘Cause when you want to, you can make me feel like we belong,” LeVox sings softly.
Meanwhile, the catchy “Hopin’ You Were Lookin'” portrays the opposite situation as a man finds himself tripping over his feet as he falls for a new girl. Stuck in traffic, the girl has him pulling over to the side of the rode hoping for a chance to talk to her. Written by Dan + Shay with Cary Barlowe and Jesse Frasure, the infectious hand-clapped rhythms and LeVox’s rapid singing style make this a surefire radio hit. “Put your number in my phone / We can be so classic / June and Johnny Cash it,” LeVox sings on the catchy track.
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Album Review – RaeLynn: Wild Horse
Fans have been waiting for RaeLynn’s debut album ever since she first appeared on the country music scene as a contestant on The Voice in 2012. The “God Made Girls” singer’s life has changed dramatically since her reality-television days, including a marriage and a record label change, all of which and more she documents on her coming-of-age album, WildHorse.
“This album contains songs I’ve written over the last four years, from when I was 18 to 22” RaeLynn shares. “So I like to think of it as my college record. The person you are as a freshman is very different from who you are as a senior and in these four years, I’ve gone from a teenager who moved to Nashville, to writing and recording an album and getting married.”
Producers and co-writer contributors, Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins, blend RaeLynn’s undeniably country voice with pop-themed production to create a fresh sound all her own. She is a featured writer on 11 out of 12 tracks on the project, showing off her ability to create catchy melodies while telling her own story.
The autobiographical title track sets the tone of the record as RaeLynn is unapologetically herself in this cut and throughout the entire track list. “WildHorse” is destined to be the theme song for the Texas native’s female fans as they relate to the poppy tune with the confidence-boosting message.
“Diamonds” is a love song for her husband, Josh Davis. “A diamond is just a diamond until you put it on the right left hand,” the chorus sings. The intimate track is light and airy, making it fun to sing along with. Label mates Dan + Shay make a guest appearance on fellow love song, “Say.” Both parties take turns providing harmonies and taking choruses for this ballad and the result is magical.
On the contrary, RaeLynn also uncovers the complications of relationships on the album in tracks “The Apple,” “Lonely Call,” “Trigger” and “Graveyard.” The latter stands out for its interesting sound and unforgettable imagery. The premise of the track is she’s burying her heart because of someone that broke it, a gripping concept on such a common situation.
“Young” is sure to be a fan-favorite and potential follow-up single. The live-while-we’re-young mentality shines through and is relatable to her audience that is deciphering the in-between of figuring it all out and having it all together.
The lead single from WildHorse, “Love Triangle,” is the focal point of the record and stands out among the rest for its clever play on words and brutal honesty about a tough reality. “Love Triangle” is country music storytelling at its finest and country radio is better because of it.
Overall, RaeLynn’s WildHorse serves as a standout debut and was well worth the wait.
WildHorse is available at digital retailers now.
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Album Review: Josh Turner: Deep South
The weather is getting warmer – well, wait a minute. Check that. The winter season in Tennessee has been quite warmer than usual. But still, as February becomes March, one’s attention turns to sunshine and the water. Whether it be the river, the creek bank, or the beach, there’s something about the bright ray of sunshine looking down on the water that makes for good times.
With his sixth studio album, Josh Turner delivers a project that should serve as the perfect soundtrack for those perfect spring days. In a sense, you could almost call this a concept album, as many of the songs pay tribute to life beyond the borders of the Mason-Dixon line, the pursuits of romance, and the allure of the water.
The title cut takes listeners on a ride through all things southern, setting the stage quite nicely for other tracks such as “Beach Bums,” “Southern Drawl,” and the radio-ready “Where The Girls Are.” I really think that the latter might very well be one of the biggest hits on this disc from an airplay standpoint, joining the current top-20 hit “Hometown Girl” as the best bets for success.
As is the case with any Josh Turner record, one will find an ample serving of love songs, and the South Carolina native delivers here. “All About You” and “Never Had A Reason To” both sparkle with the down-home simplicity that Turner has always specialized in. Perhaps the pick of this certain litter is the laid-back feel of the heartfelt “One Like Mine.”
The biggest departures on this album turn out to be the tracks that seem the most memorable. “Hawaiian Girl” sounds like it could very well be a Jimmy Buffett album cut, but Turner’s voice makes the song work, with his low vocal tones giving this one a heavy dose of personality. “Wonder” is a new angle for the singer, as his ballads in the past have all been straight-ahead love songs. On this track, the singer laments the break-up of a previous relationship, and asks the question “What if?’ while taking full responsibility for how things turned out. It’s a new role for the singer, and one that he handles very well.
Deep South is a celebration of all the things that Josh Turner has come to be depended on musically, and the singer doesn’t disappoint. The chances that he takes on this record show that he isn’t afraid of new challenges, sounds, or themes. Fifteen years into his career, that’s a very good place to be!
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Album Review: Lauren Alaina: Road Less Traveled
Lauren Alaina has been a voice to be reckoned with since her runner-up success on American Idol in 2011, and in her latest project, Road Less Traveled, she proves she isn’t going anywhere. The 22-year-old entertainer opens herself to vulnerability throughout her album, exploring tough themes of divorce, alcoholism, body-image issues and growing up in the music industry.
It has been over five years since Alaina has released a full-length project. By the sounds of it, Road Less Traveled was carefully crafted together with no intention of rushing the creative process. The album is proof of the maturing the Georgia-native has gone through and results in a genuine piece of art.
The 12-track project also inhibits girl-power anthems and flirty tunes, four of which were featured on her self-titled EP released the fall of 2015. On every song, Alaina earns a songwriting credit, making each song come off more personal. Production on the record can be best described as modern and consistent. It definitely allows opportunities for Alaina’s voice to hold the spotlight.
Vulnerability is key in tracks “Same Day Different Bottle,” which speaks of her father’s alcoholism, and “Doin’ Fine.” The latter story-song takes us through her parent’s divorce, but adds a positive twist of acknowledging that it’s okay not to be okay.
“I’m fine enough to know that everyone’s a little broken / Fine enough to learn that hearts are best when they’re wide open,” she sings.
“Three” is a tear-jerker. Though not likely to be a single, this ballad stands out among the rest as Alaina explores all she has missed in the pursuit of following her dreams. Though many of us can’t directly relate to chasing a musical career, “Three” still appeals to anyone who has left home to go after what they want and missing milestones along the way. Her honesty and emotions are evident through the power of her voice, marking a noteworthy three-and-a-half minutes.
Alaina branches out of emotional tunes to deliver “My Kinda People,” “Queen of Hearts” and “Next Boyfriend,” which all keep it light, fun and can serve as summertime anthems. “Think Outside the Boy” and “Crashing the Boys Club” appeal directly to female empowerment and should be heard by girls everywhere. She serves as a role model, reminding fans that there is life way beyond boys and being a female doesn’t hold you back from doing anything.
In 2016 Alaina came out about her battle with bulimia. She expresses what she went through in “Pretty” as well as title track, and current single, “Road Less Traveled.” In both songs, as well as in real life, she comes out triumphant. The feel-good songs bring the album full circle showing how far she has come since her days as an American Idol.
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Album Review: Garth Brooks: Gunslinger
If you take a second to step back and analyze it, Garth Brooks has a lot of competition for concert tickets and radio airplay these days. Of course, competing with the likes of Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban are nothing new, as he vied with fellow Hall of Famers George Strait and Reba McEntire for attention back in the 1990s. So, he’s used to that. But, perhaps Brooks’ biggest competition is his own legacy, sewn in iconic fashion with hits such as “The Dance” and “Friends In Low Places,” which still get plenty of play on Country radio. How does one compete with that? Do you stick with what made you a legend – or try to appeal to the younger demo? A tough question to answer, for sure.
In 2014, Brooks returned to the music scene with Man Against Machine. A fine album in parts, “She’s Tired Of Boys” and “Tacoma” being two obvious highlights, the album failed to light any fires at radio. There are many reasons for this, but at times Brooks sounded on the fence – debating whether to adapt his sound to the current audience, or stay true to what brought him to the dance initially.
There are no doubts that Brooks hit that stride successfully with Gunslinger. From the start, you can tell that the singer is simply in a zone he’s comfortable with. “Honky Tonk Somewhere” brings to mind some of George Jones’ Musicor work. It’s by far the most traditional song we’ve heard from the CMA Entertainer of the Year, and it’s not making any social statement. It’s just fun – and the musicianship is as stellar as Brooks’ vocal approach. That traditional element is all over the disc.
“Whiskey To Wine,” a duet with wife Trisha Yearwood, might very well be the best pure Country performance that the singer has ever turned in. Of course, having Yearwood by his side doesn’t hurt. Earlier this month, the two performed versions of several classic duets on the CMA Awards. I have a feeling this one might get such treatment in about thirty years. “Cowboys and Friends” also scores with a down home approach. When he’s singing in that vein, there are few better.
But, he also has a way with ballads. “Ask Me How I Know” oozes with pain and regret about how pride can get in the way of making a relationship work. Brooks makes it work with one of his deepest performances. This has radio – but also that Brooks sound – written all over it. He also hits the right emotional chord with the stunning “He Really Loves You,” about a man who has trouble admitting just how deep his feelings go – until he thinks it might be too late. It’s one of those compositions that you have to listen to until the end, as the song’s climax features somewhat of a twist.
Of course, Brooks is already riding high on the charts with the first single, “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance,” and the song has been a sonic treat on the airwaves this fall. Bottom line, it’s just fun. He also goes for the same feeling – and succeeds with the fiery “Bang Bang,” which is three minutes of pure thrills.
I don’t know, maybe I got Man Against Machine wrong. But, with Gunslinger, I think it’s evident that Garth has got his groove back. I think any of these tracks could work on The Chase, In Pieces, or Sevens, three of his finest albums of the 1990s, while also giving him a strong chance at picking up some more steam at radio to add to his already impressive résumé.
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Album Review: Florida Georgia Line: Dig Your Roots
What do Ziggy Marley, the Backstreet Boys and Tim McGraw have in common? If you answered, "They're all guest contributors on Florida Georgia Line's third studio album, Dig Your Roots," go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back.
Though the duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley technically lands in the country category, those two guys aren't afraid to blur the boundaries between their chosen genre and a whole bunch of others. Rock, rap and reggae stylings all find their way into Florida Georgia Line's hybrid sound.
If the group's sound is a smorgasbord of styles, however, the lyrical subject matter here is country through and through. Which is to say that on any given track, we might get a tip o' the hat to God, girls or gin.
"God, Your Mama, and Me" vows faithful, life-giving love: "Never gonna run dry, never gonna come up empty/Now until the day I die, unconditionally/No one's ever gonna love you more than/God, your mama and me." Elsewhere, the song mentions going to church and praying together. "Lifer" focuses on working through conflict to move to a place of deeper commitment in marriage: "I'm you're man and you my lady/Baby, I'm a lifer, I ain't goin' nowhere/Told you since day one I had to wife ya'." We also get another shout-out to prayer ("Make more time for prayer and the Man upstairs") as well as this poignant praise for who we become in marriage: "I believe I ain't me without you walkin' out in that white dress/Life without you is useless."
"While He's Still Around" will have you reaching for a box of tissues as a man describes his desire to make the most of the time he has left with his father: "While he's still around/I'm gonna take him out to fish/So we can catch up on those stories/That we ain't got to yet/ … 'Cause you never know when the phone is gonna ring/Sayin' heaven had it out to make you wings." "Grow Old" is next up on the tearjerker list, as we're treated to a litany of all the things a young husband is looking forward to as he ages gracefully with his beloved wife.
There's more of the same on the title track, "Dig Your Roots": "Fall in love, plant some seeds/Carve some names in the family tree/Raise your kids, love your wife/Put god first, just to live your life." The song also seems to reference someone's deceased father and grandfather: "Yeah, a good ol' boy, just like my old man/Every night when I'm singing/I know he's looking down/Up there next to Paw Paw/Get the best seats in the house."
"May We All" celebrates patriotism, perseverance and the glories of growing up in a small town.
Is a woman supposed to feel good about being compared to a horse, a famous singer, a car or jelly? Florida Georgia Line apparently thinks the answer to that question is yes on "Smooth," where a woman's curves evoke lines about a "Tennessee Walker," a "Sunday-morning Elvis," a "Caddy from Cali" and "blackberry jam." That combination prompts the guys to exclaim, "Girl, you're put together perfectly/Good lord almighty/Girl, you go down good/ … There ain't nobody/'A do me like you/The way you move that body/Girl, you're so smooth."
A man and a woman at a bar get handsy on "Island": "It's just me and you, back corner booth, we're sitting on the same seat/Got my hands all over you, and, yeah, girl, you're all over me/Like nobody's watching us, baby, let them all see." Similarly, "Summerland" combines drinking, smoking pot, skinny dipping and sex on a beach somewhere on the Gulf coast. Among other things, we hear that a man is "high as a kite," as he tells us, "With my hands where the sun don't tan/Don't you worry 'bout the sand/ … I'm gonna kiss you till tomorrow/And I'm gonna do it all night." The same combination of liquor, marijuana and sex turns up on "Heatwave."
"H.O.L.Y." stands for "high on loving you." The acronym alone is problematic, and the balance of the song is more so as it fuses spiritual themes to romantic, sexually suggestive imagery: "You're the river bank where I was baptized/Cleansed from the demons/That were killing my freedom/Let me lay you down, give me to ya'/Got you singing, babe, hallelujah." The chorus itself gets pretty close to one of the most beloved hymns in the Christian tradition when Florida Georgia Line repeatedly describes this woman like this: "You're holy, holy, holy, holy." Elsewhere, the otherwise inspiring song "Music Is Healing" overstates the power and influence of music when the band sings, "Your song is playin'/It's gonna save ya'."
"Good Girl, Bad Boy" could be heard as a cautionary tale. Still, it does involve a faithful church-attending woman falling for a drunken "bad boy": "And every time she's with him, all she wants to do kiss him/Starts thinking maybe she can fix him/He's thinking he'd love to let her try." Despite its commitment to marital unity, "Lifer" nonetheless repeatedly describes the conflicts a couple faces with the s-word. (Profanities elsewhere on the album include a few uses each of "h---" and "d--mit.") We also get some winking allusions to marital sex in "Lifer" as well as "Grow Old."
One of my favorite songs on Florida Georgia Line's latest album is "Grow Old," where we hear about a husband's tender hopes for a lifetime of marriage. But there's a line in that song that also gets at the paradox of the album as a whole: "Talk our babies through the bad dreams/When they get a little older, we'll tell them not to drink."
It's a great sentiment on a sentimental song. And it's hardly the only such weepy moment on an album that often exalts marriage, faithfulness, parenthood, God, church and family.
And yet like so many other country albums, one second we're getting nods to setting limits on kids' behaviors while the next we're wading through lyrics about getting stoned and drunk before having sex on a beach. Which means that if these guys take their own advice when it comes to what they teach their own kids about certain reckless behaviors, they may one day have some 'splaining to do.
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