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Luke CombsAlbum Review: Luke Combs ‘Growin' Up’

Billboard.com

Combs tries adulting on for size — and finds he likes it. On his Grammy-nominated third studio album, Combs arrives on the other side of 30 and decides to “dig into this life thing,” as he told Billboard earlier this year. With his trademark husky twang, Combs looks at regrets on ballad “Tomorrow Me” and the spirited “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” a duet with Miranda Lambert. Meanwhile, long-term commitment works well for Combs on “The Kind of Love We Make,” while he serves up a love letter to his fans on “Doin’ This,” about how he would still be performing no matter how many –or few — people showed up. Though largely autobiographical, Combs looks at life’s milestones through a lens relatable to all.

Rollingstone.com

Luke Combs wants you to know one thing: He’s a regular guy. He might be playing songs that immediately become playlist staples, but those ballads and rockers are, he maintains, the same ones he’d be playing if he were only outfitted with, as he croons on the opening track of his third album, Growin’ Up, “tips in a jar, my guitar, and an old barstool.” The 32-year-old North Carolinian, reigning Country Music Entertainer of the Year, stadium headliner, and holder of multiple platinum records, is trying hard to not be starstruck by his own success. Mostly, it works.

While similar claims of humility from megastars can come off as a bit far-fetched, the dozen songs on Growin’ Up bear out the just-from-the-heart assertions that appear on the slow-burning “Doin’ This.” Combs adds just enough modern-day brawn to Nashville songwriting ideals to make the LP an enjoyable, and at times moving, spin through his world of small-town bars and big-hearted people.

On Growin’ Up, these classic country topics are elevated by Combs’ vocals. His robust, rough-edged tenor adds a warmth to his nostalgia-drenched songs, like the road-not-taken chronicle “Used to Wish I Was,” as well as the references to the songs and artists he loves, like Garth Brooks and George Jones.

“Any Given Friday Night,” which in lesser hands would be a run-of-the-mill bro-country ode to small-town weekend bacchanalia, gets its power from Combs’ obvious affection for those who pregame in DQ parking lots in “pick a map dot town[s],” as well as grime-caked guitars that hint at the messiness awaiting those revelers in the later hours. Those riffs are part of Growin’ Up’s sonic maturity; its spacious production, helmed by Combs alongside co-producers Chip Matthews and Jonathan Singleton, allows guitar licks and thumping bass lines to tug songs in sometimes surprising directions.

“The Kind of Love We Make,” a gently urgent come-on to a woman who’s been too stressed-out to let loose in the bedroom, is a country revamp of midtempo Nineties alt-adult cuts like Semisonic’s “Secret Smile”; the rave-up “Ain’t Far From It” depicts one of the dates that could eventually lead to those moments of committed bliss, with Combs’ flirtations egged on by honky-tonk pianos and saucy licks.

Combs isn’t reinventing Nashville’s four-wheel clichés on Growin’ Up; he’s merely giving it a fresh coat of wax and removing the more ostentatious add-ons. But his detail-rich songs make Growin’ Up a big-time country album with a tip-jar-worthy intimacy.

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Callista Clark Album Review: Callista Clark ‘Real To Me: The Way I Feel’

holler.country/reviews

entertainment-focus.com/If Callista Clark seems too complicated, as her song says, it’s 'cause she is. An old soul who hails from Zebulon, Georgia, yet somehow also a teenage sensation, the 18-year-old has managed to attract the cream of Nashville’s songwriting crop to co-write across 10 songs on this debut album, with ace producer Nathan Chapman adding punch, pulse and polish.

Loads of potential singles jump out across the record, from the acoustic flavours of ‘Worst Guy Ever’ to the bolder, deliberately uplifting ‘Brave Girl’ – written when she was only 15 herself – providing something for existing fans and new followers alike. The latter, signature song encourages her listeners to “Say what you wanna say, say it like you mean it / You’re gonna be okay even if you don’t believe it.”

There’s a soulful core and delightfully snappy word-smithery running across all the tracks, giving freshness to eternal concerns like break-ups (‘Heartbreak Song’ and ‘Gave It Back Broken’) and moving on, (‘Don’t Need It Anymore’ and ‘Sad’). The album is neatly bookended with two key statement songs, ‘It’s ‘Cause I Am’ up top and the hook-laden title track ‘Real To Me’ rounding things off.

Real to Me: The Way I Feel definitely gains this the Holler seal of approval. Buoyed up by characteristically powerful vocals, memorable songs and the rare knack of knowing how to relate to and empower her fellow teens, for Callista Clark, the only way is up.

 

Album Review: Callista Clark ‘Real To Me: The Way I Feel’

entertainment-focus.com

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Callista Clark is still only just 19 years old. The Georgia native began writing songs aged 11, has performed alongside the likes of Jennifer Nettles and Chris Young, and wowed audiences on this side of the pond when she made her UK debut at C2C earlier this year. Now she’s back with her long-awaited debut album, ‘Real To Me: The Way I Feel’, which follows the EP she released last year.

The 10-track record opens with Clark’s debut single, ‘It’s ‘Cause I Am’. It’s a swaggering, playful song which shows off the richness in Clark’s voice as she dismisses an immature love interest, with a huge empowering chorus. I loved how the song oozes with confidence and the rocky touches to the production add a nice touch too.

That range of songs is one of the big selling points of this record, with Clark drawing on elements of rock and pop as well as country. ‘Change My Mind’, a twangy, heavy track with sassy lyrics balancing out Clark’s sweet vocals and a big soaring chorus, put me in mind of early Carrie Underwood, whilst the anthemic ‘Heartbreak Song’ sees her voice almost floating over the driving drumbeat before breaking into some serious belt! Elsewhere, the acoustic-led ‘Worst Guy Ever’ feels like a country-fied take on Beyoncé’s ‘If I Were A Boy’, as Clark sings about a guy not treating her right. I loved the little lyrical details (particularly ‘letting other girls steal your sweatshirt’) and the contrast between her soft tones and the song’s low-key cutting message – it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of Taylor Swift’s first records.

However, where Clark really shines is on the ballads. The bittersweet ‘Gave It Back Broken’ is an early standout, with Clark showing off her vocal range – including some impressive high notes on the chorus – and a real sense of maturity as she calls out an ex. Meanwhile, ‘Don’t Need It Anymore’ mixes pop elements with a big pre-chorus that sees Clark barely conceal the anger at her heartbreak, before descending into a sense of resignation and despair. It’s something even more established artists would struggle to deliver and I feel she pulls it off really well.

For me the standout track is current single ‘Brave Girl’, another piano-driven ballad featuring snippets of young women feeling held back or needing to change themselves, with Clark encouraging them to believe in themselves and embrace their flaws. The message of self-confidence comes through really strongly and I found the song very moving overall – it’s one that’s going to sound fantastic live with a crowd singing it back to her. I also loved ‘Wish You Wouldn’t’, which sees Clark singing about being drawn back into a relationship she knows isn’t great for her. The song has a great soulful quality and a retro 90s vibe – almost Mariah Carey-esque – as well as gorgeous delicate vocals, with a great blend of a piano melody and drum beats layered over the top.

After the bright, bouncy kiss-off anthem ‘Sad’, with its cheeky spoken word intro and funky groove, the album closes with the title track, which talks about Clark’s youth and how her experiences are just as real as anyone’s despite her age. The sparse arrangement makes the smooth quality of Clark’s voice stand out as she runs the gamut from delicate high notes all the way to fantastic runs, whilst the layered instrumentation builds from a sparse intro all the way to a powerful finish with rocky guitars. It has great emotional power and feels like it sums up the whole collection perfectly.

Overall ‘Real To Me: The Way I Feel’ is a solid debut album that draws on pop, rock and country influences, with some fantastically detailed songwriting and outstanding vocals from Clark. It’s a project that feels incredibly authentic and is full of heart and soul, with a great sense of storytelling running through the whole thing – by the end of it all, you feel like you’ve gone on a complete emotional journey with her. I’m really excited at how Clark is exploring her sound on this record and where she is musically right now, and am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

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Miranda LambertThe Strange Times of Miranda Lambert and Her ‘Palomino’

Popmatters.com

Miranda Lambert’s Palomino is a damn fine record with 15 tales of love and the American Dream in her trademark powerful, declarative yet tender voice.

Country music superstar Miranda Lambert’s latest album, Palomino, is a damn fine record. The singer-songwriter offers 15 tales of love and the American Dream in a robust, declarative yet tender voice. Life is a carnival, Lambert suggests. Her narrators may be chasing a gold ring but not a wedding band in their search for happiness. They want something more out of life, even if they don’t know what it is, and they are usually anxious to move on in search.

Lambert frequently sings in the first person, so we identify her with these restless women. That makes for deliciously gossipy fun reading between the lines about her marriage and divorce. It doesn’t matter if Lambert is truthful or therapeutic in her songs. Her ability to express her feelings as if they convey some profound truth counts more. “Times like these make me feel strange,” Lambert sings, and who doesn’t and hasn’t felt weird the last few years. By conveying this in the first person, we all become the “I” of the songs. The point is we are all in this together, alone.

That’s especially true if one is female. Lambert is everywoman. The men depicted on this record are not necessarily evil or bad but can be just as lost as the women. Some women have made it big, Lambert knows on the bragging “Country Money”, but she doesn’t necessarily see the world in such binary terms. The lyrics to such songs as the buoyant “Music City Queen” (which features guest vocals by the B-52s) celebrate gender diversity. Lambert’s nod to the sexism she has encountered in “If I Was a Cowboy” clarifies that she sees no difference between the genders in terms of talent and abilities. “So mamas, if your daughters grow up to be cowboys, so what” she sings, echoing Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

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Jason AldeanAlbum Review: Jason Aldean 'That's What Tequila Does'

Todayscountrymagazine.com

Jason Aldean is one of country music’s biggest male artists today, but a large part of that is because of his ability to find a comfort zone within his style from era to era, while continually elevating the unique attributes that he brings to the table.

That’s exactly what he’s done again with his new single “That’s What Tequila Does,” the follow-up to his 27th #1 song “Trouble with A Heartbreak.”

The song, written by Kurt Allison, John Edwards, Tully Kennedy and John Morgan is lifted from the Macon half of his Macon, Georgia double album, and sees Aldean sitting in the familiar pocket that we’ve come to expect from his distinct sound as it pushes a pop laden backbeat into a slow groove that allows his voice to carry the lyric through the first verse as we see him choosing his drink of choice – tequila – even though he knows it’ll ultimately destroy him in his attempt to get over the memory of lost love.

Knowingly, he sings in the opening verse of how drinking tequila will always get him overthinking and stirring up every memory she’s left him to deal with, while during the second verse he shows how having a little more than just enough will always get him checking his phone and looking for a text from her that never comes in.

The chorus punches the energy level up a notch as is par for the course with Aldean’s latest material, but his vocal is perfectly suited for carrying the pain and emotional hit of confusion that has come amid his drinking as we experience while he runs through a list that admits all the different ways that tequila has made his thinking a little warped:

“It'll make you think that you got a shot at the one that got away when it goes down

She's gonna tell you, she's gonna come back and that's what makes you stay for another round

Keep you stickin' around, keep pourin' out

Until she's all you're thinkin' 'bout

It'll keep you hung up, keep you drunk on what it was

Man, that's what tequila does”

Though drinking away heartache is certainly nothing new to country music, by shifting the focus of the lyrics to show how it can torture you and trick you into thinking in different and dangerous ways, Aldean provides a fresh perspective to the old idea.

Any song released right now from Jason Aldean is obviously going to have an immediate impact at country radio, but the overall feel of this song also tells us that it will make a great addition to his setlists, making it one of the highlights night in and night out on his upcoming Rock N’ Roll Cowboy Tour.

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KaceyAlbum Review: Kacey Musgraves 'Star-Crossed'

pitchfork.com

In July of 2020, Kacey Musgraves and fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly announced their divorce, after two and a half years of marriage, via a joint statement that called the couple’s love “a soul connection that can never be erased.” Musgraves isn’t shying away from her real-life breakup in her music either, telling one recent interviewer that the follow-up to 2018’s brilliant pop-country bliss-out Golden Hour will be a full-fledged “post-divorce album, bursting the fucking bubble.” The first song to arrive from her newly announced album Star-Crossed is the opener and title track, which seems to float in the air significantly, leaving the impression that maybe later tracks are where she’ll come in with a sharp pin.

The rollout for Golden Hour began with a double A-side that included another leisurely song with interstellar imagery and a breakup theme, the stunning, wickedly punning “Space Cowboy.” By contrast, “star-crossed” feels less like a single than an introduction, partly because so much of it is introduction: It takes 45 seconds of mournful oohs and flickering classical guitar before Musgraves sings, “Let me set the scene.” What follows is a fairly literal recounting of a divorce, with papers signed, possessions divided, names changed. By the time the song gets interesting, it’s already almost over, as Musgraves repeats the titular Billy Shakespeare phrase over the type of burbling synths that might leave the Weeknd gasping. She explained to another interviewer that to be star-crossed is “to be fucked by love or luck,” but she withholds her usual cleverness and no-bullshit persona here; as introductions go, it’s tantalizing and a little befuddling.

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