New Music Monday and an Album Review: Taylor Swift’s “Red”

Taylor Swift’s latest album, Red, is not necessarily “new” since it was released almost two weeks ago, and it also may not be what some would peg as country music. Nonetheless I wanted to write a review for it if for no other reason than to look at how her musical style has changed since her “Tim McGraw” days as a 16-year-old with that wildly curly hair.

If Taylor was going for an occasionally acoustic pop-folk sound, she hit the nail right on the head. “Holy Ground” has a subdued pop-rock feel to it, and I like the way it escalates with an almost electronic-sounding background as the song continues. My absolute favorite song on the album is “Everything Has Changed,” which is the duet she wrote and performed with Ed Sheeran (who is also going to be her tour mate in 2013). It’s a unique stripped down sound, it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s just catchy. A close runner up on my list of most played is “Begin Again,” which is probably the song with the strongest country-esque sound on the album. It’s the only song on  Red that’s playing on the radio station I’m interning for, and yes, I have been caught belting it in the studio while it’s on the air… no shame! The video for it is also arguably one of the best videos she’s ever made.

The title track, “Red,” is an emotionally intense song about a passionate relationship that’s all but doomed for failure. I do like the banjo riffs toward the beginning of “Red,” but they’re unfortunately buried under a hodge podge of more prominent electric guitar sounds as the song plays on.  “All Too Well” does a fantastic job of capturing the sad emotion when you’re trying so hard to let go of someone, but the sweet memories are still there and the hurt from the end hasn’t disappeared either. “The Lucky One” is a haunting tribute to a wide-eyed dreamer whose life was marred by a lifestyle of fame.

Three songs on the album were co-written with Max Martin and Shellback, both of whom have impressive track records… in the area of top 40 pop. Their influence is definitely prominent in all three: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22.” “22” is by far the worst of the three. It’s homogenized and not at all original-sounding. It’s as if the co-writers were trying to replace Taylor’s usual heartfelt lyrics with an overused narrative about friends going out to a club and clinging to a stranger–completely uncharacteristic of Taylor’s typically classy image. As a friend and classmate of mine, Niki, put it: “It’s just this really cheap sounding song. It just… ugh.” Bingo, almost to the point of being repulsive.

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has completely torn up radio and download charts. Lyrically, it’s shallow, but its explosive popularity is probably due to the fact that it has an extremely catchy pop hook.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” has an obvious dubstep influence, and surprisingly, I don’t hate it. Is it Taylor’s sound? Nope. But it’s a good song for jamming in the car when I’m in the right mood. Another black sheep on the album is “State of Grace,” which really doesn’t sound like anything else on the album or like any of Taylor’s earlier work. “Starlight” is an almost cheesy pop song written thanks to inspiration from Robert and Ethel Kennedy. It has a fluffy pop sound, but it’s a not nearly as bad as “22,” which is definitely my least favorite on the album.

If I’m being honest, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” and “The Last Time” (which was co-written with Jacknife Lee and Gary Lightbody and performed with Lightbody) are not much more than forgettable. They’re not necessarily bad, they just lack impact. If you told me to recall the tune of either of them on the spot after listening to them several times each within the mix of the album, I don’t know that I could.

“I Almost Do” and “Treacherous,” are most reminiscent of Taylor’s older, acoustic-guitar-based sound that was present on her debut album. “Stay Stay Stay” has the same laid back, innocent vibe as one of her initial hits, “Our Song.” I’ve been a Taylor fan since her first album wasn’t even huge yet, and her original sound was definitely more country, more carefree, and less… worldly. She used to write more from a small town perspective, and it’s very obvious how both her lyrics and her sound have changed as her fame has taken her anywhere and everywhere. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a change that mirrors her current lifestyle as well as her journey toward maturity.

She’s been calling this her most “adventurous” album, and that it is. There’s a variety of genres represented on the album– you’ve got a copious amount of pop, a tiny bit of folk-country flavor, and even dubstep. The songwriting is decent, and we all know that’s why she’s making so much money anyway– she’s made herself and her lyrics incredibly relatable. When the album first came out, my friend and classmate Niki made the comment that the songs she wrote alone are much better than the ones she had co-writers on. In the case of the songs co-written with Max Martin and Shellback, I wholeheartedly agree. Taylor has her own distinctive style, and somehow the extra contributions of those pop-bent outsiders corrupted her signature feel that’s been present throughout her career.

Overall, I do really like Red. Do I love it for the same reasons I love Alan Jackson or Miranda Lambert? No, not at all, but it’s still worthy of merit. Some of the songs I have to be in a particular mood to enjoy, but nonetheless I’ve had it the album playing in my car since it came out. I’m hoping that Taylor can find a way to blend the great acoustic folky pop sound she’s explored on this album with some more country flavor on her next album. She’s a young star, so she has time to experiment with her signature sound and style, and that’s precisely what she’s doing. I just hope that when she does finally find that signature sound, it’s not terribly far from her country roots.

Find Taylor’s new album, Red, on iTunes here.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

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Country and Gospel: A Unique Spiritual Connection

Country music has always had a unique connection to gospel music. Since today is Sunday, I think it’s a perfect time to enjoy some of the country music–both old and new– that’s rooted in Christian beliefs. I know there are countless country artists who have done wonderful renditions of gospel and Christian songs over the years, but here are just a few that I’ve enjoyed listening to lately.

Song: “Faith to Fall Back On”
Artist: Hunter Hayes
Album: Hunter Hayes
This is one of my favorites from Hunter’s debut album. The lyrics are a reminder that when things seem to be going wrong in life, if we have a little faith, God will get us through any situation and through our own mistakes.

Song: “I Saw God Today”
Artist: George Strait
Album: Troubadour
This song rings true with my own life– “I know He’s here but I don’t look near as often as I should… His fingerprints are everywhere.” It’s a reminder that God has left his mark everywhere– all over creation, in fact.

Song: “Life’s Railway to Heaven”
Artist: Patsy Cline
Album: Best of Patsy Cline
This is one of those songs that gets me with imagery. I love the lyrics that compare our lives to a train trip, and I of course love Patsy’s voice as it overflows with soul in this song.

Song: “When I Get Where I’m Going”
Artist: Brad Paisley (with Dolly Parton)
Album: Time Well Wasted
Both Brad and Dolly sing this with just the right amount of emotion, and that lets the song paint a beautiful mental image of what heaven will be like. I can’t think of a better combination of voices to sing such a heartfelt, beautiful song.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

Johnny Cash: God’s Gonna Cut You Down

I saw this video (not for the first time, but for the first time in a while) today, and I immediately knew I wanted to find out more about it. The video was produced by Rick Rubin, who also appears in the beginning and end of the video (and resembles Hank Williams, Jr., in my opinion). I did a little reading, and apparently the idea originated with Justin Timberlake.

I always love when artists and stars from different genres and fields come together for a project because it proves to me that music serves as a powerful means of connection and communication, no matter who you are and what background you have. In this case, a group of celebrities have come together for the purpose of commemorating Johnny Cash with a posthumously released video for “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” I love the haunting sound of this song’s accompaniment, and of course Johnny’s legendary voice makes it all the more chilling. If you’ve never heard this song or seen the video, it’s most definitely worth taking the time to watch it.

I’m not terribly familiar with very many artists outside of country music, so I know this isn’t an all-inclusive list, but these are the stars that I recognized immediately as I watched the video (in order of appearance):

Chris Martin (of Coldplay)
Kris Kristofferson
Adam Levine (of Maroon 5)
Justin Timberlake
Kate Moss
Sheryl Crow
The Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison)
Bono (of U2)
Kid Rock
Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top)
Johnny Depp
Owen Wilson

To read a little more about this video and see the full list of celebrities who appear in it, I recommend scoping out this article from The Inspiration Room.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

Add some twang to that thang! Country covers over the years.

Today I stumbled across a video of Keith Urban playing Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” (there’s a short, REALLY low sound quality snippet of it here) in a recent show, and that led me to search for cover songs that country artists have recorded over the years. Hope you enjoy my favorites that I found!

Song: “God Gave Me You”
Artist: Blake Shelton
Album: Red River Blue
I heard Dave Barnes’ version of this song (watch it here) on Christian radio about a year before I heard Blake’s version. Dave Barnes actually wrote the song. You could technically say that they released them close enough together that Blake’s version might not be considered a cover, but I still wanted it to be on this list. The two versions are pretty similar, but it’s such a well-written (props, Dave!) song that it allows both to truly shine. I love Miranda’s introduction in Blake’s music video!

Song: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
Artist: Dwight Yoakam
Album: The Very Best of Dwight Yoakam
Queen originally sang this song, and Dwight’s version definitely has a lot more twang contributed by both the accompaniment and his rockabilly voice. Queen’s version is a classic (see it here), but Dwight did a great job of adding his own flair to the song.

Song: “Life Is a Highway”
Artist: Rascal Flatts
Album: Cars (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)
Tom Cochrane originally recorded this song (see his version here). Rascal Flatts made the song a bit more driving and exciting than the original, and their pop-rock bent remake was featured in the Disney-Pixar film Cars.

Song: “To Make You Feel My Love”
Artist: Garth Brooks
Album: Hope Floats (Soundtrack)
This song was written and originally recorded by Bob Dylan. Since the original recording, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, and most recently Adele have also covered the song. You can see their versions here: Bob DylanBilly JoelAdele.

 

Song: “When You Say Nothing At All”
Artist: Alison Krauss and Union Station
Album: Alison Krauss and Union Station: Live
Until I started doing a little research for this post, I wasn’t actually aware that Alison Krauss didn’t record this song originally. I love her version, and I was happy to find that another country singer, Keith Whitley, recorded it first (see his version here—sorry for the less than great video quality!). From country original to bluegrass remake, both versions are wonderful.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

Music City, baby!

It’s July 6th, 2012 and I’ve been counting down to this day for at least two months. I’m writing this post from Nashville, Tennessee, and for obvious reasons I’m quite excited. Being in the heart of Music City always revitalizes my passion for country music and sparks my mind to keep creatively exploring how I’ll get to where I want to be professionally and personally when I finish my college degree. For me, it’s literally the city of dreams. My dreams.

As a celebration of this trip, here are a few of my favorite country music videos that were filmed in downtown Music City!

Song: “Hello World”
Artist: Lady Antebellum
Album: Need You Now
“Hello World” was filmed very close to the intersection of 3rd Avenue and Deaderick Street, and you can see the War Memorial building in the background any time Dave is shown playing the piano. The video itself is incredibly powerful and is definitely my favorite Lady A video. If you watch one video in this post, make it this one.

Song: “Ours”
Artist: Taylor Swift
Album: Ours- Single
According to Taste of Country, the Nashville airport was shut down for this video! I guess if you’re as famous as Taylor Swift, you can’t risk thousands of passerby recognizing you in the time it takes you to shoot a music video in an airport. The entire video was shot around Nashville, but the airport is the most recognizable location that’s shown.

Song: “Take It Off”
Artist: Joe Nichols
Album: It’s All Good
I was able to figure out that part of this video was filmed on Third Avenue North downtown, but I can’t seem to figure out where the rest of it is shot. I’m not familiar with the building that’s in the background during the park scenes, so if you do know, leave a comment and help me learn my Nashville geography!

Song: “Temporary Home”
Artist: Carrie Underwood
Album: Play On
Like “Hello World,” this one is amazingly emotional. This video won “Inspirational Music Video of the Year” at the 16th Inspirational Country Music Awards in 2010, and for good reason. I cry every single time I watch this video, so if you watch it and the same happens to you, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Song: “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Artist: Eli Young Band
Album: Life at Best
This video was filmed at Gruhn Guitars (on the corner of 4th and Broadway) in downtown Nashville (source: Taste of Country). In the time since this song was released, it has more or less become my theme song. Chasing big dreams can bring proportionately big heartbreak, and I’m learning that I have to keep going after what’s in my heart even when I seem to hit roadblocks and letdowns along the way.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

Turning my grass blue.

I never considered myself to be a bluegrass kind of person until I bought Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass project, Up On the Ridge on a complete whim of curiosity in 2010. Lo and behold, I completely fell in love with his sound, and ever since, I’ve started exploring music that’s bent toward or influenced by bluegrass.

Here are just a few of my favorite discoveries:

Song: “Paper Airplane”
Artist: Alison Krauss and Union Station
Album: Paper Airplane
This song definitely shows off Alison’s flawless control over her clear voice. I love the way the verses are more subdued, and then the chorus just bursts out with so much emotion. I also love all of the background accent riffs; they enhance the song perfectly.

Song: “Someone Like You”
Artist: Sierra Hull
Album: Someone Like You- Single
This is a cover of a song originally released by Adele, but I personally like this version better than Adele’s. Sierra’s more laid-back version lets you focus entirely on the vulnerable lyrics instead of being distracted by a busy background part. I know that David Nail also did a cover of this song, and I love his version as well, but this one wins as my favorite.

Song: “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
Artist: Dierks Bentley
Album: Up On the Ridge
This song is also a cover. It definitely contrasts with U2’s original version, but I absolutely love what they did with this song. Adding harmonies gave it so much depth, and of course I love the mandolin and banjo rich background. It’s such a down to earth arrangement. It’s so good that it’s almost haunting.

Song: “White Fences”
Artist: NEEDTOBREATHE
Album: The Reckoning
Okay, you caught me– NEEDTOBREATHE isn’t exactly bluegrass. But they do have a really awesome mandolin drive and some touches of banjo in this song. And mandolin and banjo are definitely bluegrass-esque, so we’ll just pretend… 🙂

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie

Currently listening to…

This week I was out of town, and going to a new place meant listening to new radio stations. That led to me picking up on a few new songs I’d never heard (or hadn’t heard very often, anyway) and immediately loved them. I downloaded my new discoveries onto my phone, and they’ve been on repeat ever since.

Enjoy!

Song: “Cruise”
Artist: Florida Georgia Line
Album: It’z Just What We Do- EP
I’m a sucker for harmonies, and these two guys definitely used them to their advantage vocally in this song. I’m a big fan of the banjo and the drum beat in the background. The vibe of it reminds me somewhat of Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”

Song: “Hard to Love”
Artist: Lee Brice
Album: Hard 2 Love
I LOVE the use of the piano in this song. The sound has a certain softness that plays perfectly the lyrics of the song, which include some pretty vulnerable things a person could admit.

Song: “Goodbyes Made You Mine”
Artist: JT Hodges
Album: Goodbyes Made You Mine- Single
This was my favorite new discovery for the week. The song has a captivating, laid-back beat to it, and JT’s voice has the perfect amount of sincerity behind it.

Keep talkin’ twangy!

-Allie