Saturday, November 15, 2008

Focus On...Urban Cowboys and Cowgirls

18 and life to go - Taylor Swift preps for even more success with the release of the second album.

During the 90's, I noticed as Country music became increasingly popular with Garth Brooks, line dancing, boot scoot boogieing and what not that the music was taking on a more mainstream pop / rock sound as well. It seemed like Country music was moving out of the, uh, country and into the suburbs. This actually made the music more listenable to me as mainstream rock all but disappeared and stayed gone until recently where's it's come back as a sort of teen pop vehicle. I've found the occasional Country song enjoyable and even found I liked bluegrass artist Alison Krauss because of that song The Lucky One. This is just my personal taste, I'm not into hardcore Country where it gets either super slow and twangy or kicks into that hyperactive two step beat. My cousin, who likes Country quite a bit, was nice enough to give me some CDs to check out in the Modern Country vein. So I'm going to write my impression of these artists, which should be fun because I don't have as much knowledge or context about these people so it's new to me.

Taylor Swift is up first. She's all over the tv and media lately, she's had some break up with one of those Jonas brothers and recently did a CMT Crossroads with Def Leppard. I watched the Crossroads episode and felt she had some star power but some of her vocals seemed flat and emotionless in spots (the segments where Lep and Swift sit and talk were funny, it had the awkwardness of a girl talking with her distant Uncles). Though I thought the version of Lep's When Love and Hate Collide with her came across well. On a CD there is such a thing as retakes so that shouldn't be a problem here.

The CD cover and booklet looks like an issue of Teen People, or what I imagine it to look like since I've only seen the front of the magazine in supermarket check out stands (honest!). She kinda looks like Faith Hill and lo and behold the first song is called Tim McGraw. Swift writes or co-writes a lot of the material and it shows as a strength on this disc. It sounds like a diary of upbeat girly angst shook loose to a fiddle and has a sincere world view. The subject matter never strays from infatuation, hooking up or getting dumped and the liner notes even has a jokey remark laughing at the guys who inspired her songs. Vocally she sounds naive, which is either refreshing or annoying depending on your taste. After all these years of slutty teen pop sensations sounding like auto tuned porn stars while rolling around in their underwear it is definitely different. Because of her songwriting skill in being able to form rambling feelings into poppy hooks I think she has potential to stick around for a while, but since I'm not a teen girl I'll have to chalk this one up to OK background music. That Teardrops on my Guitar was the best track from this CD to me, if you take the steel guitar off it could easily have fit on a Kelly Clarkson disc.

Now we're into Lady Antebellum. My first question is: what's an Antebellum? Is it against Bellum and is that a bad thing? I'm too lazy to look it up. The cover art looks like an advertisement for a CW TV series. Fresh faced youngsters, cleancut image, snazzy threads, carefully styled coifs down to the facial hair-welcome to the O.C. by way of the County fair b*tch . The guy standing on the right above sort of looks like David Cook from American Idol. Off topic, never thought I would say this, but I kinda miss that WB frog after seeing this CW thing play out. Was his name Froggy? Or was it Frogger? No, that was a video game. You know what was cool, that Frog voiced guy from the Little Rascals. That guy was funny!

Anyway, I press Play on the CD player and to use a baseball term it's a clean hit up the middle. A rough hewn male voice and smooth plaintive female voice backed by a tight beat and fairly big guitar for Country. As this disc plays on, it seems like a good fit for me-it has distinct commercial instincts, a sort of Country music for people who don't know or want to know what real Country music is. No hoedown breakdowns here or super twangy moments, just sturdy pop rock structures with harmony vocals and some fiddle. I bet this sounds good driving on two lane roads out in the middle of nowhere. The duet ballad is the most memorable thing here, All We'd Ever Need. A late inning ballad, the languid Can't Take My Eyes Off You isn't bad either.

Onward and upwards! Trace Adkins Greatest Hits Volume II American Man. Darn, I've already missed part one. How will I know how the story starts? I hope this is a continuation of hits chronologically and not the almost hits that didn't make the first disc. I recognize some songs here, Chrome and Honky Tonk Badonkadonk. Oh yeah, I remember this guy's videos. They're like rap videos with a bunch of girls dancing all over the place while he sits still and brags in clubs and parking lots. I do get a kick out of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk", it's the "Baby Got Back" of Country music! He's got a black hat on in the CD jacket, this means he's a badass. Fancy grey suit on the back cover!

Adkins voice is pretty low and he doesn't sing as much as talk-sing so delivery is everything here. Personality counts for a lot with Adkins which seems like a strong representation of traditional Country themes. The hard working blue collar man on the prowl for a good time (Ladies Love Country Boys), red blooded objectification of women (Hot Mama), a solid dose of macho sentimentality (You're Gonna Miss This) and a patriotic fervor ("American Man"). Of the three CDs so far, this is the one I like the most. Predictable but well made. It reminds me of Sammy Hagar and I think we all know what I think of Saint Sammy.

Last one on the stack, The Wreckers. I actually had heard of this duo because of Michelle Branch's pop beginnings (like her appearance on Santana's The Game of Love). She is paired up with Jessica Harp, who I have no idea about. This is a live CD so assuming this hasn't been fixed up in post production I'll hear their unvarnished sound. The vocals are surprisingly not that strong for a duo, usually when two singers choose to work together its because of how their voices blend. I don't hear a lot of blending. The songs aren't that impressive. I'm skipping to the hit Leave the Pieces. Nope, no love there either. I'm sure they have their fans, just not feeling The Wreckers. Calling this one off early, I can't take much more of this disc.

Modern Country I think will stay a place I will visit on a case by case basis, too much of it doesn't work for me. There are songs from the genre I enjoy like Restless Heart's When She Cries or Faith Hill's Like We Never Loved At All. I'll have to thank my Cousin though, I have had fun running through these discs to see what sticks and what doesn't. I think it all comes down to Honky Tonk...Badonkadonk!

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