I’ve been meaning to get to some album reviews the past few months, but I always seem to put it off because album reviews aren’t really my strong point, as evidenced by my past generic attempts at describing musical styles. I once tried writing reviews for an online site that was fairly popular in Texas for a time, and even had a couple of things published by them (kind of embarrassing stuff, but what's done is done). However, when they sent me CD’s to review, it became quite clear to me that reviewing music that I wasn’t terribly interested in wasn’t my strong point. I think I waffled for a few weeks and made one attempt at writing a review, but nothing came out, so I wrote the editor back with my tail between my legs and said I couldn’t do it. Nonetheless, that whole experience gives me a certain skepticism that people who review CD’s after a listen or two are really getting at much of anything. Rather, I think one has to sit with an album for some time and let the feel of it seep in slowly, and until then, it’s really hard to say much about it. However, given that model, I guess there’s not much hope for bad music getting any review at all, so maybe they can keep their model and I’ll keep mine. But I digress…
Amanda Shires – West Cross Timbers
On Amanda Shires' follow up to her 2005 release Being Brave, one is most taken by the clear progression that she has made in terms of her songwriting and in her confidence to branch out in a number of musical directions. West Cross Timbers moves away from the traditional tint of Shires’ debut, and gravitates from intensely personal and soft ballads to uptempo songs that drive the album forward. The variety on the album is likely to lead listeners to pick almost any of the eleven tracks as a favorite, as each is strong in its own right. “Mariann Leola” and “Mineral Wells” are clear standouts, each with a somber tone, but they are nicely complimented by more upbeat tracks such as “Upon Hearing Violins” and “Angels and Acrobats,” the latter being a cover from the songbook of Shires’ collaborator Rod Picott. Timbers showcases the musical experience Shires has gained over the past few years in touring solo and in collaboration with Rod Picott and Thrift Store Cowboys, most notably in her willingness to take chances with a wider vocal range. Appropriately, the album closes with homage to Shires’ roots, with the Western swing number “Whispering” - a fitting coda to an album that showcases a broad spectrum of influences that range from traditional fiddle music of the 30s & 40s all the way up to music of today.
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
I honestly have to report that about 2 months ago, I had no more than a fleeting interest in Justin Earle. I had heard a few live performances, and thought the music was decent, but it really didn’t get me interested enough to buy his music. Fast forward to today and now I seem to have copies of all three of his albums, so a definite transition has happened for me as of late. Compared to his past recordings, Midnight sounds decidedly more “alt country” in the sense that many of the songs move away from the stripped down low-fi feel of his past LP, The Good Life, and are well produced without going too far overboard. “Mama’s Eyes” remains my favorite track on the album, and is largely responsible for my increase in interest in JTE. I almost never quote lyrics, but the line “Sure it hurts but it should hurt sometimes” basically sold me on Earle’s music and songwriting. Other standout tracks on the album include the title track and Earle’s cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” However, continued listens for me have brought out the strength of other tracks, most notably “Someday I’ll be Forgiven for This.” Overall this album is well done with some tracks that I think will have long term listening value, but more importantly, I think they are a indicator of great things to come from JTE.
Monahans – Dim the Aurora
Austin based Monahans truly provides a case in point when it comes to my philosophy of album reviews. I had to spend multiple listens with their debut release Low Pining before I really felt like I “got it” to any extent. Dim the Aurora follows suit by providing a complex soundscape that likely will not be instantly accessible to listeners given the intricacies woven into the musical framework. The first track, “It’s Enough to Leave You,” is among the most listener friendly songs on the album, and the songs that follow don’t necessarily branch out in any single direction, exhibiting the bands' diverse musical tastes. The instrumental tracks and the more traditionally structured songs (i.e. with verses and choruses and such) don’t exactly chart the same path. Songs such as the title track and “The Low Light” exhibit strong songwriting and will have an immediate appeal to most listeners. Alternatively, the instrumentals move in more adventurous directions at times, most notably with the sparse 21 minute "Terrene," seemingly Monahans' statement that this is most definitely not your father's rock and roll anymore. Overall, the album is cohesive and a great listen to those willing to take the time to listen to the entire project in its entirety.