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Category: Album Reviews (Page 1 of 2)

Album Review – Eric Church’s Heart & Soul

You know why I like Eric Church so much these days?

It isn’t just that he’s doesn’t really do that “modern radio country song” that I don’t actually like or think adds value to popular culture.

That’s not all it’s about. To think only that way would be shortsighted of me.

It’s because he’s writing such enlightened and clear-headed personal songs now that you just can’t help but love this dude.

Listen to “Heart on Fire” from Church’s new release, Heart & Soul, and I bet you’ll love how passionately he pays tribute to the things that have shaped him, from rock and roll songs to the women he’s loved to his old truck sputtering down Roosevelt Road.

That’s a human being. He’s got emotions attached to all his memories, and they all set his heart on fire.

Eric Church has plenty of heart and soul on his new album, and the way he expresses those things makes the record what I think is one of his all-time best.

So, Where’d This Come From?

A lot of readers of the Musical Record blog really enjoyed my outsider’s take on Eric Church’s Desperate Man.

I guess that’s because I am not in the 2021 country scene and really just walked into Eric Church’s discography with almost no knowledge or expectation. That album just struck the right chord for me.

Now, with Heart & Soul: so, Church fans had heard about this for months. Ever since reports surfaced of his now almost mythical January 2020 recording sessions in the North Carolina mountains, fans have wondered what exactly he was making up there.

Church himself said he had gone up to an old restaurant to turn it into a recording studio and write and record at least one new song every day for 28 days. There were stretches when he didn’t sleep. He’d write or co-write a few songs in just two days, pushing himself to the edge mentally and physically.

But the story is that testing himself like that gave him a creative edge–or at least a different kind of creativity–that he might not have found otherwise.

After well over a year of hearing about it, we’re finally gotten the finished product of a triple album.

It came out in three parts last month. Produced by Jay Joyce and featuring longtime co-writers such as Casey Beathard and Jeff Hyde, Heart and Soul are now available to the public, while the six-song vinyl & is an exclusive for Church Choir members.

So now you know.

Let’s get into Heart & Soul.

Can I keep it concise? Not likely.

Oh, and just when you started vaguely wondering if I was going to discuss only Heart and Soul, I came up with an answer: yes, I have &, and yes, we’ll discuss it, so just relax for a minute.

I also haven’t read other country music reviews in preparation for this. They’re just my thoughts as I listened.

Heart

Humans find the world much easier to understand when they categorize and label things.

There’s plenty going on in the 24 songs on Heart & Soul, but if we can separate the volumes thematically, then Heart is the one where Church opens up and really bears his, you know, heart.

Eric Church Heart

And that isn’t just because there are three songs with “heart” right in the title. I mean the subjects he’s dealing with are about love, feeling, conviction, memories, and passion.

“Russian Roulette” is an experience we’ve all lived: hearing a random song on the radio and having some sad or unpleasant memories come flooding back. As my friend Kyle rightly pointed out, it’s like a counterpart, or even an opposite, of 2011’s “Springsteen.”

Heart’s lead single, “Stick That in Your Country Song,” is a track written not by Church, and not even in 2020, but by Davis Naish and Jeffrey Steele in 2015.

They composed the song as little vignettes about what life is really like in today’s America: the poverty and urban blight of Detroit and Baltimore; the soldier coming back from war; the teacher working hard to help students succeed.

Put that stuff in a number-one country song, Church challenges us. Stick that real slice-of-life in a song and sell it so the world can know.

Tell you what, he may not have written it, but you and I both hear the passion in Church’s voice when he sings this one. It’s familiar Church territory but still fresh, and it hits hard in 2015 or today. Church knows about the little guys, and he wants you to know, too.

Hey, man, it’s a lot of heart on this first record, and it just keeps going.

“Bunch of Nothing,” a personal favorite of mine, is Church giving some country boy life advice to a long-faced dude who’s feeling a bit bad about things. He’ll show him how to bass fish, tune a guitar, and have a hell of a Saturday night. Listen, it’s an awesome song.

And by the way, you don’t always need lyrical poetry to get a point across, as we hear with Heart’s closer, “Love Shine Down.”

Hey, I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m ready to be good now, so come love me, this song says. That’s a lot of us, isn’t it?

&

And now for the Church Choir vinyl exclusive, &. Let’s get into it.

Eric Church &

With the opener of “Through My Ray Bans,” Church turns his incredible tribute-writing powers onto his fans. It’s a touching ode to all those people who gather in camaraderie to hear him play live.

This is the type of mid-tempo ballad that Church does so well. Who’s going to fault him for this song? He’s a guy who loves his fans. And while I often prefer Church when he’s banging out some rock and roll song, this is quality stuff here.

“Doing Life with Me” is another bare-all salute, this time, it seems, to Church’s family, or maybe his bandmates? It’s a sensitive ballad where he once again isn’t too proud to show the world the things that mean something to him.

“Do Side” kicks things up into cool rock and roll territory. It’s got a groovy 70s feel with some outlaw acoustic throughout. This has a different feel from the rest of Heart & Soul, and believe me, Choir members are lucky to have this song. More of this in the future, Church!

On side 2, we have “Kiss Her Goodbye,” “Mad Man,” and “Lone Wolf.” The standout here is “Mad Man,” and here’s why I applaud the song maybe the most out of everything on &.

Eric Church is clearly an optimist, if his songs are any evidence of that. No matter what hardships he’s had in life, his songs portray a man who’s driven to keep doing his best and make the best of it.

“Mad Man” flirts with the idea of giving in. This angry guy got dumped and is just seconds away from losing it. Church even says you best leave him alone.

But then the song does something subtle, all from one line: Church sings that this guy is a mad man, but he’s still holding on. I think Church loves this guy for the pain he’s in. The song explodes at the end with a soulful electric guitar solo and Church kind of shouting.

Man, this is crazy stuff: one of the best songs on the triple album.

Soul

Eric Church is a smart, insightful guy, and he knows very well that titling the third record Soul is about more than just the lyrical themes. The songs are also done in that style: soul music!

Eric Church Soul

One or two of you might remember that what I loved about Desperate Man was how Church got into the R&B/soul genres with songs like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Solid.”

That’s a personal musical taste of mine, but it’s relevant in this review because Church does soul music incredibly well. The transition from the more mainstream country sounds of his past to doing the music he wants to do now would seem to be complete, and I am eating it up.

In any case, the soul of Eric Church can be found all over the place here, particularly in the record’s opener, the R&B “Rock & Roll Found Me.”

It features the great Joanna Cotten and is about how Church sees himself as having been a kind of misfit kid who’s life lit up when the music found him and set him down the path he’s traveling right now. Music’s the thing that lifted his soul and carried him into the future.

I assume everyone else is the same, but I feel that soul in Church’s voice when he sings this stuff. A great song is more than how the instruments sound or what the lyrics say. It’s also about how the performance makes you feel what the singer feels, and Church does that (and, I would suspect, with not much effort, since this is material he has probably lived).

In life, you can also find soul in people’s personal relationships. There’s two pristine tributes to a woman in “Look Good and You Know It” and “Bright Side Girl.”

You know, they’re about Church appreciating her for everything she is: how she looks and what she does for him. That’s a real human.

I love “Break It Kind of Guy” because it’s that straightforward kind of southern-rock that Church will do once in a while. It reminds me of “Hangin’ Around,” one of my favorite Church songs, and it’s upbeat, carefree, and a lot of fun.

We move into the third act with a handful of poignant love songs, “Hell of a View,” “Where I Wanna Be,” and the acoustic “Jenny,” inspired by a broken generator up in those Carolina mountains.

Another of my favorites since it was first released last year is “Bad Mother Trucker,” the title of which I don’t really care for, but make no mistake, this is quality “new” Eric Church. It’s blatantly soul and R&B in a style reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, whom Church references here.

The album closes with “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones,” an acoustic story song that offers longtime listeners a fun Easter egg. This one is not among my favorites to listen to, although the workmanship is fine as always.

Final Thoughts

Heart & Soul surprises in many ways. For an album that came out of an isolated 28-day set of recording sessions up in the mountains, it’s more polished than what I expected.

I thought maybe Church would come down the mountain with some roots-type country blues, and this ain’t exactly that. The album is a melting pot of sounds, from country to R&B to soul.

All the emotions and passion derived from the simple act of Church and his co-writers getting words out on paper 24 times and then recording them (it would seem there are four more songs they made that aren’t here).

Where the record as a whole falls a bit short for me is in its continual revisiting of certain themes.

I get that each record is devoted to a theme.

Here’s what I mean.

I imagine when you’re forcing yourself to write a song a day no matter what, especially in the abundance of a triple album, the urgency can either work heavily in your favor or not. There were a few times where one song seemed a little too similar to another.

There’s a lot of love songs here that express essentially the same sentiment, but I don’t want to harp on that.

It may not even be a fault.

Taken individually, each song is what it is, and Church hits the mark more often than not. He pushed himself to be creative, and this is the product. He’s an artist who feels things and makes no bones about expressing that to the world.

He does the most earnest kind of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time from a musician, and he and his band should be proud of what they accomplished here.

What’s the best overall collection of songs of the three? Heart, to me.

But give these records a few spins, and you may just learn something about what you yourself value in this world.

What’s with Led Zeppelin’s Presence?

If you’ve been down in the Led Zeppelin trenches for as long as I have, and you’ve been through the flashy studio stuff and the more garage-rock sound of their precious few live albums (you knew I love live music, right?), then you’re probably able to step back and take a 30,000-foot view of the band’s output.

I’ve thought a lot about which Zeppelin album contains the most valuable musical content, and also which is my favorite. I still don’t really have an answer to either of these questions.

But one strong contender for my favorite album is 1976’s Presence, an uneven mix of good and just-okay rock songs.

Let’s discuss.

Presence Is an Odd One Out

My immediate thought on the “Why Presence?” question is because it’s kind of an oddball among the group’s eight studio efforts (so is 1979’s In Through the Out Door, I guess, but in a different way).

Unlike with In Through the Out Door, Led Zeppelin founder and guitarist Jimmy Page was fully involved with creating Presence, so there really should be no excuses for sub-par work, right?

Well, not fully. Presence was made during a rocky time for the proclaimed biggest band in the 1970s world.

In August 1975, singer Robert Plant got into a bad car accident in Greece and was in a wheelchair for a while. Led Zeppelin therefore had to cancel a huge U.S. tour that had been scheduled to start soon.

The band was also forced out of England during this time due to being tax exiles, so they had to record the album away from home, in Munich, Germany.

Led Zeppelin Presence artwork

With their sudden influx of free time, then, Led Zeppelin wrote and recorded a new album, Presence, with Plant singing it all from his wheelchair.

So, this thing came out in early 1976 to pretty good reviews and sales, but those sales soon dried up, and the record ultimately became the band’s lowest seller.

Now, my question is: why does Presence feel like such a drop-off from Led Zeppelin’s previously lofty work, such as the amazing 1975 double album Physical Graffiti?

The Songs Are Mostly Forgettable

Page wanted Presence to be more of a straightforward rock album to distinguish it from the blends of electric rock and acoustic ballads of previous records. So it’s a guitar-heavy album and has some fantastic moments, but for the most part, the songs seem rushed and messy.

The ten-minute “Achilles Last Stand” is as strong an opener as Led Zeppelin ever did, with its numerous musical changes and mythical, travel-based lyrics. But then we drop into mediocre territory with deep, deep cuts such as “For Your Life” and “Royal Orleans.”

I’ve listened to this album many times, but I can’t easily hum these tunes or tell you what they’re about. I guess “clunky” is how I’d describe them.

There’s another flash of greatness in the band’s cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” an old gospel blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. Fans consider this one a minor Zeppelin classic, right? It’s pretty good, with Plant wailing on harmonica about halfway through. I like it.

But then we’re back to filler-type stuff with the Elvis-y “Candy Store Rock” and the frivolous “Hots on For Nowhere.”

Spare me. This isn’t really Led Zeppelin, is it?

However, we do get a fairly strong closing with the nine-minute slow blues “Tea for One.” Fans, and I think the band itself, consider this one a kind of companion to their earlier slow blues, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970).

I prefer “Tea.” Plant wrote it about missing his family while being away with the band. The time grinds on endlessly when he’s homesick, and he’s once again out somewhere getting tea just for himself.

The connection between music and emotions? Full display here, very human.

There’s also a tasteful Page solo that gets me every time. “Tea for One” is all right, man.

Led Zeppelin Swan Song label

So, What’s the Verdict?

What’s the verdict?

My view of Presence is that the band members were troubled and probably eager to fill the lost and empty days of late 1975 with some musical activity, so they made this.

I think they had one great idea (“Achilles”), two good ideas (“Tea” and “Nobody’s Fault”), and four slipshod, middling ideas that filled out the album.

But if that’s the case, why does Presence occupy such a sweet spot in my musical heart?

It must be the uniqueness of it all.

For maybe the first time in the band’s brief career, the rock gods Led Zeppelin were showing signs of their humanity, their need to submit to external stimuli. Canceling a U.S. tour. Singing from a wheelchair. Making just so-so music.

Viewed from hindsight, it’s so bare-all. And yet Presence covers the range of everything the band was at the time: still astonishingly talented and creative and yet susceptible to weaknesses.

Taken altogether like this, Presence appears as an artwork rich with character. Make no mistake, there are some quality tunes on here. But you have to take the great with the trivial.

I think that’s just fine.

The Chardon Polka Band: 2020 Albums Review

Okay, listen up. It’s time for us all to head to Eastern Europe (and Cleveland, Ohio) as I think about my Slovak and Polish roots and review two wonderful polka albums released at the end of 2020 by the Cleveland-based Chardon Polka Band: Oh No! Not Again! and A Very Polka Christmas.

Now, polka music has been a special genre for me since I can remember.

It’s not just because my people hail from the region of Czechoslovakia that became Slovakia, as well as from Poland and Hungary. It’s also due to the fact that my grandma (“Baba” in Slovak, meaning “old woman”) and mom used to watch “the polkas” on public television almost every Saturday night when I was growing up.

For those interested, some of their favorite artists included polka mainstays such as Frankie Yankovic, Jimmy Sturr, and the Kryger Brothers.

When one is seven years old, which I was for about a year, polka might not necessarily resonate with one as a particularly attractive style of music.

I saw old people watching it. I saw old people dancing to it. Therefore, I didn’t want to like it.

Of course, these days, I don’t know what I was thinking at seven. I was deficient, I guess.

The fact is that, perhaps due to the power of musical repetition over the years, I now find polka music to be a wildly entertaining genre that seems capable of making me happy no matter how I’m feeling.

Well, how could it not? With this dance music’s lively combinations of accordions, clarinets, saxophones, and drums, as well as its trademark lyrical humor, I’m surprised I’m not shoveling polka music into my chronically agitated and deep-fried cerebral cortex for hours on end.

Anyway, let’s talk about the Chardon Polka Band, who were kind enough to provide me with access to their eight and ninth studio releases for this review.

Oh No! Not Again!

So, if you read the biographical information of the band on their website, you’ll see they refer to themselves as eccentric.

That’s good! Because they said it before I did!

This is a great thing actually. If there’s one thing this band ain’t, it’s typical.

The lineup on the Oh No! Not Again! album is as follows:

  • Mike Franklin (banjo/guitar/bass/vocals)
  • Jake Kouwe (accordion/cordovox/vocals/bandleader)
  • Emily Kouwe (saxophone/flute/vocals)
  • Mitch Lawrence (saxophone/clarinet/vocals)
  • Bob Young (drums/percussion)

I like that these are young guys (like 30s) playing a sort of old-fashioned style of music, and with tremendous energy.

This album is a mix of some polka oldies (Yankovic’s “Just Because” and Ralph Sieger’s “In Heaven There Is No Beer”), an original polka (Jake Kouwe’s “Take Two Beers and Call Me in the Morning,” a favorite of mine here), and, interestingly, a smattering of mid-90s alt-rock covers (Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star”).

I love the influences here. At once, you hear the band’s polka forebears right alongside the 90s rock bands that the band members likely heard growing up.

Oh No! Not Again! makes me happier with each listen. The positive vibes of “I Saw a Rainbow,” the utter insanity of “The Laughing Polka” (just listen to it yourself), and the good, old-timey feels of “Cleveland the Polka Town/Beer Barrel” keep the album going strong all the way through.

Since I’m always thinking about the relationship between music and emotions, I know for a fact that this is one album I will return to when I need to go goof off for a bit while enjoying some quality tunes.

One song I need to mention specifically: a track near the end of the record has the band humorously appearing to step in at a concert for a different group that had to cancel. The Chardon Polka Band then launches into a rock-polka rendition of the folk/blues standard “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.”

Now, I know this song from the repertoire of the gentle country bluesman Mississippi John Hurt (d. 1966). It’s so nice to hear the blues getting some attention from a modern polka band in this way. This is clearly a group that knows and cherishes musical history.

Oh No! Not Again! is pure fun and lots of positive energy, and I’m thrilled that I’ve been exposed to it.

A Very Polka Christmas

Before wrapping things up, I want to mention the Chardon Polka Band’s other new release, A Very Polka Christmas.

chardon pola band a very polka christmas

People who know me fairly well know that I’m not much for Christmas music. I enjoy it, but I rarely go all out to listen to it (Jethro Tull’s version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a year-round favorite for me, however).

But with this album, I derive much more satisfaction from the music because the songs are played in that characteristically joyful Chardon Polka Band style.

There’s a bunch of Christmas classics here, such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Away in a Manger.” They’re interspersed with some interesting nuggets, such as the solid Kouwe original “Andrew the Mailman” and the partly-a-cover-song “Kielbasa for Christmas,” which is actually a reworked version of Stan Freberg’s 1955 comedic Christmas song “Nuttin’ for Christmas.”

(Now listen, on kielbasa: I just got into kielbasa after mostly rejecting it throughout my Slovak upbringing. Except, I don’t like steaming it like it’s classically done. I cut off chunks of fresh kielbasa and pan-fry them like normal breakfast sausage. Is that okay with you?)

For the most part, the classic tunes here are reproduced faithfully, but obviously there’s a lot of accordion and other polka goodness injected into them. That gives them a freshness that I really appreciate.

Special mention: my favorite song is the band’s version of “We Three Kings.” The closing track is played with an almost frenetic urgency that makes it another polka-rock type of performance. I’ve listened to that song over and over while working to make me more productive (it works).

Closing Thoughts

Listen, I didn’t know who the Chardon Polka Band was two months ago. But I’m extremely happy that I do now. This band has obviously made a big name for itself, and not just in the Cleveland area, as a pretty zany and fun act.

Go check out their performances and music videos on their YouTube channel to get a feel for what I mean.

I’ve really enjoyed covering the two new releases Oh No! Not Again! and A Very Polka Christmas by the Chardon Polka Band here on this blog. I do hope everyone reading this who likes polka checks them out.

Stay tuned for next time on MusicalRecord.com, when I will report on my efforts to funnel polka music into my body intravenously.

Music Review: Dakota Simpson Single “Flâneur”

Each post on this blog covers a different musical subject, but the common thread that runs through each post is that the power of music hangs heavy not only in my life but in the lives of music fans everywhere.

I addressed this most directly when I talked about music and emotions; there’s a reason humans respond in certain ways to this or that element of a song. For me, whether it’s Eric Church, Phish, or anyone else I like, music isn’t just entertainment. It’s a conduit for accessing feelings in myself that may just correspond to the feelings of the musicians who made the songs.

Lately, this concept has been apparent to me as I listen to “Flâneur,” English singer/songwriter Dakota Simpson’s new single, which is now available on Spotify, Amazon, and Soundcloud.

dakota simpson

Over the last decade or so of my music listening, I haven’t even realized that the concept of the singer/songwriter has become supreme in my mind as the type of musician I most like to hear. These artists write and perform their own music, and the focus of a song is typically more personal and based in emotions, recollections, and the human experience.

All in all, I’m talking about the type of music that’s simply worth your time. And that’s what Dakota Simpson’s “Flâneur” is. Let me explain.

The Dream Landscape

When you start playing “Flâneur,” you’re instantly transported to a different atmosphere. It’s instant but not abrupt. The gentle guitar eases you into things. It offers a nostalgic air, even if, as listeners, we don’t even know why we’re nostalgic.

As the song gets further into its form, we hear the sound of a distant police siren, letting us know this particular world exists in an urban setting.

Dakota’s vocals then enter our little scene. The singer’s voice is the ethereal, nearly angelic foundation that carries us through the rest of the journey.

It’s hard to describe in words the fullness of the world Dakota creates with all these sounds together. I usually dislike attaching genres and other labels to artists, but to help readers understand the sound, think of Dakota’s influences of The War on Drugs or Mazzy Star. These are neo-psychedelia/dream pop artists whose music is as much about the sounds as it is about the lyrics.

With “Flâneur,” believe me when I say that it is a compliment that Dakota’s voice sounds as if it’s being transmitted to us through layers of water or clouds. The delivery is melancholic without sounding depressed or despairing. And the sound of her voice is such that it’s both all around us and also whispering directly into the ears of each listener.

It’s as if this dream landscape we’re in has been soundproofed off from the rest of existence, and surrounding us are only the sounds of the guitar and Dakota’s voice and whatever feelings of our own that we project into this fluid universe.

Charting the Lyrical Journey

It’s easy for me to lose myself in the elegant sonic vista that Dakota’s band creates here, but I also want to know what is concerning Dakota in this song, why she has written this.

The word “flâneur” is French for “wanderer’ or “stroller.” The term comes from mid-nineteenth-century French writer Charles Beaudelaire. He described this archetype as a person who walks the streets of the city, observing it all but not intervening, having opinions but not commenting.

Given that, what is Dakota’s flâneur observing and thinking as she goes? It’s 10 on a sunny Monday morning. There’s leftover cold tea and pancakes. She seems to hear the city calling out to her to return to it.

Then, the crux of this stream of consciousness: the narrator determines she doesn’t want to follow what anyone else has done. Rather, she’s going to continue on her own way, being her own defense out there in the world.

dakota simpson 2

Just like anybody’s inner monologue and thought processes, some of the words, ideas, and scenes seem to run together and change form as “Flâneur” progresses.

Nothing is too clear here. We don’t know many specifics, but we also don’t need to know any. Our flâneur has simply captured a few moments of her psyche as she wanders, her winding through the city streets perhaps running parallel to her finding her own way through life.

Final Thoughts

As a song unto itself, Dakota Simpson’s “Flâneur” works beautifully. Maybe you’ll respond more to the aural dreamscape of the song, or perhaps you’re focusing on finding meaning in the lyrics. It’s a dense song in the most positive sense. There’s a lot of substance here, a lot to think through.

The last few months, I have been getting more into this kind of music, the atmospheric indie rock/neo-psychedelia that can put you in a trance if you’re fully committed to it. This is a unique genre in music today, and I think it holds a lot of potential for allowing listeners to travel places in their minds that they could not otherwise reach.

Having also listened to and enjoyed Dakota’s 2019 single, “Too Comfortable,” I feel positive things are going to keep happening for Dakota Simpson and her bandmates: guitarist Ryan Fellows, keyboardist/producer Ethan Thomas, and drummer Jonathan Snape.

The originality of “Flâneur” suggests a musical maturity and rich creativity that I hope continues to grow for the artist.

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