A budding Nashville starlet’s debut is her finale, while a beleaguered 90s songstress attempts her return: Jessica Harp and Mindy McCready highlight the new country music releases of March, 2010. Here’s our abbreviated reviews of the albums we we didn’t cover last month.
- A Woman Needs – Jessica Harp
Say it ain’t so. Ex-Wrecker Jessica Harp has called it quits after a cool response from country radio, but her spicy southern twang is a real spirit-lifter on this digital-only release. Harp blends the wistful melancholy of 2006′s Stand Still, Look Pretty with a dose of down-home cheer that would make her idol Reba McEntire proud. She gets by with a little help from her friends: Hall of Famer Vince Gill lends his lovely tenor to the Darrell Scott co-write “Homemade Love,” while Keith Urban’s world-class six-string magic takes charge of the fun, frothy “Boy Like Me.” Producer Jerry Flowers lays on a fresh-sounding sheen that pairs well with Harp’s girl-on-the-verge anthems. Music Row remains largely unkind to the ladies of country, but she’s a notch above Nashville’s clutch of pretty blondes. Jessica Harp: comeback kid? Here’s hoping. –Blake Boldt
- Hillbilly Bone – Blake Shelton
If you’re releasing an EP–excuse me, a “Six Pack”–one would think you’d try to keep it free of filler. That makes it even odder that the first two songs off of Blake Shelton’s six-song album are two of the biggest pieces of filler that you’re ever likely to hear. “Hillbilly Bone” with Trace Adkins is a waste of time for both singers, and “Kiss My Country Ass” is probably meant to be edgy but just ends up being cliched and lame.
Fortunately, those first two songs aren’t indicative of the rest of the album, which focuses more on sly humor and lightheartedness and less on being in your face. “You’ll Always Be Beautiful,” a tender love ballad about his hung-over love, and “Delilah” serve as reminders that behind the gimmicky songs, there’s a solid and engaging country vocalist. “Can’t Afford To Love You” and “Almost Alright” veer toward the lighter side and hold up to repeated listenings without losing their charm. The latter song, with its steel drums and the attempted rhyme of “Cabo” and “avocado” that even leaves Shelton momentarily stunned, is a potential summertime hit.
Shelton’s been carving out an image as a bad boy of country music, and “Hillbilly Bone” fits that image well. It’s unfortunate that one of the weakest songs on the album ends up being a smash hit, but the real shame will be if his better work gets buried behind songs that substitute attitude for intelligence. — Sam Gazdziak
- I’m Still Here – Mindy McCready
“I hate the way you make the feel/I love the way you make me feel/Don’t come back baby/Please come back,” sings Mindy McCready on “I Hate That I Love You,” a standout track on the beleaguered singer’s new album I’m Still Here.
These contradicting lyrics make an especially fitting description of McCready’s personal and professional escapades, a roller-coaster ride full of highs (both literal and figurative) and lows that culminate on this self-aware declaration of perseverance.
The singer, whose voice still boasts honky-tonk teardrops to spare, makes her way through a cohesive batch of songs that stick to tried-and-true stories of heartache, regret and, on its title track, newfound peace. Bypass its full-blown counterpart for the acoustic version of “By Her Side,” an honest look at the grieving process following an unsuccessful relationship, and get a woman’s take on Garth Brooks’ “The Dance,” which benefits from McCready’s personal been-there, done-that tale of woe.
While it never achieves the sass of the 1996 debut album that put her on the country music map, McCready channels some of that magic on new versions of “Guys Do It All the Time” and “Ten Thousand Angels.” Fans of those nineties classics will find plenty more to enjoy on I’m Still Here. — Karlie Justus
- Red Wing – Trent Wagler & The Steel Wheels
For some folks, just classifying your band as “Americana” puts you into an upper echelon of musical god. The result has been some artists that attach to the “Americana” concept, but fall short of any unique prowess.
Luckily, Trent Wagler and the Steel Wheels aren’t one of those artists. When they say “Americana,” they mean it. The four-piece band draws from the best elements of bluegrass, blues, and old-timey gospel on their third full-album effort, Red Wing. The best example of this is on “Nothing You Can’t Lose” where Wagler utilizes a bluesy moan on top of a prominent fiddle that makes the foot naturally tap.
The stripped down quality of the album—which isn’t hard when you only have four people in your band—provides a refreshing sound to accompany the blossoming of spring. On “Hymn for the Unsung,” Wagler repeats “don’t take this music from me.” And let’s hope nobody ever does. — Pierce Greenberg
- The Big To-Do – Drive-By Truckers
After a long and successful run on New West Records, the Drive-By Truckers have brought their act over to ATO with the release of The Big To-Do. Fortunately, the change in labels still finds the group putting its own spin on Southern rock, featuring some of the most memorable characters you’ll hear in a four-minute song. Bandleader Patterson Hood writes with the eye of a novelist or a journalist, and his songs are so detailed that the characters spring to life. The boy who understands more than he lets on in “Daddy Learned To Fly” and the characters in the courtroom drama “The Wig He Made Her Wear” have more depth than characters in most feature films, though the songs last for just a fraction of the time.
As with the DBTs previous albums, some of the best songs are the ones where Hood doesn’t sing. Mike Cooley’s “Birthday Boy” portrays a philosopher stripper, and “Eyes Like Glue” takes a somber look at a father/son relationship. If Shonna Tucker continues to contribute soul-drenched numbers like “(It’s Gonna Be)/I Told You So,” her elevated presence in the band will be a welcome development. That’s not to belittle Hood’s efforts; the DBTs are just one of the few bands that can make a coherent album with multiple singers/songwriters. When the DBTs are at their best, their songs resonate with the listener immediately. This album doesn’t hit home as quickly as 2008′s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. It may require a few more listens, but the effort is definitely worth it. — Sam Gazdziak
- Sunday In The Country – Various Artists
As the album title suggests, Sunday in the Country is a collection of spiritual country songs from artists like George Strait, Keith Urban, and Lee Ann Womack. Some, like Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train,” are overtly religious in nature, others less so (Martina McBride’s “Blessed”). Though most of the tracks are from the past decade, there are a few older songs from Womack (a rousing version of “Get Up in Jesus’ Name” from her self-titled debut), Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, and Alabama. Chances are you’ve already got most, if not all of these 12 songs, but it’s a fine collection. And since a portion of the proceeds go to the Country Music Hall of Fame, you don’t have to feel guilty about spending money on the CD; after all, it’s for a good cause. — Juli Thanki