Darius Rucker: Charleston, SC 1966


RIYL: Radney Foster, Brad Paisley, Hootie & The Blowfish


Hootie & The Blowfish might have sold millions of copies of 1994’s Cracked Rear View album, but by the early part of the ’00s, they could barely pull a top-50 placing with the albums. Possibly not coincidentally, that’s when the band’s frontman, Darius Rucker, decided to step out of the band long enough to release his 2002 solo debut, Back to Then. That record found Rucker exploring his R&B side. It didn’t sell very well. Six years later, he tried again with a second solo album, Learn to Live, this time deciding to go country. The result: three number one singles on the Billboard country music chart. Bet you can’t guess which of these albums he used as the template for his latest release…

The title of Charleston, SC 1966 was inspired by Radney Foster’s breakthrough record, Del Rio, TX 1959, and if it isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking as Foster’s classic work (it isn’t), there are still moments where it can match it jangle for jangle. (Indeed, some of the jangling on Charleston actually comes from Foster.) There’s plenty of radio-friendly country pop out there, but precious little of it has the kind of crossover appeal that Rucker’s familiar voice can offer, and when it’s singing songs as catchy as “This” and “Come Back Song,” airplay is all but guaranteed.

Sonically speaking, a Rucker newbie listening to the songs from Charleston and Learn to Live on “shuffle” would probably be hard pressed to tell which songs came from which albums, so closely do they follow the same template. Still, you’ve got Bela Fleck on banjo adding a coolness factor, Brad Paisley (who duets with Rucker on “I Don’t Care”) helping to up his country cred, and a Kara DioGuardi co-write (“This”) to guarantee a hit single on both the country and the pop charts. On top of everything else, it really doesn’t sound that different from Hootie. That might not impress you, but once upon a time, 16 million people dug their sound, and based on the success of Learn to Live, it’s clear that a couple of million of them are happy to hear Rucker’s voice again. Can you really blame him for sticking to the same formula for Charleston? (Concord 2010)

Darius Rucker official website

  

Mt. Desolation: Mt. Desolation


RIYL: The Thrills, The Pogues, The Lilac Time

If you had asked us what we expected the next move to be from Keane after they released their fourth album Night Train in May of this year, our gut response would have been “lengthy hiatus, followed by announcement of signing with new, smaller label.” Don’t get us wrong, we love the boys from Battle, but the release of Night Train, coming so quickly on the heels of the band’s 2008 album Perfect Symmetry, looked for all intents and purposes like they were trying to fulfill their contractual obligations to Interscope and move on. Consider this: Night Train was designated EP status in their native England. Here, it’s a full-fledged long-player. Hmmm.

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Keane may very well be going on a lengthy hiatus, but two of its members have already cranked out their first side project, which makes it their third album in two years: Mt. Desolation, a collection of, wait for it, country songs, filtered through their English sensibilities. It’s country in the same way that the Thrills are West Coast pop, but Mt. Desolation is a charming album just the same. Rice-Oxley and Quin don’t have the booming voice of their bandmate Tom Chaplin, but their voices actually suit these songs better, though it would be nice to hear Chaplin take a whack at the Keane-ish “Bitter Pill” somewhere down the road. The album has its share of drinking songs (“My My My”) and shit-kickers (“Annie Ford,” “Platform 7”), and while it’s clear that country music is more of a hobby than a lifestyle for those involved, it’s also clear that these songs come from the heart, making this a more honest country record than most country records. Writing a song that could pass for a B-side to Beck’s Sea Change (“Another Night”) doesn’t hurt, either. This is one side project that we’d like to see grow some legs. (Cherry Tree/Interscope 2010)

Mt. Desolation MySpace page
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Sugarland: The Incredible Machine


RIYL: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts

You can’t review a country album anymore without discussing where it fits in the “real country” versus “country pop” spectrum; the debate over what constitutes the real stuff has been raging since the rhinestone cowboy days, and now that Rascal Flatts is the top-selling act in the genre – and the closest country radio gets to trad fare is fauxdowns from rootin’ tootin’ biceps barers like Toby Keith – country seems poppier than ever.

It’s got to be vexing for listeners who like their music nitty, gritty, and dirty, but country music doesn’t have to be “real” to be really entertaining, and Sugarland’s ongoing bid for crossover success is a case in point. They’re nominally a country band, but their music has always had a strong pop component, and it’s really come to the fore over their past couple of releases, 2008’s Love on the Inside and its covers-heavy live follow-up, Live on the Inside. What can you say about a platinum Nashville act that leaves room on a live album for covers of “The One I Love,” “Love Shack,” “Nightswimming,” Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” and Pearl Jam’s “Better Man”? They’re either desperate for broader appeal, or they’re trying to make a point about the arbitrary nature of genre boundaries in the first place.

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Based on the savvy songwriting and slick, airless production on display in the band’s fourth studio set, The Incredible Machine, it seems safe to assume there’s a little of both at play. Sugarland members Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles have broad musical backgrounds, and they muddy the waters between pop and country more artfully than most; unlike, say, a Rascal Flatts record, you don’t get the sense you’re listening to a pop album that’s been retrofitted with fiddles and pedal steel to appease the county fair crowd. Instead, Machine feels like the work of a band whose singer just happens to have a gigantic, full-throated country holler for a voice – sometimes it’s the focal point of the music, and sometimes it isn’t.

On the other hand, the album’s title is perhaps a little more apt than Sugarland intended. It’s supposed to be a reference to, y’know, the human capacity for marvelous things, but it also makes sense as a statement about how the album sounds – like it was squeezed out of the same denim-coated Velveeta factory that gives us Kenny Chesney records. It’s loud and glossy to a fault, and it’s the kind of record that aspires to bigness even when it isn’t necessarily deserved. This is probably partly a reflection of Nettles’ massive voice, but there are also moments when you can feel Sugarland straining for arena-filling pop profundity, and it’s distracting. (Example: the deafening, all-cards-on-the-table clatter that closes the opening track, “All We Are.”)

It’s a formula that works, obviously – check Sugarland’s RIAA certifications for proof – and it’s hard to fault Nettles and Bush for swinging for the bleachers, especially in such a grim industry climate. Still, the album it adds up to is one that, while certainly entertaining, doesn’t resonate on the level you sense they were aiming for. An impressive machine, surely. Incredible? Maybe next time. (Mercury 2010)

Sugarland MySpace page

  

Raul Malo: Sinners & Saints


RIYL: The Mavericks, Roy Orbison, Texas Tornadoes

51jgaIohSgL._SCLZZZZZZZ_[1] Raul Malo is an awesomely gifted vocalist and musician, but his solo career has been long on quantity (seven albums in less than a decade) and short on quality control. Too often, his solo albums have given the impression that Malo’s years with the Mavericks wore him out – he’s been content to coast with covers projects, like 2006’s syrupy You’re Only Lonely or 2007’s country-focused After Hours, or specialty-market releases like The Nashville Acoustic Sessions and his Christmas album, Marshmallow World and Other Holiday Favorites. All of which have been fine, in their limited fashion, but nowhere near as exhilarating as those Mavericks records. Without a band to push him forward, it sounded like Malo was happy to keep things at a pleasant, undemanding drift – 2009’s Lucky One, which packed a dozen Malo originals and hearkened back to his days as one of country’s most exciting young performers, seemed like a pit stop between covers projects.

It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that he carries over some of that spirit with Sinners & Saints, a largely self-penned collection that Malo calls “as much of me as I’ve ever put on a record.” It’s brief – ten tracks and under 45 minutes – but its abbreviated length keeps Malo from indulging his weakness for drawn-out ballads, and the result is the loosest, most energetic studio album of his solo career. Recorded with a stellar supporting cast (including Augie Meyers and Shawn Sahm), Sinners highlights the breadth of Malo’s talents, with hints of pop, rock, country, and Tex-Mex in the mix – but it’s also a focused affair, an album where even the longest songs (like a six-minute cover of Rodney Crowell’s “‘Til I Gain Control Again”) feel lean and tightly arranged.

Raul Malo once seemed destined for superstardom, but his career lost momentum in the late ’90s, and Sinners & Saints probably isn’t going to change that. It does, however, prove that this once-prolific songwriter still has some gas left in the tank, as well as plenty of his old passion for playing in the borders between genres. The faithful will be pleased, and if you’ve got a little room in your musical diet for a restless troubadour with the voice of an angel, it just might make you a fan. (Fantasy 2010)

Raul Malo MySpace page

  

Sons of Sylvia: Revelation


RIYL: Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Rascal Flatts

Don’t blame brother trio Sons of Sylvia if they are a bit pigeon-holed into the country music genre, because that’s not what they are. Sure, the band won a talent competition that led to a deal with 19 Recordings, and one of the band members was a backup singer in Carrie Underwood’s band, but their debut, Revelation, is no more country than Bon Jovi or Bret Michaels. Oh wait….yeah, there is much crossover these days. Let’s just say this is a rock album with moments of twang and leave it at that. And as debut albums go, this is a pretty strong set. The trio is led by singer Ashley Clark and the trio writes together with the help of folks like OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, who happens to be their cousin. And while Ashley has a strong voice, one of the drawbacks is that he tries too hard to show it off. The album opens with “John Wayne,” and this is the country rock song Bon Jovi couldn’t seem to write, but with too many vocal acrobatics a la Adam Lambert. But it’s a good one, as are most of the tracks on here. “Love Left to Lose” is a powerful gang-vocal anthem, “50 Ways” could find its way onto an Aerosmith album, and the current single, “I’ll Know You,” is pure pop power ballad. But the best track of all is “Song of Solomon,” a slowly building gem in which the vocal acrobatics are more appropriate. All in all this is a solid debut and this is a band that could have an extremely bright future. (19 Recordings/Interscope)

Sons of Sylvia MySpace Page

  

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