In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife
Sara Evans – Copy That
Sara Evans has put out a record full of covers, Copy That, whose cover has her adjusting a blonde wig. The album starts with If I Can’t Have You, a sweet version of Don’t Get Me Wrong and the evergreen Come On Eileen. Before you start putting them onto WTF covers lists, listen. Sara’s voice brought joy to millions in the 2000s before she got too old for country radio.
Her voice slinks around the modern standard It’s Too Late, jaunty Fleetwood Mac song Monday Morning, John Mayer’s All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye. 6th Avenue Heartache, written by Bob Dylan’s son Jakob, is on here too as well as a bit of fun. I realised My Sharona is almost uncoverable. Hard To Say I’m Sorry morphs into September in a wigout. It’s a lot of fun.
The countryest thing here is I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, in which she ropes in Old Crow Medicine Show, while Phillip off of Little Big Town joins her on the Kenny Loggins song Whenever I Call You Friend, complete with key change for the chorus. Hank Cochrane’s She’s Got You, one of the 100 best songs ever written, is also here. On her own Born To Fly label, Sara deserves some love. 4/5 and a really great thing to do.
Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Dirt and the Stars
Mary Chapin Carpenter is still best known for poppy hits in the 90s like Passionate Kisses and Shut Up and Kiss Me and was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year 1992 and 1993. Since 2000 she has shunned the charts and ploughed her own furrow, writing albums with a political slant. Having re-recorded some songs for her 2018 release Sometimes Just The Sky, this album is her first set of originals since 2012. Like Rodney Crowell, who has just turned 70, songwriters look up to Mary even if the albums do not sell in huge quantities.
The Dirt and the Stars is produced by Ethan Johns, who has worked on albums by Paul McCartney, The Staves, Tom Jones, Laura Marling and Kings of Leon, as well as being a songwriter in his own right). production is austere, letting the song breathe and sounding like the room it was recorded in: the hallowed Real World Studios owned by Peter Gabriel.
The opening track Farther Along and Further In reminds me of Ron Sexsmith or Laura Veirs with its gentle piano and melancholic timbre. There are some sweet guitar lines on It’s OK To Be Sad (‘how else would you know you’re alright?’) and there’s a shimmering sheen to All Broken Hearts Break Differently. This is the sort of music that’s not quite folk or rock or roots or country – it just is. It’s itself, a breathing piece of music with organic drums and sparkle that doesn’t come from a little box hooked up to a PC programme.
T-Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb let the players play, and Ethan Johns does too. This is why I am going on about how the album sounds – that’s also because many of the tracks contain instrumental sections where Mary gives way to her band. In fact, the nearest equivalent is probably Rosanne Cash, who also makes grown-up music for grown-ups and is ably assisted by her husband & producer John Leventhal.
Other fine tracks include the gentle Nocturne, with some fine acoustic picking; the rootsy Secret Keepers, about what new people are hiding or failing to disclose; Everybody’s Got Something, which seems to be about Mary’s depressive episode; and Between the Dirt and the Star, with some soft organ underscoring a lyric where Mary is 17 and lonely, with Wild Horses on the Radio (‘everything you’ll ever know is in the choruses’). It’s a superb reminiscing song with an extended guitar solo in the second half from a man called Duke Levine (who has also played with Rosanne Cash and Aimee Mann) that sums up the album nicely. For a fan of rootsy country-folky rocking American music, this is a fine album. 5/5
The Chicks – Gaslighter
The act formerly known as Dixie Chicks added to their tally of Top 10 albums next week by topping the charts with Gaslighter. It was their first release since Taking the Long Way in 2006, which helped them win acclaim and awards after they were cancelled for expressing an opinion and not shutting up and singing.
Here is the rollcall of writers on Gaslighter: Jack Antonoff, Teddy Geiger, Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, Ariel Rechtshaid, Sarah Aarons, Ian Kirkpatrick, Ross Golan, Dan Wilson (who helped them win awards for Not Ready To Make Nice), St Vincent and a chap called Ben Abraham who wrote Praying with Kesha. These are all pop writers; in fact, there are no Nashville writers at all on this album, which is a wise move since Nashville effectively placed them on the blacklist back in 2003.
Over 12 tracks The Chicks set out their stall as veterans of popular music. It should not be ignored that these women are now in their forties or, in fiddle player Martie’s case, 50. It’s rare that women of that age have such a big push from their label, but then the Chicks are a special case. They were the biggest thing since Garth Brooks, when Wide Open Spaces, Fly and Home sold squillions at the turn of the century. The former has sold 13m in America, Fly 11m, Home 6m, meaning the band have two Diamond albums. Then came the demise of the recording industry, but Taking The Long Way still sold 2m in America, which means not everyone thought they were cancelled. The band toured in 2016 – including a date at London’s O2 – and put out a recording in 2017. They’re now streaming the full show on Youtube in case people have forgotten songs like Wide Open Spaces and Cowboy Take Me Away, which are now classics.
And so to Gaslighter. The title track was the first single and didn’t do much for me, though it’s a You Go Girl song that is a perfect opening track. The album track Tights on my Boat picks up the themes of the track Gaslighter – something happened on a boat and the woman was done wrong. Hope It’s Something Good seems to complete the trilogy: ‘We fought our wars with silence…Now that you’re done I get to write this song’. Only DCX can write this type of song…well, and Taylor Swift.
March March is terrific. The trio performed the song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – or rather A Late Show as he is broadcasting from his lounge – and noted that back in March the band were called the Dixie Chicks. Natalie says ‘it was about time – we wanted to change it for a long time and we were using DCX for a long time’.
I will call them DCX as The Chicks isn’t a terrific name. They were toying with MEN – Martie, Emily, Natalie – or Puss In Boots. Every time Taylor Swift talks about Trump in the next few months, we must realise she is only able to do so because the world has caught up with what DCX were saying back in 2003. Having the Chicks sing on Soon You’ll Get Better on her last album will ensure many of Taylor’s fans will check out, and love, Gaslighter.
The second single Julianna Calm Down was similarly meh-ful, sounding like something Pasek and Paul might write for one of their teen-targeted musicals, but with two minutes of confetti at the end. It’s not aimed at me. The track which was pushed to coincide with the launch of the DCX album is Sleep At Night, track two, in which DCX ask ‘how do you sleep at night?’ to someone who done them wrong. You go girl.
Texas Man opens with a neat little riff before the lyric enters about love and stuff. He needs ‘patient hands’ to catch a chick. You can tell Julia Michaels has some sonic fingerprints on this. For Her is a Sarah Aarons topline – from the lady who brought us GIRL and The Middle for Maren Morris – and this song For Her is a plea for ‘someone who cares’ to be ‘a little bit kinder and a lot less guarded’. The middle eight – ‘stand up, show love for her’ – is anthemic. When the band tour this will be an enormous part of their set: their audience are girls and women and they know it. Sarah is one of the top songwriters in the world and DCX do this understated song justice over five minutes.
Ditto Everybody Loves You. This is an outside write from Joe Spargur – aka Joe London, who produces Ross Golan’s And The Writer Is podcast – Charlotte Lawrence (who has just turned 20 and is also the daughter of Bill Lawrence, the showrunner of Scrubs) and Hayley Gene Penner (whose dad Fred Penner was a beloved Canadian children’s entertainer and recipient of the Order of Canada). Not that any of that matters. This is a stunning piece of music.
My Best Friend’s Weddings has a recurring ‘Go it alone’ chant in the middle over some soft banjo and fiddle. It’s a song made for Youtube montages – again, the band knows their audience. Young Man is the same, except a mum’s song for her son. Bring tissues: ‘My blues aren’t your blues: it’s up to you.’ Maybe this is even better than For Her. Natalie’s vocals are sublime, especially on the couplet about storms and truth. St Vincent aka Annie Clark is a co-writer here, so if any of her fans hear this track they will enjoy the rest of the album.
Here are some of the words used in the final track Set Me Free: ‘Sick from hurt’; ‘tethered’; ‘untangle me’; ‘decency’; ‘exhausting’; ‘broke my spirit’; and, finally, ‘there’s a good guy in there’.
This is the album Taylor Swift would make if she’d broken up with all those boys in her forties, not her twenties. As it is, this is grown-up pop music from three grown-ups who will delight their grown-up fans with a grown-up album. It’s not perfect so 4/5 from me, but I am ashamed I am not from Texas. Remember, when they got cancelled for telling the truth? Now you have to speak up if you want a career. Funny old world…