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
Thomas Wesley Pentz – Snake Oil
Thomas Wesley Pentz was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1978 but grew up to become one of the top producers in the world. Under the name Diplo he worked on records by Major Lazer, LSD (with Sia), MIA, Beyonce, Jack U and Silk City. Best as a collaborator, he goes solo here in the Snake Oil project which has been trailed for the last year.
As of the album’s release Heartless has 125m Spotify listens, Lonely 116m and the remix of Old Town Road 68m, so the numbers don’t lie. This is global dance music made by a guy who could probably do country as well as he does EDM. On the album he enlists several pop acts – Julia Michaels, Jonas Brothers and Noah Cyrus – so I will limit myself to talking about country acts. The album’s intro features the fascinating Orville Peck blethering on like Johnny Cash over acoustic guitar to set the scene.
Cam pops up on the gorgeous So Long, co-written by nine writers including Hardy who is so HOT RIGHT NOW. Ryan Hurd, among others, worked on the very contemporary trap-pop-country-EDM mulch Heartless, which saw Morgan Wallen leap from country radio staple to pop act. See him be catapulted into Luke Combs territory in 2021.
Blanco Brown is on the atrocious Do Si Do. As for Old Town Road, Diplo sprinkles some of his dust on an already magical tune. Dance With Me puts together Young Thug and Thomas Rhett in a song with eight writers including Ryan Tedder and Zac Brown. It’s a pop song that positions TR as a southern pop star, not a country act. Hey, if Taylor Swift can go pop so can TR.
Fans of Major Lazer will like this, but it’s a bit fluffy. Zac himself can be found on Hometown along with Danielle Bradbery. It sounds like Thomas Rhett, but more boring. The album is background music for bachelorettes, made by men in suits to make money. 2/5
Gabby Barrett – Goldmine
Gabby Barrett is only 20 years old. Her debut hit I Hope was 100% Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood and Gabby’s career is following the Carrie model: appear on TV and win the heart of America; work really hard to ensure post-TV fame turns into a career; get a big number one; put out the album, with songs co-written with some big guns.
Goldmine is her album, produced by Ross Copperman who is best known as Brett Eldredge’s co-pilot and producer. The big names in the brackets include Jon Nite, Jimmy Robbins, Adam Doleac, Josh Osborne, Josh Kear and Emily Weisband. For no reason at all Charlie Puth pops up on a reworking of I Hope.
Gabby should become a big important star and this record introduces her to the masses in a way that talent show stars have been introduced from time immemorial. If you’re a 13-year-old girl you’ll lap this up, and your parents will like it too. Inoffensive to the point of offense, this is a fine album. The whistle notes she hits on Hall of Fame are extraordinary; Gabby co-wrote the song, something Carrie doesn’t get enough credit for in her own music.
We have songs called Thank God, Jesus & My Mama and Strong. Footprints on the Moon is 100% You Go Girl! Indeed, this is ‘You go, girl!’ pop music with a light country touch. Got Me, the new song with Shane & Shane, is proper Christian contemporary music, which is bound to be covered by Hillsong. Christian contemporary is a genre almost invisible to the majority of the US but is very important to record labels. TV star Chrissy Metz is going to put out her album just in time for Christmas, while Carrie Underwood is finally getting around to putting out her own Christmas collection.
The title track Goldmine is written by the heavyweight trio of Nicolle Galyon, Caitlyn Smith and Liz Rose. It’ll probably be a single, with its huge rock chorus full of Carrie-type notes and a lyric about how ‘kisses are riches and you hit the jackpot’. 3/5 but then it’s not aimed at me..
Lindsay Ell – Heart Theory
Lindsay Ell releases her second album of original material three years to the week after her debut The Project. Heart Theory is a journey from love to loss, starting with the poppy openers Hits Me and How Good, the poppy ballad I Don’t Love You and the excellent pop-rock of Want Me Back. Guitarist Dann Huff, a hero to Lindsay, is the producer and lets the instruments shine.
I’m loath to call this country music. This is rock made in Nashville and Lindsay, who is Canadian, could well make it in the pop landscape as her talent and musicality are enormous. But then Nashville likes talent and Lindsay is a phenomenal performer, so why not push it to country? It’s not, though, and she must realise that. It’s lyrical pop music which Taylor Swift and Kelsea fans will appreciate, especially the likes of Body Language of a Breakup.
Get Over You, Ready To Love and The Other Side (‘sure feels good on the other side of you’) are all magical pop songs – do you sense a theme in my criticism? – while Make You is a song with personal significance to Lindsay as she hopes to be an advocate for rape survivors.
The problem with Lindsay Ell, as with so many acts, is that she’s not just one thing. Lenny Kravitz had this problem: too much of a guitar hero for pop, too much of a songwriter for rock, too independent for country. She’s great all the same and if you love Keith Urban, check out Heart Theory. Unrated but worth a listen.
This is why I put “country(?)” in the title of this post. But since all three acts call themselves country, that’s what I call them too.