This weekly release report features the new releases from Josh Thompson, Jana Kramer, Toby Keith and Jason Boland and the Stragglers along with our thoughts on Corb Lund's latest and two albums that slipped our sights upon their release last month, the latest albums from The Damn Quails and Randall Bramblett.
Jana Kramer - Thirty One (Warner Music Nashville)
Her self-titled debut introduced Jana to a national musical audience thanks to the big hit “Why Ya Wanna” but she always felt like there was more artistry than that record showcased. Thirty One makes good on that promise with the strong ballads that seemed ripped from Jana’s life, from “Circles,” “Dance In The Rain,” and Top 40 lead single “Love.” The two best ballads on the record, though, are “I Got The Boy” (Top 20 and rising at album release) and “Last Song,” a song which is as stunning as anything released on a record the past five years. If radio played songs like this, well, it’d be a smash hit but given that they really don’t, it will have to become a fan favorite instead. As for the songs with more tempo, “Don’t Touch My Radio,” “Boomerang” and “Said No One Ever” feel like they could keep Jana on the radio but for my money, “Just Like The Movies” and “Bullet” (which features Steven Tyler) feel like better hits. Consider Thirty One the album where Jana Kramer’s potential fully realized.
Randall Bramblett - Devil Music (New West Records)
One of the best singer/songwriters you’ve probably never heard of, Randall Bramlett comes alive on Devil Music, an album that’s an homage to the life and times of Howlin’ Wolf in some places and the southern gothic life in other places. The record is like the best records from Tom Waits and John Hiatt in that it blends strong story songs with rock, country, soul, jazz, gospel and a strong dose of the Blues to build an album that is unique as anything else released in 2015 (or in the entirety of Bramblett’s career). The title track is the song about Howlin’ Wolf and is the anchor for the record but “Bottom Of The Ocean” and “Whiskey Headed Women” are also strong songs. “Dead In The Water,” which opens the 11 track Devil Music is also a highlight. Gerry Hanson’s production accentuates the musicality of Bramblett (a multi-instrumentalist of the highest order) and helps the musical auteur create the best album of his career and one of the most interesting albums released in 2015, in any genre.
Toby Keith - 35 mph Town (Show Dog Nashville/UMG Nashville)
The newly-minted Songwriter’s Hall of Fame member kicks of his 10 track album with the only true hit from the album to date. “Drunk Americans” is also the only song not written by Toby on the project and it’s fine because it still fits his sonic template while the rest of the album (including the pointed title track) serve as a nice collection that will suit his core fanbase even if it doesn’t win over new fans in the process. If there’s a moment for him to win new fans, and perhaps awards and a hit in the process, it’s 35 mph Town’s closer, “Beautiful Stranger,” a song about rekindling love and it’s easily the best song he’s released in perhaps a decade. Other favorite tracks “Haggard, Hank & Her,” “Sailboat For Sale” (featuring Jimmy Buffett) and “What She Left Behind.”
Josh Thompson - Change: The Lost Record, Vol. 1 - EP (ole Digital)
Originally slated to be his second album on Columbia Records, Change was eventually shelved and Thompson was let go from his label deal. Now coming out following 2014’s Turn It Up, it’s his third release on three labels (this one coming via publisher ole Digital), the six songs here showcase Thompson as strong as ever with “Work In The Mornin’” a strong radio-ready kind of honky-tonker while the title track was already a Top 30 hit. “Gotta Go To Heaven” a strong, introspecttive ballad while “Livin’ Like Hank” is a fun duet with Justin Moore that probably should be a single. This is a fine way to spend 22 minutes and only whets my appetite for what is coming next from Josh (which is the 2nd volume of EPs).
The Damn Quals - Out Of The Birdcage (Swomp Fyst Records)
After releasing the critically-acclaimed Down The Hatch in 2011, this folksy band had to endure a lengthy legal battle with their old record and management and eventually won the right to their band name and after a Kickstarter campaign raised the funds, the band went in the studio with Reckless Kelly’s David Abeyta and produced this funky, soulful slice of Americana that’s neither blues nor country; neither rock nor folk. Instead, it’s somewhere in beweteen ‘em all. The band’s principal members Bryon White and Gabriel Marshall are strong writers and singers and White’s voice may be the most ‘radio-ready’ of them and the opening title track can be seen as an allegory for all they’ve gone through (as could “Faster Than You Think.” Other standouts include “Givt It Some Time,” “The Man In The Mirror,” and single “Just A Little While” along with story song “Tightrope Walker.” Now that the band has the tumultuous era behind them, look for them to continue to make strong records like Out Of The Bird Cage, a relentlessly satisfying listen.
Corn Lund - Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West)
The Canadian works with one of country music’s most in-demand producers in Dave Cobb for Things That Can’t Be Undone and it proceeds to bring Lund to a new level of artistry as the musicality of this record (recorded with his band The Hurtin’ Albertans in Cobb’s Low Country Sound studio in Nashville). The ten songs are among the best of Lund’s career and like his previous albums, Things That Can’t Be Undone features strong lyrical observations but (perhaps) unlike those other records, it has a buoyant vibrancy to the melodies, especially when juxtaposed with lyrics like those found on opener “Weight Of The Gun.” It brings Lund into a higher level of artistry than before (which is saying something because he was already in rare air). “Run This Town” also has a slight jovial feel in the story of a romance gone wrong while “Sadr City” has a retro cool melody backing up a tough lyric about the cost of modern warfare and tours into the Middle East. The ghost of Johnny Cash comes through in the music business lament “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues” and “S Lazy H” is a wonderful story song about the tough times of a family ranch as the North American economy seemingly turns away from farming and ranching. Things That Can’t Be Undone is easily amongst the best things from Lund and perhaps even Producer Dave Cobb’s own oeuvre as a producer (which includes Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell among others).
Jason Boland & The Stragglers - Squelch (Proud Souls Entertainment)
The latest album from the Texas Music stalwarts features their standard mix of all-out country songs. Boland is from the Waylon school of singers and is stronger than some may give him credit for. Opener “Break 19” proves this as does “Holy Relic Sale” and the bitingly satirical “I Guess It’s Alright To Be An Asshole.” The latter one is pretty much what happens when Country goes Punk. “Heartland Bypass” is also another social commentary about people who never see the heartland of the USA.