Funny enough, I had never heard of Cory Branan before this album. It turns out he’s been around for about 15 years. Whoops. Anyway, The No-Hit Wonder has a lot going for it. My worry is that Branan will remain just that because his music doesn’t fit neatly into one genre. It’s an unfortunate reality in today’s industry.
Branan has a soothing vocal delivery that makes it apparent he enjoys what he’s doing. It’s definitely a feel-good album, with the underdog theme pervading every song. It manifests itself in all kinds of musical forms, such as the spirited “The Highway Home” and the rockabilly stomper, “Sour Mash.” There are a few forgettable tracks, but nothing outright terrible.
The unquestionable highlight, in my mind, is “You Make Me.” Set to an infectious hook, a foot-tapping backbeat, and lively piano, Branan gives his most enthusiastic vocal performance. It’s Rolling Stones meets Black Crowes. Listen to this one, if nothing else.
Rating: 3.25 / 5
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You may know Sunny Sweeney from her 2010 hit “From a Table Away,” which I loved. She’s often compared to Miranda Lambert because of her East Texas twang and tendency to raise hell against men who wrong her. I actually see a lot of similarities to Kacey Musgraves with her wit and cynicism toward small town life. On Provoked, Sweeney carves out her own unique identity in one of the most dynamic albums of the year.
The album isn’t likely to produce another top 10 single now that she is no longer signed with Big Machine Records, but it’s definitely interesting. Sweeney has an undeniably country sound yet manages to maintain an appeal to mainstream listeners. There’s truly something for everyone, whether it’s the stomping single “Bad Girl Phase” (co-written by Brandy Clark) or the scornful “Uninvited.”
The most intriguing subplot here is Sweeney’s transition into a new marriage, with some songs looking back and others living in the present. The only real outlier is “You Don’t Know Your Husband,” an older cheating song of hers that finally made the cut for a record. It would have been cool to intentionally arrange the songs to convey this story.
While “Bad Girl Phase” is climbing the Texas Music Chart, the standout track here is “Carolina on the Line.” This slow ballad describes the painful but ultimately beneficial act of ending a one-sided relationship. Sweeney explores the wisdom of her decision and forces you to consider both perspectives.
So before you say ‘I love you’
I need to say goodbye
I know you’re hangin’ on
So I’m hangin’ up
Before you change my mind
Other recommendations include the bouncing “Backhanded Compliment” and “My Bed,” a beautiful duet with Will Hoge. No songs are what you would call “automatic skips” — just don’t expect many to jump out at you as particularly impressive. Still, Sunny Sweeney really pours her heart out on this album, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rating: 3.75 / 5
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The Idaho-born Braun brothers are such a gift to music. I’ve always been a huge fan of Reckless Kelly (led by Willy Braun), but Micky & The Motorcars never really stood out to me. Most of their songs tended to be formulaic and forgettable, which was the case on their 2011 release Raise My Glass. I’m happy to say their latest album is a wonderful surprise that has far surpassed my expectations.
One of the things that makes Hearts From Above so powerful is its back story. It comes on the heels of former bass player Mark McCoy’s tragic death on a 2012 rafting trip, and Micky Braun says the title is an acknowledgement of him and other friends the band has lost in recent years. He came up with the title track after a show at the Continental Club, right down the street on South Congress.
You never know what to expect with lineup changes, but the Motorcars seem to have kept their core sound intact. Like Reckless Kelly, they’re country rockers who deliver driving back beats and hard-hitting vocals. You’d be hard-pressed to keep your foot still on almost any of these tracks. Willy Braun deserves tremendous credit as the producer on this record for incorporating steel guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and piano to subtly enhance a bunch of the songs. The only thing I would have done differently is slowed down a few songs where the lyrics feel hurried.
Let’s also take a moment to admire the album cover. Willy has an incredible eye for these things, boasting a Grammy for Long Night Moon and a nomination for Good Luck & True Love for Best Recording Package. Somewhere in Time ain’t bad, either. It’s nice to see Micky & The Motorcars getting artwork that’s on par with the album’s musical quality.
Picking a favorite song from Hearts From Above is challenging because of its depth. One standout track is “From Where the Sun Now Stands,” featuring a beautiful acoustic/fiddle/piano arrangement that instantly creates a solemn mood (think “God Forsaken Town”). Another highlight is the rocker “Hurt,” where the lead guitarist really gets to let loose, flanked by a howling organ and Braun’s palpable angst. Aside from being a touching love story, the fiddle and vocals really shine on “Once In a Lifetime Girl.”
I would start with those if you’re new to Micky & The Motorcars, but I highly recommend experiencing the full album a few times through.
Rating: 4.25 / 5
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