Texas music critics can be admittedly purist to a fault. It’s healthy to be a little protective of our artists and call them out for straying too far into pop country territory, but frequently crying “sellout” makes us no better than those snobby hipsters. Having said that, I’m not about to defend the latest single from the Josh Abbott Band. Here goes Country on Congress’ inaugural negative review!
Let’s start by acknowledging that “Hangin’ Around” is just one song, and it has legitimately country elements. What makes it disappointing is its stunning simplicity. Is Josh Abbott secretly collaborating with Dallas Davidson? Is this song being pitched to Music Row in Nashville for radio play? Did he learn nothing from his buddy Pat Green?
Not every song has to have heavy subject matter. There’s a time and a place for catchy, lighthearted tunes like “Hangin’ Around,” but they aren’t the reason Abbott has ascended to the top tier of Texas country artists. I honestly feel less intelligent after listening to it a few times on a loop. Check out this bit of the chorus, which is lazily rattled off until the song’s abrupt ending before the 3-minute mark.
I’m hangin’ around if you’re hangin’ around
If you’re stayin’ at home, if you’re paintin’ the town
If you wanna talk, you can give me a call
Or if you really don’t feel like talkin’ at all
If you’re drinkin’ a beer, I’m drinkin’ a beer
Yikes. I didn’t expect to be this worried about what the next album will bring. Is a little substance too much to ask? Here’s hoping they don’t pull an Eli Young Band by trying to outgrow the Red Dirt scene.
Rating: 1.5 / 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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Stoney LaRue and his trademark bandana have been one of the biggest draws in the Texas scene since his 2005 debut, but I never really understood why until I saw him live in 2011. A friend and I went to Floore’s Country Store to see Granger Smith (Pre-Earl Dibbles Jr. fame) open, and we stuck around for Stoney LaRue & The Arsenals because we had nothing better to do and liked “Oklahoma Breakdown.” Turns out they put on a hell of a show, while Granger does better work in the studio.
Stoney’s 2011 release Velvet had a couple of radio-friendly singles (“Velvet” and “Look at Me Fly”), but now that I’ve seen him live on three occasions, I can assure you those are on a different level in person. All of this is to say he finally struck studio gold with his latest track, “First One to Know.”
The arrangement is stripped down and Stoney’s vocal delivery is uncharacteristically understated. What makes the structure especially intriguing is its reliance on tempo changes rather than crescendo to bridge each section. I have to admit it took me a few listens to process this and recognize it as the stroke of genius it is. If you pay attention to the lyrics, this all makes perfect sense.
If I’m not acting like myself lately, doing things that I don’t
Not sure why, but you want to hate me, it’s just a spell I suppose
When I’m back to my old self again, my love
You’ll be the first one to know
The song is a very reflective and honest admission of one’s straying from the path of righteousness. It acknowledges the reality that people change as they get older, but entertains the possibility of turning over a new leaf. That sense of humble confidence pairs well with the soft combination of acoustic guitar, brushed snare, piano, harmonica, and a subtle tambourine. “First One to Know” makes it hard to wait for the full album due at the end of October.
Rating: 4.75 / 5
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