Country music dominates February album releases

By Beckett BathantiEditor-in-Chief – sbathant@unca.edu

Editor’s Note: This is a monthly column highlighting the best albums from the previous month.

 

Robert Ellis – Lights From the Chemical Plant

Robert Ellis, who donned a pair of Nike hightops onstage at The Grey Eagle last week, generally operates a little outside the scope of today’s country. On his new album, Lights From the Chemical Plant, he skews even further than he has into the past and delves into straight pop territory. His pop is more in the lineage of Paul Simon, who Ellis covers here to great effect, than the synth fiddle, hair-gelled bulls**t that made mainstream country so intolerable throughout the past decade.

“TV Song” is an excellent album-opener – catchy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and featuring line-of-the-year contender, “Oh, Betty Draper, I wish my wife was less like you,” but it’s the title track that sucks you in and doesn’t let go.

Slow burning and sung with heaviness that Ellis’ smoky voice carries perfectly, “The Chemical Plant” is an inevitable, strongly-written ballad that sets the record’s reflective, somewhat dismal tone.

It is not all doom and gloom here though. “Good Intentions” is a subtly rousing tune and “Steady as the Rising Sun” is a gorgeous love song, with steel and jazz guitars coexisting peacefully and plaintively.

 

Eric Church – The Outsiders

Eric Church wishes he were half the outlaw Robert Ellis is. The posturing, arrogant Granite Falls native delivers his cockiest, most ambitious and perhaps best album yet in The Outsiders.

Operating very much within the confines of the mainstream country scene, the self-proclaimed badass manages to be both incendiary and subtle and actually write some of his own songs, traits rarely associated with Nashville.

The leadoff title track is an outrageous piece of bluster, and along with the song titled “That’s Damn Rock and Roll,” should be ignored at all cost.

The first half of the album is littered with pop-flavored gems like the heart-broken “Roller Coaster Ride” and the propulsive, bluesy “Broke Record.”

I was briefly disappointed to find that “Like a Wreckin’ Ball” did not interpolate the Miley Cyrus song, but after hearing the sultry, reverb-heavy highlight, I was more than satisfied.

The last third of The Outsiders gets a little grimy and this is where Church really sets himself apart.

“Dark Side,” a seething warning, would not sound too out of place on Springsteen’s murder-centric “Nebraska.”

The eight-minute long “Devil Devil,” with its long, spoken-word intro over meandering background guitar, is melodramatic and begins to border on insufferable, but is important for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Church says “f**k,” a move bound to polarize the generally conservative mainstream country fan base. The Capitol-signed singer also says “The devil walks among us, folks, and Nashville is his bride,” after a long-winded condemnation of the music industry.

Secondly, when the song finally kicks in after nearly four minutes, it is a nasty little thing, peppered with squealing guitar and anchored by stomping percussion.

Album-closer “The Joint” is an uneasy song about various types of joints, sung in a leering Tom Waits impression and peppered with blatting horns.

2014 is young yet, but The Outsiders is an early front-runner for album of the year.

 

Migos – No Label 2

No Label 2 comforted me. Migos, a trio consisting of Quavo, Takeoff and Offset, are great rappers. Technically, they have perfected a stumbling, breathless style that has since been co-opted by Kanye West and Drake among many others.

However, they have tended to rely on the same hooks; shouted repeated phrases that are percussive to the point of concussion over the course of a full album.

On their latest mixtape, Migos are playing with melody more, singing a little to break up their usually pummeling approach.

The album reaches its climax on tracks 10-13, a fantastic run of four songs made up by “Fight Night,” “Handsome and Wealthy,” “Birds” and the Rich Homie Quan-featuring “YRH.”

“Fight Night,” produced by Stack Boy Twan, is an elastic take on the West Coast sound and proof that Migos do not need to be constrained by Atlanta’s aesthetic.

“Handsome and Wealthy” is an easy standout, with Quavo killing a throaty, auto-tuned hook reminiscent of Gucci Mane.

At 25 tracks, their latest mixtape is intensely bloated. Lose 10 tracks and this could be a great debut album, but I am more than willing to wade through a dozen tracks that sound the same to hear Quavo say “The streets is a jungle, gotta watch out for koalas,” on “Ounces” or excitedly cheer on an imaginary ball-carrier on “Emmitt Smith.”

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