Sam Outlaw - Angeleno
Hailing from Los Angeles, Sam Outlaw is a bit of a musical enigma playing what I would label sincere country. To be clear, it will be some time before these songs grace country music radio that still shuns the greats from yesteryear. The pop-country machine that currently rules radio is like strip mining: Highly effective, highly efficient, highly profitable and a blight to the once-pristine landscapes they inhabit.
These are love songs and love-left-me songs that pour from the heart like, “I’m not jealous of him/I’m embarrassed for you” in I’m Not Jealous. Produced by Ry Cooder, who heard promise in Outlaw’s demos, the sound on Angeleno steers clear of the machine, instead serving each song. Who Do You Think You Are? evokes a sense of place (a Mexican cantina) on album opener where Outlaw croons over a heartbreak, “I wasn’t looking for love/ Just mindin’ my own/ ‘til you showed up wearin’ that dress and shootin’ Patron”. What a line. Who of us hasn’t felt that? I’m most reminded of Randy Travis and some of his more honest love songs written by songwriting hall of famers like Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz.
Angeleno actually holds up against any RT album due to Outlaw’s cohesive songwriting. My only beef after repeated listens and a couple of live shows is that Molly Jenson’s voice – the Emmylou to Sam’s Gram, is not higher in the mix. For that, you need to see them live and hear Molly croon.
Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
The “country music” genre is divisive in 2015. To many it represents the current music of our heartland as heard on the radio and watched as performed in stadiums. To others it evokes a visceral turn-off because of the homogeneity of sound and for others something bygone or rarely found today – music of rural America with fiddles and pedal steel guitars played on front porches and honkey tonks.
Isbell’s fifth full-length studio release seems to somehow straddle these divides both in tone and album sales (it debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Country Music charts, beating out Alan Jackson). Isbell has a long career already and a hell of a resume, having started bands as early as 14 and playing The Opry by 16 with tours through bands Centro-Matic and Drive-By Truckers. Isbell’s latest effort is not slickly produced according the same Nashville algorithm that churns out product with the same auto tuned vocals and identically recorded and processed drum sounds. Rather, Isbell’s latest effort sounds like that one song on many country albums that does not sound like the rest – the one where the acoustic guitar starts things off, vocals telling a story are up front in the mix and before you know it there are fiddles and pedal steel guitars drifting underneath the melody, dancing behind the lyrics to support the song and mood.
At his strongest, he evokes the sounds of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, with songs that sound like the scene or plot of a movie. However, Isbell’s latest effort is not quite as strong as any of his previous releases.