June 2024 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Beyoncé: Cowboy Carter
Parkwood Columbia (reviewed as 24/44.1 streaming from Qobuz). 2024. Many producers and engineers.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

Beyoncé's latest, Cowboy Carter, is being widely called her "country album," and the country influence is obvious. Some of the songs are even getting airplay on country radio. Cowboy Carter, though, is not a country album: It's much more ambitious than that.

The first track on Cowboy Carter is operatic. ("American Requiem" credits 14 songwriters including John Batiste, Shawn Carter, Stephen Stills, and Rhiannon Giddens.) The next is a straightforward cover of a Beatles tune. Third comes a contemporary riff on old-fashioned, foot-stompin' blues—acapella except for accompaniment by the equivalent of several orchestras. Driven by banjo and percussion, "Texas Hold 'Em," the single that tops the charts, would absolutely be country if it were not first and foremost a Beyoncé song; besides, as Bocephus sang, in country music you just can't say the f-word.

"Bodyguard" may become a huge pop hit, but it's not remotely country. "Jolene" is straight-up country except for the altered message and a subtle disco beat—and more cussing. On "Daughter," Bey reveals her old-school, operatic-diva chops.

One concept behind the album is revealed at the beginning of "Spaghetti," when the voice of Linda Martell—the first Black female artist to play the Opry—says, "Genres are a funny little concept, aren't they ... In theory, they have a simple definition that's easy to understand, but in practice, well, some may feel confined."

Cowboy Carter may not be a country album, but it's great—imaginative and entertaining, full of hooks. It has some really good songs. I found the album's maximalist production at times noisy and off-putting, but apart from that, I admire Cowboy Carter. It reminds me of great concept albums by Queen, The Who, and Beck, though only time will tell if it holds up as well as that music has.—Jim Austin

Various Artists: We Still Can't Say Good Bye: A Musicians' Tribute to Chet Atkins
Morningstar Music Productions (auditioned as CD). 2024. Carl Jackson, prod.; Luke Wooten, eng.
Performance ***
Sonics *****

Chet Atkins is the most recorded solo instrumentalist in music history. He traveled from Appalachian poverty to international acclaim, becoming a 14-time Grammy Award winner and an inductee of both the Rock'n'Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. He was known as "Mr. Guitar."

Now, as Nashville and the music industry prepare to celebrate what would have been Chet's 100th birthday, on June 20, some of Nashville's and the world's best musicians have come together to pay tribute to this innovator, songwriter, producer, record company executive, and visionary. The 15-track album features 22 artists including Vince Gill, Brent Mason, Eric Clapton, Jerry Douglas, Carl Jackson (who is also the producer), Tommy Emmanuel, Ricky Skaggs, James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, and Sierra Hull.

We Still Can't Say Good Bye's first single, "Mr. Guitar," is performed by guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland. It's on instrumentals like this that the record shines, guitar greats paying proper homage to a professor of the instrument. The musicianship displayed by Emmanuel underscores why he is only one of five people ever named a C.G.P. (Certified Guitar Player) by Chet Atkins. It's blisteringly precise, filled with lightning-fast runs. It steamrolls forward.

Pay particular attention to "Windy and Warm," covered by Brad Paisley, a modern, muscular interpretation of an Atkins classic that reflects the profound and lasting impact these songs have had and will continue to have on artists for years to come.

The album stumbles when ballads drag that great momentum into a kind of sleepy lullaby. They unnecessarily overburden the record and the listener. And schmaltzy tracks like "The Entertainer" take the focus away from what everyone is really here to celebrate, the guitar.—Ray Chelstowski

Old 97's: American Primitive
ATO Records (auditioned as CD). 2024. Tucker Martine, exec. prod.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The Old 97's have been that perfect Dallas band since day one, all-American with a twist. They have always known where they come from and reference it regularly, if indirectly, in their lyrics. But in a state where everything is big, they decided to pump up alt-country with elements of punk, harmonies that are Byrds-like, and writing that presents an irony that can only be described as "East Coast." In celebration of their 30th anniversary, they are releasing American Primitive, their "lucky number 13" studio album, and it's a reason for celebration.

Recorded in sessions at Flora Studios in Portland, Oregon, the quartet is joined on three tracks by Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Scott McCaughey of The Young Fresh Fellows. The result is a record that, like the band's career, blossoms over time. The record builds with each track, each song standing on the strengths of the one that preceded it. Opening with an explosive coupling of rambunctious rambles, the band settles into a perfect assembly of songs, mixing lyrical nuance with careful harmony and delivering restraint that never feels—well, restrained.

Things really get into a groove with the sixth track, "By The End Of The Night"; those 30 years of experience step up and put on a clinic. It's a complicated song, with a dozen or so elements that reflect the kind of sophistication that so much time together affords. The music moves beyond the smashing and pounding the band is better known for.

Guitarist Rhett Miller has written almost all of the band's songs. His themes often deal with the darker side of life—that things are approaching an end for all of us. But this music will leave you with a sense that there's a lot more to come from this veteran act. This record may be called "Primitive," but it reflects some kind of evolution.—Ray Chelstowski

David Harper's picture

Damn she looks good. Just sayin.

ok's picture

but this is a damn good collection of songs.

Glotz's picture

and she needs to awarded Product of the Year, cause Jay-Z said so. lol..

Stephen Stills?! Noice... Proof that music poo-pooing gets one poo-poo'd. Gotta love it- even if I don't!

I saw Rhett Miller do a solo show about a year ago and he was a lot of fun.

Dig me some Peter. Still one of the greats.