Chris Young: ‘Neon’

Neon is the third album by 2006 Nashville Star winner and Grammy-nominated country vocalist Chris Young. On the verge of scoring his fourth consecutive number one single with “Tomorrow,” Young, who hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is acutely aware that now is the perfect time to up the musical ante, and it appears he’s done just that. This time out, Young co-wrote seven of the album’s ten tracks with some of the best tunesmiths Nashville currently has to offer, making this his best and most ambitious album yet.

Neon gets kick-started with the fast-paced, sexual innuendo laden “I Can Take it From There,” written by Young, Rhett Akins, and Ben Hayslip. The upbeat ditty comes on strong and immediately sounds like the obvious choice for his next single. “Grab a couple glasses and a bottle of wine/Walk down the hall and turn down the lights/Baby, while you’re at it you might as well let down your hair/And I can take it from there,” sings Young in a deep, throaty, baritone that is 100% genuine country.

Keeping things flowing along in a playfully romantic mood is “Lost,” which was co-written by Young and Brad Paisley’s key songwriting partner Chris DuBois. “No I ain’t got no plan in mind/It’s such a perfect night/So I just thought we could get lost.” The lyrics may not sound like Shakespeare, but they make one hell of a great country hook.

Slowing things down is the previously mentioned romantic ballad and lead off track “Tomorrow,” which is Young’s fastest rising single to date and really highlights the vocalist’s country chops, while demonstrating he can deliver a ballad with both ease and sincerity.

Neon’s pace quickens again with “Save Water, Drink Beer,” which unfortunately follows the current country trend of less than spectacular formulaic beer drinking anthems. Although it sounds a bit unoriginal and redundant, it’s sure to raise a crowd’s energy level during live sets on Young’s upcoming tour.

The album’s title song, written by Shane McAnally with Josh Osborne and Trevor Rosen, is another standout. This mid-tempo number focuses your attention onto the real star attraction of the album, which is Young’s superb voice and undeniable vocal skills. “Neon, the light they always leave on/A weekend on the rocks/An old school jukebox/It’s the buzz I love to be on/The light at this end of the tunnel is neon.” Also not to be missed is the bouncy “You,” co-penned by Young and ace songwriter Luke Laird, which already sounds like it’s destined for country radio playlists and honky tonk dance floors.

© 2011 ForASong Media, LLC

David Cook: ‘This Loud Morning’

Okay, let’s forget the American Idol connection for a moment and make a conscious effort to listen to David Cook’s sophomore major label release, This Loud Morning, without prejudice or preconceived notions. After all, Cook wrote and self-produced his indie-debut album Analog Heart before he accidentally became a last minute contestant on the reality talent show. With all biases aside, Cook is an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician, and live performer.

This Loud Morning was recorded in Calabasas, CA and produced by Matt Serletic (Collective Soul, Matchbox Twenty), with six of the twelve tracks mixed at Nashville’s Blackbird studio by Justin Niebank. The album’s theme is loosely weaved around the concept of wanting to escape from overwhelming feelings of hope, love, and heartbreak. This Loud Morning promptly kicks off full of promise with rock-tinged opener “Circadian,” with its dream-like keyboard intro followed by a sequence of heavy piano chords, which slowly builds to a bombastic chorus about wanting to go to sleep and block out the world. “Mayday somebody save me now/And I’m closing my eyes/Because once the sun rises it’s out of my hands,” Cook sings with unbridled conviction before eventually fading out with boys choir-like vocal refrains.

Morning has a much more artistic vibe, combined with a rawness evident in Cook’s vocal performances not found on his previous Rob Cavallo produced release. This is refreshing considering Serletic’s meticulous production style often results in songs becoming trapped in immense layers of over produced schlock. The album includes balanced amounts of strings, piano, and crunchy guitar, which all suit this more mature sounding material. Cook’s more developed lyrics, melodic structures (he co-wrote all 12 tracks), and grittier vocal performances throughout the album abundantly display his overall growth as an artist.

The John Rzeznik co-penned rocker “Right Here with You” is a real winner, as is the mid-tempo “We Believe,” although the latter at times sounds a bit reminiscent of previous hit “Come Back to Me.” However, “We Believe” rocks harder than “Come Back to Me,” and ultimately becomes one of the album’s greater moments. “We believe there’s a reason that we’re all here/that every doubt will disappear/We believe that tomorrow carries something new/And after everything that we’ve been through/We believe,” Cook repeats with optimism throughout the first-rate pop song’s chorus.

The gorgeous “Fade Into Me” has a nice melody, and its sentimental lyrics will surely make it a favorite among Cook’s passionate female fans, but the album’s real knockout is “Take Me As I Am.” This epic ballad, complete with soaring strings, is both emotionally moving and ultra-melodic, and seems to be the obvious choice for the next single. “Take me as I am/right here where I stand/Open up your arms and let me in/Out here on my own/I know I’m not alone/Let me in your heart right where you stand,” Cook demands, in his best vocal performance to date.

Unfortunately, the album’s second half seems to land in a bit of a quagmire. The bounciness of “The Last Goodbye” (co-penned by Ryan Tedder), seems to have been a poor choice as the lead single, given the fact the album is filled with potential hits. And the easily forgettable “Paper Heart” wins the unflattering designation as the album’s one and only bonafide dud.

However, things do recover with the excellent “4 Letter Word,” which is a standout mid-tempo rock ballad despite its clichéd song title, as is “Goodbye to the Girl.” While the latter regrettably gets diluted down by Serletic’s overblown production, we can only hope future live performances will see it reach its subsequent potential.

This Loud Morning offers an irresistible balance of pop and rock to satisfy existing fans and entice new ones to Cook’s musical camp, especially those oblivious to Cook’s season seven Idol win. The album’s closer “Rapid Eye Movement,” is an ambitious six-minute rocker, which ends with the same intro heard in the opening track, making the album sound like an endless musical loop. This technique serves to entice the listener to return to the beginning of the album for repeated spins. While you may be too clever to fall for such a trick, these 12 tracks do indeed seem to get irresistibly better with each repeated listen.

© 2011 ForASong Media, LLC

Luke Laird: One of Music City’s Top Songwriters is also an MTSU Alum

Luke Laird is not merely another MTSU alum success story; he has become one of Nashville’s most prolific songwriters. Laird has already racked up six No. 1 hits, including Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone,” as well as Sara Evans’ recent No. 1 song, “A Little Bit Stronger,” which Laird co-wrote with Hillary Lindsey and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott. Laird has also written songs for some of Music City’s top artists, including Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, JoDee Messina, Trace Adkins, Little Big Town, Clay Walker and Amy Grant. In just nine years, Laird’s songwriting career has flourished so quickly, Warner/Chappell Music Senior Director of A&R BJ Hill has coined the phrase “Luke Laird-ing,” when referring to a songwriter’s ability to crank out hit songs down on Music Row.

Recently, The Murfreesboro Pulse was granted an opportunity to discuss Laird’s impressive career achievements. The Middle Tennessee State University graduate offered some interesting insight into his private world of hit songwriting.

Murfreesboro Pulse: How long have you been writing for Universal Music Publishing?
Luke Laird: I originally started writing for BMG in 2002, and then Universal bought them so it’s been almost nine years.

MP: How did you end up at MTSU from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania?
LL: I knew I wanted to be in Nashville for music and writing songs and my mom had heard about MTSU’s program from a friend. So we visited it the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. I liked it and it was the only college I applied to. I graduated from MTSU in December 2001 with a degree in Recording Industry Management.

MP: At what age did you start writing songs?
LL: I started writing songs as far back as first grade. It just kind of came natural to me when I started playing guitar, especially around third grade.

MP: Who were some of your favorite artists while you were growing up?
LL: I listened to a lot of Top 40, and then when I was in junior high, the whole Garth Brooks thing exploded, and I got into country music. My first concert was Randy Travis. Then on my first trip to Nashville, I went to the Bluebird Café and discovered the whole songwriting scene and that really appealed to me.

MP: After graduating from college, it took two years of playing your songs for Chris Oglesby at BMG Music Publishing. What was that time period like for you, being on the edge of success?
LL: I felt encouraged because he was the first guy who really showed an interest in my songs. But at that point, I felt like I was on the right track, and I continued to write every day to try and get better.

MP: Do you remember where you were the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
LL: Yes, I was in the car on the way to a writing session when I heard “So Small” by Carrie Underwood. That was my first No. 1 single and that was very cool.

MP: Let’s discuss your writing process. Does the music or do the lyrics come first for you?
LL: You know it varies. A lot of the times, the music does come first for me. The initial spark will come from a melody while I’m sitting here with my guitar. Every now and then, I’ll write down the idea whether it’s just a title or a concept then I’ll try to decide what kind of feeling I want that to evoke to go with the music. Also, when I collaborate with other songwriters, they will have often have some great ideas too.

MP: Do you have a specific time set aside for writing?
LL: For the most part, I write Monday through Friday. I usually get to my office anywhere from 10 to 11 a.m. Sometimes I’ll get there earlier, but I usually put in a full day at least five days a week.

MP: Where does your inspiration for writing come from?
LL: I guess it often comes from life in general. I’m also influenced by different kinds of music, because I’m always buying lots of new albums, so I’m sure some of that creeps in there. I’m just trying to connect with everyday people, especially when writing country songs. I spend time thinking about how and where I grew up, so I’m influenced by all of those things.

MP: How do you pitch your songs?
LL: Sometimes I record demos that start out with a just scratch vocal while playing everything myself in my own studio, while other times I’ll book a full tracking session and hire some of the great Nashville musicians and record that way before turning them into my publisher. I pitch my own songs a little bit, but I’d rather someone else do that. I prefer to write songs instead of pitching them.

MP: How do you feel when first hearing the metamorphosis of your songs from demo to fully produced end result?
LL: You can’t really describe it. It’s a really great feeling, and it re-inspires me every time to hear something start from nothing to something. It’s cool and makes me want to keep doing it. Sometimes, it turns out sounding a lot like the demo, and other times, it’s a complete surprise. That’s why I try to make my demos sound as good as I can.

MP: Do you prefer to write alone or co-write?
LL: I actually enjoy both, but I mostly co-write since I’ve gotten my publishing deal, because some of my best friends are writers or co-writers. Writing alone takes a lot more discipline and it can be a longer process, but I feel like it’s still good to do because writing by myself makes me a better co-writer.

MP: Did you originally have aspirations to be an artist or did you always see yourself as a songwriter?
LL: When I was younger, I definitely entertained the idea, but I realized early on that being an artist was never really a passion of mine. To be an artist you have to really want to do it and be willing to sacrifice a lot. I enjoy playing a songwriter’s night now and then, but I enjoy the creative side so much more. It takes a special kind of person to pursue a career as an artist, and that was never really my goal.

MP: Do you ever fear your success might suddenly come to an end?
LL: It’s taking a while to achieve this amount of success, and I’m fully aware that it could be here one day and gone the next. I don’t have a lot of fear about that honestly. I feel as long as I continue to work hard, I can be successful and everything will take care of itself.

MP: Have you ever dealt with writer’s block?
LL: I have days where I’m uninspired and nothing much happens, but I think the best way to get through those times is just to keep writing and work through it until I come up with something. When writing is your job, it’s important to have a good work ethic, at least that’s been my experience.

MP: What do you think you would be doing if songwriting wouldn’t have worked out?
LL: Ha! That’s a great question. I’d probably be trying to work in some area of the music business. I actually worked as an assistant tour manager for Brooks & Dunn before I got my publishing deal. So I may have tried to go into management, but I think it all works out if you find what you’re good at and try to excel at it.

MP: Your songwriting résumé reads like a who’s who of country music. Is there one artist in particular you still want to cut one of your songs?
LL: At this point I can’t think of any one artist that I feel would really make my career. I’m just thankful for any artist that has or would want to cut one of my songs.

MP: Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
LL: I think it’s important for anyone who wants to become a songwriter to remember that no matter how many connections they make by networking, or who they get to know, at the end of the day they still have to be able to deliver a great song.

©2011 The Murfreesboro Pulse