Album Review: Hayes Carll – Trouble In Mind

Ben Cisneros | April 16th, 2008

Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind Far too much of the country music coming out today is “successful” in achieving a very limited aim; to be enjoyable by leaning heavily on pop-rock conventions while using the lyrics to vaguely define the emotional point of the song and to provide just enough of a hook for folks to sing to. Hayes Carll’s new record Trouble in Mind on the other hand, isn’t entirely successful, but its aim is far higher; Hayes is trying to really write–which, overall, makes the album a fantastic listen.

In nearly every song there are four or five lines that really grab you, and illustrate Hayes talent at hitting you with concise, impactful, and interesting turns of phrase. There’s something to be said for listening to a writer who is really stretching out and being bold with his writing — by “writing” in this context I mean the conveying of a unique point of view with language that is singularly revealing – and even if Hayes doesn’t always hit home runs, it’s rewarding to listen to him swing for the fences.

And what’s more, he’s having one hell of a good time doing it. Songs like “A Lover Like You,” “I Got A Gig,” “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” and “Faulkner Street” find Hayes swinging from the chandeliers with his songwriting, surprising and delighting us with his great sense of humor and unique point of view.

Hayes shows us time and again throughout this album that he’s a good writer, but he doesn’t really show us if he’s a good country songwriter. While his songs are full of really satisfying turns of phrase–and often feature touching insights–they lack the focus on a central idea that tends to define great country songs. It’s almost as if he approached these tunes as songwriting exercises; the verses are full of rich lines, and often times there are satisfying hooks, but a fully developed chorus that provides the emotional payoff and conceptual summary of the tune while featuring a caliber of writing that can stand up to the verse is tricky to find.

The album title, for example, “Trouble In Mind,” is a line from the song “Faulkner Street,” but it’s not just any old line; it’s the line that by all rights should be the title line. “Trouble in Mind” clearly establishes what the song is about, and titling it as such would have helped to further focus the song around that central idea, but Hayes thought “Faulkner Street” was a more appropriate entry point into the song for the listener. Which is entirely his prerogative.

It’s possible that it was an artistic decision to leave many of these songs without clear focus, thus allowing the listener to meander around the songs encountering all of the literary gems that Hayes leaves sprinkled throughout the verses. While this is an avant-garde and interesting approach, it causes the songs to suffer by country music standards.

The album lacks cohesion sonically as well. It generally carries a roadhouse singer-songwriter vibe, but the first track, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” promises a very unique and interesting “Rolling Stones meets Nashville sound”–featuring crunchy and twangy guitar, mandolin picking, fiddle, and steel–that the rest of the album failed to deliver on. Defining a consistent “Hayes Carll sound” throughout the record would have been a big accomplishment and would have done that much more in making this a landmark record.

All and all, the good on this record far, far, far outweighs the bad. In fact, the only reason that I’m giving this one such an analytical look is because it warrants it. Work of serious artistic substance deserves serious listening and serious reflection, and this record is full of very worthy artistic substance.

Hayes Carll has shown that he’s willing to approach the arena where American songwriting legends are made, and more than that, he’s indicated that he may be capable of competing once he’s arrived, but he hasn’t arrived quite yet. You shouldn’t let that stop you from picking this one up though, it’s an excellent record that has made me a Hayes Carll fan, and in a just world, would establish him as a force to be reckoned with on the national scene.

4 Stars

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  1. [...] establish him as a force to be reckoned with on the national scene.” — Ben Cisneros, The 9513 “For fans of John Prine or Todd Snider, 32-year-old Texan Hayes Carll is a familiar type—a [...]
  1. jeff
    April 16, 2008 at 11:48 am

    record of the year. so far, at least.

  2. Kelly
    April 16, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Great review, good points. I actually dig that there isnt a real running theme sonically. I think he effectively pulls of the changes of pace that can seem odd with other artists. “Bad Liver & a Broken Heart” is the newest in his line of great “driving” songs. For a guy who is mercilessly compared to Guy Clark, Carll has great country-rock songs on each of his albums “little rock”, “Down the road tonight” from his previous work are great examples as well.

  3. Brody Vercher
    April 16, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    To be fair, I don’t think Carll is necessarily trying to be a good country songwriter so much as just a good songwriter in general. He has co-writes with Ray Wylie Hubbard and Darrell Scott on this album, one with Guy Clark on his last album, and covers a Tom Waits song–all are great songwriters, but not easily classifiable. And that’s the same mold that I think Carll is trying to follow. He’s marketed as country because it opens him up to a bigger audience, but he could easily be labeled folk, roots, Americana, etc. with varying degrees of truth behind each one. However, I do see the need to look at the album from a country standpoint since that’s what it’s being marketed as and this is a country music blog.

    As far as the album goes, I loved it. “It’s A Shame” could easily be covered by a bigger artist, although it’d lose the affecting charm of Carll’s voice. And while I enjoyed the songs where he “swings from the chandeliers with his songwriting,” I find myself returning to the ones where he saunters through the lyrics like a three-legged dog: “Don’t Let Me Fall,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” “Knockin’ Over Whiskeys,” and “Willing to Love Again.”

  4. Leeann
    April 16, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    I thought I would like this album because of all of the hype surrounding it. I guess my music taste just isn’t refined enough, because as Chris N said about Kathy Mattea’s album, this one just didn’t drive me crazy.:)

  5. Hollerin' Ben
    April 16, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Brody,

    That’s interesting, I almost added a section to the review that talked about how I felt that he’s at his weakest in the quiet songs, and that the album would have been stronger had the album been trimmed down to 11 songs or so, with “Don’t Let Me Fall”, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, and “Willing to Love Again” being the ones I think should have been left off.

    but it looks like it’s a good thing he included them.

  6. Brody Vercher
    April 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Leeann, I guess it’s different strokes for different folks. Guy Clark is my favorite songwriter, and like Kelly said, Carll is “mercilessly compared to Guy Clark.” So I suppose I’m more susceptible to enjoy something in that same vein.

    That is interesting, Ben. I like the fun atmosphere of the upbeat songs, but it’s the vulnerability of the quiet ones that I crave. On the other hand, if I could drop one song from the album it’d be “A Lover Like You.”

  7. Leeann
    April 16, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I do plan to give it another try though. I’ll be the first to admit that, often times, I have to listen to albums a few times to really get into them.

  8. Double-L
    April 17, 2008 at 4:16 am

    LOVE LOVE LOVE him!

  9. Mike Parker
    April 22, 2008 at 10:23 am

    This is a nice album. I agree with the reviewer- it’s not perfect, but it aspires to something great. Hayes lyrics and phrasing remind me a lot of Todd Snider’s earlier work. I’m a big Todd Snider fan, and I think I’m going to be a big Hayes Carll fan. Thanks for introducing us.

  10. james
    April 26, 2008 at 11:43 am

    I dig this album. Thank you for the review or I would not have found it.

  11. Erudite Redneck
    August 11, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Hayes Carll is channeling Jimmie Rodgers and B-side Hank Williams (not Bocephus and not III), man.

    “Willing to Love Again” is the best song on the CD, I think.

    And to think: I first heard of him on NPR.

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