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STEVE AZAR - Mercury Records Album 

Album Review by: Cheryl Harvey Hill 

As I do with every new CD I review, I put the CD in the player while I work on my computer. For me, using a CD as background music is the best way to do a review. If the entire album plays through - and not one song gets my attention - this is bad news for the artist I'm reviewing. The good news is that this seldom happens. In fact, I cannot recall any time that I played a country music CD and didn't find one song that stood out. The key word here is "country." I'm trying to be fair ... or kind ... or both. But after listening to the eleven songs on Waitin' On Joe, I'm still trying to figure out why this CD has been classified as country. 

On "I Don't Have To Be Me ('Til Monday)," Azar's first single for Mercury Nashville, he does use a commonly occurring theme in country music when he addresses the need to escape the pressures of the world. This song was inspired when one of his best friends experienced a near-emotional meltdown from the stress of his job, a common ingredient of country music classics. However, any similarity to country music ends there, and you will have a difficult time getting past the headache pulse of the drums that dominates the entire track to even hear the lyrics.

The majority of the eleven tracks are totally reminiscent of the sixties and it was deja vu for me since I grew up in the sixties. I am familiar with folk singers and I enjoyed the sounds of Bread, America, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Jim Croce but country music was what I loved back then, and country music is what I love now. I thought that keith urban and Shania had broadened my appreciation for, what Nashville likes to call, new country or pop country but nothing quite prepared me for what I heard on this CD. Azar has a nice voice and his writing skills are clearly evident, but it is a major stretch to classify any song on this CD as country - even pop country. And the majority of songs on this CD have one other thing in common - strange endings. In fact, "One Good Reason Why" doesn't end, it just stops abruptly and then "Lay Your Heart Next To Mine" begins. "River's On The Rise," on the other hand, pauses and then just when you think it is over, starts again. Some may find this creative. I didn't. The fact that these are the things that stood out about this album for me is indicative of its content. I'm sorry, but all of the songs sounded so similar to one another that they sort of all blurred together. The choice to not end a song in a normal fashion, before starting another one, only compounded this blurring.

His bio states that Azar successfully launched his professional career when he and his brother started what became one of the most popular bands in the Southeast, the Steve Azar Band. Before long they were playing 200 dates a year and becoming regional stars. Azar says, "The band thing really took off. We were so popular with high school and college crowds that schools would actually change their prom dates just so they could have us play." After listening to the entire CD through three times, I can understand why high school and college crowds would like his music. All of the music on Waitin' On Joe is well suited for school dances and although it may find a niche on radio that plays "new country," in my opinion, to call it country music is, again, a real stretch.

Azar grew up in the Mississippi Delta and says, "My music has been influenced with a rhythm that's inherited from growing up there." Well, like every artist, Azar is also influenced by the era he grew up in. Charlie Pride and Conway Twitty may also be from Mississippi but Azar has NOTHING in common with either of them outside of geographic location. You sure aren't going to be two-steppin' to any of the songs on this CD. And even when Azar comes up with some tuggin' at your gut lyrics, they are over powered by the music. Country music means that when "they" are singing your life, you feel the words in your gut - not the drum beats in your head.

The bottom line is this: I grew up in a musical family and had lots of musical friends. We used to get together and "jam" in my parents garage. Our only instruments were guitars, drums and our voices. When we jammed, it was the drums and guitar riffs that dominated. This album reminded me of those times, in the sixties, when I jammed with my friends. We were playing anything but country music back then.

Out of fairness to Azar, however, I would like to share with our readers a different opinion. Billboard had this to say: "On his Mercury debut, Steve Azar parlays his Delta roots and inspired songwriter's instincts into a potent mixture, without sacrificing his musical integrity-even though minimal pop sensibilities sneak into the mix (in order to maximize appeal at country radio, which seems to crave the poppy stuff). A perfect example is debut single "I Don't Have to Be Me ('Til Monday)," which boasts a nice workaday lyric and some nice slide guitar work with an appealing singalong chorus. Similarly, the artist has a knack for punchy songs with crisp instrumentation tailor-made for radio (midtempos like "My Heart Wants to Run"). Even so, Azar seems more at home with such rootsy observations as the crackling "Damn the Money" and Springsteen-esque acoustic rockers "The Underdog" and the shuffling "One Good Reason Why." Azar conjures swampy, manic energy on "Goin' to Beat the Devil (To See My Angel Tonight)," and the title cut is a subtle masterpiece, a believable ballad with well-drawn characters and soul to burn. Azar is the kind of new artist country music needs right now."-RW

After reading the Billboard review through again, I think that Billboard and I are actually in agreement on our observations about the album. I definitely sensed the "manic energy" and I am in complete agreement on the "Springsteen-esque acoustic rockers". The only thing we apparently don't agree on is what kind of new artist country music needs ... or what country music sounds like.

As for me, I really did like Azar's voice and some day I would like to hear him sing a country song ... any country song.  


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