Review: Williams Honor Does Poetic Justice
By JENNIFER PRICCI OCT. 28 2015
Many people have a hard time figuring out what they’re listening to when they listen to today’s Country music. Today’s biggest Country names have broken boundaries. A Keith Urban could not exist ten years ago. A Little Big Town could never have superstar status. And there’s a certain pioneer that we know as Taylor…? People’s tastes have changed.
There’s a bit of backlash here because tradition is at the core of Country music. But there’s also a growing audience that’s willing to accept how the genre is evolving.
Williams Honor is the Jersey Shore’s first Country duo. And there was no hesitation among its members – Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown – to introduce the genre into New Jersey’s signature sound. For nearly a year-and-a-half Williams Honor toured up and down the coast until dropping their co-penned debut album, written and recorded primarily in Nashville, on September 1st. Their goal of building a strong foundation on the Jersey Shore becoming actualized; mostly as a result of putting their audience first... first and foremost. One of those deep-rooted Country music traditions.
Reagan Richards’ vocal hallmark is emotion. Every lyric – every word, syllable, note – saturated in sentiment. From the sassy and childlike way she sings “Daddy” (from "Daddy's Arms") to the gut-wrenching and desperate way she cries out “Mama” (in "Mama Please").
She can sing every style of music; from Connie Smith to Robert Plant. From Cyndi Lauper to Patsy Cline; her Patsy probably most impressive as it highlights her tremendous vocal control as she tackles the challenging intervals for which Cline’s most distinguished work is recognized. Beyond Country, her contemporary ballads and hard core rock’n’roll stylings are effortless. She can’t need much editing, her voice so strong and versatile on its own.
Reagan doesn’t do small… unless she wants to. Boasting a strong head as well as chest voice; Reagan may just be the queen of belts. Both the Williams Honor debut album and their live performances illustrate some pretty impressive notes coming out of this Pittsburgh, Nashville, Jersey Shore transplant.
And, with a spanning range much like contemporary artists Mike Patton – who currently reigns supreme in the vocal range category – Axl Rose and Mariah Carey, Reagan Richards is in the conversation.
Gordon Brown is a veteran of music’s long and winding road, then that’s what songwriting, performing, producing, touring and artist development will do for an industry professional deep rooted in seminal music capitals like the Jersey Shore and Nashville.
When writing, Gordon is often inspired by sounds he grew up on; Springsteen, The Eagles, great harmony bands and great storytellers. He leaves a thumbprint on his compositions.
Gordon is a poet in the studio. His craftsmanship extends beyond engineering and mixing… beyond the requisite creative vision of a typical producer, but into a world of musical imagery, alliteration, motif, metaphor and irony. His production technique masterfully draws comparisons between a track’s instrumentation, lyrics and message. His style conveys a deeper degree of meaning, adding depth and character. Subtle creative genius that makes you feel the music at a subconscious level.
The sum product of his sound is multi-dimensional; as is the Williams Honor debut. To not listen to this album in Surround Sound would be akin to watching the upcoming Star Wars reboot in anything less than IMAX 3D. And much like The Force Awakens, the Williams Honor debut album – also highly anticipated.
The album opens with “Loser”, a swampy blues number – and a perfect Track 1 choice for a debut – summoning the visuals Williams Honor will so effectively generate throughout their storytelling.
“Loser” plants us in a stool at the most beer-sodden bar in Washoe County, Nevada. Rattle snake-like shakers surround us in desert terrain and rhythm guitar adds character to the room – no doubt decorated in last year’s Christmas lights.
The first audible vocal is the sound of Gordon’s sly laughter. This does more than put us inside the white-trash bar-bash; but as the initial audible on the whole of the record, creates a grander and strategic first impression.
Reagan skillfully narrates this Country-Blues rebellion. Her in-verse rapid delivery perfectly juxtaposed with bird’s eye name-calling of her estranged “Loser” of a Dad who shows up out of nowhere as she tends her bar. The song – part punitive, part “wiser with age” – is broad and doesn’t get too deep into emotional ramifications, which keeps the vibe strong and spirited.
The “Loser” chorus, infectious, delivered by Reagan without restraint. Lead guitar colors the story throughout with its pointedness, bolstered further by dense, textured instrumentation masterfully mixed.
We hear Gordon’s clever in-studio interp at the stories climax; the bridge. Our barkeeps longtime friends (and patrons) bounce this Loser’s ass out the door… underscored musically with ascending persistence of bass and drums.
At the completion of Reagan’s outro we again hear Gordon; this time spokesman for Reagan’s regulars joining in on the name-calling… “Loser,” elongated with slight echo, as if yelling after this defeated dead beat Dad as he sweeps off the desert dust, hangs his head and walks away.
It’s at the very end of this first track that we’re treated to the first of what will be many surprises to come. Following an electric guitar bend consistent with Reagan’s title vocals and Gordon’s name calling we hear a short Joe Perry-like descending electric guitar slide squeal. An abrupt commitment this album will exceed expectations.
Next up is “Send It To Me”, a Country-Pop track part Little Big Town part Peach Pit jukebox.
As the Williams Honor sound may be mostly Nashville-bred, their commitment to make their mark on the Jersey Shore makes this second track choice just genius. Genre-wise, it was probably too difficult to discern what we were hearing in “Loser,” all we knew is we liked it. I believe “Send It To Me” is here as an official introduction to how Country has evolved into the Pop realm... let’s dispel any myths, here and now, that Country is all pick-up trucks and dying dogs. It just doesn’t get much happier than “Send It To Me”.
The light-hearted track introduces us to Reagan and Gordon’s harmonies; indisputable Williams Honor branding. Here, light and love-bird-like, harmonies combine with flawless knitting of rhythm guitar, drums and bass which, when complimented by lead guitar and a Pop-Rock solo, brings the piece together. And closing with Reagan’s choral round and Gordon’s vocals that lie beneath and fade out, leave you a happy hook, stamping this song radio-friendly and a Billboard chart climber.
“All Your Heart” is a classic love story. Reagan’s vocal style here rests in her traditional Country roots. Perfect timbre with an ounce of vibrato; a highly feminine counter to Gordon’s tightly synced harmony as they serenade each other. Their rolling vocal phrasing in verse leave us hanging on each stanza until we’re seamlessly led into a beseeching chorus.
The track’s outward plea summons certain introspection, perhaps evoking a vision of times’ past and one’s own need for “a little faith.”
The sophisticated mix of acoustic 12-string guitar, piano and strings; both complex and humble. A compelling vocal score and outro that highlights Reagan’s vast range peppered in harmonized vocal drops and broken piano ornamentation makes this track a standout.
We’re three tracks in now and tapping in to Williams Honor storytelling skill beyond the lyric. A somewhat consistent ABABCB format intrigues us by the paring down of vocals, instrumentation, and often tempo in advance of a fiery return before all is made right – less in the case of “Mama Please” – which we will get to.
“No Umbrella” – co-written with Country songstress Cyndi Thomson – is our next and most powerful song thus far. From the first hint of the heavyweight synthesizer, Gordon’s production acumen shines bright through this storm... the beginning of rain drops marked by a faint tapping of what might be a percussion woodblock. A studio producer’s equivalent to onomonopia.
The message behind the image-laden track? Feeling pain. It is a testament to one’s resolve and almost serves as a grown refute to “Rain Rain Go Away.” The connotation; avoidance we adopt, not necessarily the answer. Sometimes the only way out truly is through.
The emotive, encouraging chorus beckons you to let the pain wash over you. Take it on. Reagan gives us that permission to feel; “this is gonna hurt.” And go ahead, feel without reservation.
Some additional hidden irony in this Country-Rock track... as with all music you love, don’t you just love it because it makes you feel?
The song closes not with synth as it opened, but instead, actual dissipating thunder and distinct ascending broken piano. The rain has stopped. The storm is passing.
While “No Umbrella” certainly features Reagan’s fluid vocals, Gordon’s inherent harmonies and the impeccable mixing of a multitude of instruments; it may just be in production where the song becomes of note. This track places as Gordon’s most well-produced performance on the album.
Moving around the record, “Don’t Wanna Let You Go” reminds us of Gordon and Reagan’s ties to Nashville and their passion for the Country genre. You can hear Music Row embedded in this track.
Reagan is capable of channeling any vocalist she pleases. You can hear the influence of Dolly Parton; no intention to update or revise Parton’s persona – simply to recast her voice in a new setting.
A simple Country sentiment. This is what Country music is about; deep feelings simply stated.
A very good song, with just the right amount of harmony and personal reference to make it a Williams Honor staple. Warning; the chorus is an earwig.
The next song, “Wasted Days”, accomplishes in spades the Williams Honor mission; to keep tradition alive while continuing the evolution of Country music. I peg this track as one that will mark the duo’s early career and continually change shape as years pass.
This may be the most intricate song on the album. Gordon Brown once told me; “nothing in music is an accident.” So when I get to the end of this track – and feel like I’ve just read a page in a book and haven’t absorbed a word – I go back to the beginning. What did I just hear?
A genre-transcending Rock-Pop goldmine tinted in hues of Country.
The track’s intelligence lies in a deeper level of composition and production unrevealed at first listen. But when it does crystallize, it provides astonishing insight. And again, irony. The songs message to leverage passing time into a self-actualized future parallels what it will do to you.
The track opens with a heavy synth minor chord liberated by a circuitous banjo hook, whirling melody line and allegorical lyrics; “around, around, around…”. Circular broken lead guitar chords oft move in a direction opposite Reagan’s vocals. And we’re only at the 00:18 minute mark. If you are not careful you will be swept up in this songs effervescence and carried through, missing every bit of its genius.
The harmony line and chord structure immediately stand out as Williams Honor’s most sophisticated – hear the confident nod to Simon & Garfunkel. But the song, with its old school banjo hook, carries you quickly out of American Folk and into a surefire chorus that preps you for the power ballad to come. Reagan’s delivery of the second verse escalates, as does Gordon’s lead guitar, now riffing and nearly dueling her vocals. Increased intensity has now become a Williams Honor trademark but this time it’s different. As you finish your ride through the second chorus the song officially brands itself arena rock as a Sambora-inspired guitarist stops by to play the solo.
Out of the solo into another signature; diminished vocals and instrumentation that sneak inside your heart only to explode… in this case into a passionate round rich with Reagan’s incendiary ad libitum and Gordon’s choral response. It is in this response where Gordon gives us the most of his own vocal style; delivering as he pilots – poetically – the way his voice appears to gently crack as he emotes the lyric “slip.” By the time the song ends, with its eq’d banjo and heavy synth major, you’re elated by the metaphorical hope that the sum of these sounds have created.
This song takes first place as Gordon’s most well-produced performance on the album. And I feel it is the duo’s best composition.
Moving along, “Mama Please” kick starts with a catchy yet agitated banjo hook over a pounding bass drum. A damming bass line enters. And lead guitar is dangerous. You feel the furious storyline… before a lyric is voiced.
The most visual song on the album; “Mama Please” may be Reagan’s standout vocal performance. As a storyteller she’s already proven she can evoke happiness or nostalgia with her voice. But when the story is darker and more complicated, the same technique is a lot more impressive.
There’s an interesting disparity in timbre. Reagan’s sustained silken vocals versus instrumentation create a fascinating rural friction that amplifies the subject matter – child abuse.
This song is also up there with Gordon’s best in-studio work. Rhythm and bass guitar builds emphasize the desperation in each chorus. An electric guitar bend into the soft-spoken word bridge followed by lead guitar riffs as a ‘call to arms’ prepare our heroes to “bust” in and save this little girl from her abuser. All combined with Reagan’s powerful pipes makes “Mama Please” one of the album’s richer tracks.
A truly outstanding layered and complex piece, with Clapton-styled lead guitar and vampy bass line that tells its own version of the story, “Mama Please” does not comfortably resolve. Sadly, this little girl’s story is only beginning and some certainties are best left open to doubt and ambiguity.
“Daddy’s Arms” – particularly to Williams Honor fans – may be the album’s most memorable. Reagan’s notable Country vocal treatment comes second to the knowledge that this story of a girl and her doting Dad is – in part – autobiographical. This gives the imagery and telling of their relationship through the years a unique layer of depth.
Co-written with Joe Grushecky and featuring pedal steel work by Marc Muller (Shania Twain), Reagan is singing in no other voice but her own, evident by her treatment of the lyric “Daddy,” in quite a Daddy’s-little-girl type way. Overall, a story embedded in the intimacy of our subject’s younger self, “Daddy’s Arms” is a bouncy track and swinging piece of Country-Pop that should be a delight to the ears.
In the final verse Reagan’s voice trembles with a tender, sentimental wistfulness as she holds tight to that bond with her father. The tempo slows and we hear the most symbolic use of cymbals on the album. Their extended, dramatic pause creates a strong impact. It is the musical equivalent of “fade to white.” We now know Daddy’s fate.
Following this pause we hear a rhythmic guitar build stressing the dance in the final chorus as the pair’s last. The first line of the first verse in this story is then repeated. In part epilogue, in part memory.
The final track, “Say Goodbye”, opens with strong, compelling synths that give way to an ominous piano hook and acoustic guitar riff that returns us to the desert. Reagan’s vocal style is most distinct on this track; it quivers with trepidation, cold like the desert night. It is foreshadowing.
We immediately feel her longing – waiting on a phone call – emphasized by slow sliding guitar. Stunning, haunting harmonies in minor; nobody is living happily ever after in this one. Though the piano and acoustic guitar robust, we can’t help feel a bit vapid by the end of the first chorus.
We’re into the story now, distracted momentarily by the sole instance of piano breaking from the melancholy into a descending glittered memory of feeling “pretty.” Still, the suspense in this song is excruciating and punctuated by a climactic extension of harmony at the end of its second chorus bending into dissonance. Why? The last verse, for all intents and purposes a repeat of the first, with one notable exception; past tense.
I like “Say Goodbye” as the album’s closing track. Not because of any overt reference to The End, but instead, the longing.
This album leaves us wanting more from Williams Honor. While Gordon and Reagan have over delivered on their promise to evolve a genre rooted in deep tradition, the need for immediate gratification supersedes appreciation.
But being Country music puts the audience first... first and foremost... I’m confident Gordon and Reagan will understand.
The Williams Honor Debut Album is available for purchase at their official website www.williamshonor.com
Writers in the Raw
Williams Honor will be performing at Gordon Brown’s Writer’s in the Raw Music series on Monday, November 2 at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park. The show will also feature Nicole Atkins, Arlen Feiles and Brielle Von Hugel. Call 732.455.3275 for reservations.
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About the Author
Jennifer Pricci, a Jersey Shore music enthusiast, has been a contributing writer covering area musicians for many Jersey-based music and entertainment publications; including Night & Day, Chorus & Verse and New Jersey Stage. Her work has also appeared in the Asbury Park Press and New York Daily News. A self-admitted name-dropper, Jennifer’s articles tend to cover those she holds in high esteem -- with a goal of paying homage to local talent in addition to enticing and educating readers. For this reason you’ll rarely find negative commentary that lacks constructive criticism. She just cares too much. And her passions sometimes undermine her smarts. Which has both pros and cons.
On the performance side, Jennifer has appeared as part of a barbershop quartet at Carnegie Hall, The Alamodome in San Antonio, the Superdome in New Orleans, The Times Union Center (formerly Pepsi Arena) in Albany and more.
Jennifer is a Marketing Professional with 15+ years' of broad-based experience combining both brand and agency side successes; perhaps most notably driving the campaign that secured sponsorship for ClearChannel’s iHeartRadio Theater Presented By P.C. Richard & Son in New York City. In 1999 Jennifer founded her own marketing agency; PHANTOM POWER, a fully integrated marketing firm serving the needs of local musicians and small and mid-sized businesses throughout the Tri-State.
#SharpNotes is a PHANTOM POWER Marketing online publication.
For more information about Jennifer Pricci and PHANTOM POWER Marketing visit www.phantompowermarketing.com.