Album Review of Hope Dunbar: Sweetheartland
When this album hit my inbox, I sighed. “Not another Americana artist,” I thought to myself. “I’m tired of reviewing Americana artists; I get sooo much music from this genre (relative to my preferred mix).” (Yes, my thoughts have semicolons and parentheses; I’m a writer.) I’ve got nothing against Americana, but its artists (perhaps second only to folk artists) are really active in promoting their music, so I get too much and, as a result, only review Americana music that is truly exceptional. This particular album came from a publicist who has introduced me to some amazing music, so rather than setting it aside to quickly sample and decide about at a later date, I downloaded it and put it in my review queue, deciding to give it a chance, acknowledging I’d probably eventually skip reviewing it. You see, I maintain a queue of music that I’m likely to review, and I play it while I work, during periods when background music is helpful to block out distractions without being a distraction itself, so that I’m familiar with the music by the time I begin to write about it. Also, after a few listens, I sometimes decide not to review an album because it just doesn’t stack up against the others in the queue (IMHO). I also remove albums from the list when I complete their reviews. As items are removed from the top of the list, songs move up the list so I begin hearing them during my workday and, eventually, review them.
After reaching Sweetheartland two or three days on my way through the queue, I realized I’d definitely be writing this review. It’s a solid, well-written disc with a big potential breakout hit, a song that you must hear, a song I had to tell you about, though with each additional listen that early favorite catchy song turned out to be several favorites. From a label executive’s standpoint, that would suggest at least one song that could break an artist, then several others that could be hits once the world was aware of the artist. Now, an independent artist may have a much harder time getting those radio opportunities, but the exceptional songs necessary to make it happen are here on this disc. And beyond individual potential hits, Hope Dunbar has assembled a great full-album listening experience, too, on Sweetheartland.
The clearest breakout song on this disc – the song that sealed my decision to review Sweetheartland and began my journey toward discovering Hope Dunbar’s immense talent – is “What Were You Thinking,” a rockin’, fast-tempo, clever, humorous Americana number with sass, brass (not horns), and a fun, healthy take on a response to infidelity, leading to a reassessment that eventually turns the “what were you thinking” line into “what was I thinking” after the song turns. One of my favorite lines during the transition process, of course, is “all I need is a lighter, your clothes, and a gasoline can.” That’ll get his attention,
The second most-likely crossover hit, IMHO, is “John Prine.” It builds toward the catchy part, so it’s perhaps not as likely to latch on as a first offering, but it’s the song I find myself singing days later. It’s a love song, though not the romantic kind, rather the intellectual love a songwriter feels toward a master of the craft. “John Prine, John Prine, I wish your songs were mine. I wish I could steal one of your lines, and no one would know.” It’s a song that builds to energy, with the catchy, multiple repeats of the chorus backloaded.
The title track and album-opener, “Sweetheartland,” also is a catchy tune, one with a happy, bouncy, traditional country-Americana sway with pockets that leverages an intense vocal edge similar to that of Natalie Maines perched atop its already-edgy folk-country, Americana vocal style.
“Evacuate” is a tensely energetic, engaging number. And I had never thought about “evacuate” that closely before, but now I know “It’s a fancy way to say get out.” Through it’s crashing and frenetic energy, this is a song that’ll suck you in… as it’s telling you to evacuate.
“Woman Like Me” shows a softer side in the form of a big, sweeping slow song. Lyrically, it highlights the value and beauty of life experience: “Call me a rose whose first bloom is gone. But a woman like me sings the prettiest songs.” Gotta admit, she does. Or she can, anyway. As you’ve probably already noted, she also sings some of the fiercest songs.
Bluesy-twangy “Dog Like You” sounds like something Shania Twain might sing whenever she wanted to lean a little more old-school Opry.
“The Road Is” more folky but over an ominous aural backdrop. It’s a lyrically clever brief telling of multiple tales around the meaning of the road in various situations. Hope’s vocal power places emphasis adeptly as dictated by the emotion required by each various stretch of “the road.”
“Dust” is steadily progressing song with an almost war drum rhythm and whose quickly-escalating late-song “oh, oh-woah” mini-bridge forms an edgy, almost alt-country crescendo leading to the song’s most intense uttering of “we don’t wear rings because the promise didn’t last.” Oh.
Disc-ender “More,” after which there is no more, is a self-effacing introspective song from the indie songwriter about her lot in life (“I write down a few words, pick up my guitar, and sing”), seemingly a blend of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, essentially deciding that life is good but it’s OK to want more.
And that’s a good way to leave the disc. To leave the listener wanting more, which Hope does after a mere nine terrific songs.
This disc is strong throughout with pockets of amazingness. You know, one of the cool things about getting an advance review copy of an album is that I’m able to give it dozens of listens over a period of time and become familiar enough with it to write a thoughtful review, one in which I’m able to uncover both its obvious and subtle features, and still sometimes complete the review before the album is released. That was the case with Sweetheartland. Though I’ve played it dozens of times before writing this review, the album’s release date is today, April 2nd, 2021, so go out and be one of the first to pick up a copy… or download a copy… or save it to your streaming service if you don’t purchase music, though especially during a pandemic when artists can’t easily tour, this might be a good time to support them by buying music.
Speaking of touring, when Hope is able to tour again, you’ll find the dates here on the “Live” page of her website. And until COVID-19 allows touring to resume, Hope will support Sweetheartland‘s release with livestreams. Notably, she has a livestreamed set scheduled at TheBoot.com’s Facebook page on April 5, 2021 at 9:00 PM EDT/8:00 PM CDT.
Publisher’s Post Script
Thanks for indulging me at the beginning of this review. I’ve often thought of giving a peek behind my writing process, and this review seemed to lend itself to that, so I did. I hope some of you found it interesting. -GW