This is an excerpt from the book “HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND START LIVING” by Dale Carnegie:
“Let’s not imitate others
Let’s find ourselves and be ourselves.”
You might already be confused. I don’t blame you. You’re wondering why I would start off a review with a quote from a Dale Carnegie book. You’ll figure that out all on your own once this gets going. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, our readers are pretty smart, you’ll get it.
Let’s go back a bit. It’s 2012 and a mother/daughter music duo calling themselves “2Steel Girls” belted out a cover of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” on NBC’s “The Voice.” The chairs of mentors CeeLo Green and Blake Shelton both turned around, which signaled both wanted these ladies on their team. Yes, they were really good. Allison Steel (the mother) and Krystal Steel (the daughter) ultimately chose Blake Shelton to be their mentor and suddenly, these small town Ohio natives who were now living on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee were thrust into the public eye. This is how it started. They weren’t the season winners, that prize went to Cassadee Pope, also a member of Team Blake, but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world for these two. Not by a long shot.
Just to back it up again, Allison and Krystal never actually knew who referred them to “The Voice” to begin with, much less set them up with an audition, and to this day, that remains a mystery. They could have just left everything at the NBC studios the day they got voted off the show and returned to their normal lives, but it was obvious they had something special going on and they had developed a fan base by then as well. They decided to keep their mother/daughter act together and give Nashville a shot. It should also be noted that to date, “2Steel Girls” has been the only mother/daughter duo ever to appear on “The Voice”.
Six years have passed since then and “2Steel Girls” have put out some music that, according to them, was never anything they felt was authentically “them”. They felt pushed and pulled in so many different directions. They were told to be “more country”, “less country”, more like this artist, or more like that artist. They were told to act like this, dress like that. To sum it up, nothing was ever comfortable, and when you aren’t comfortable in what you’re doing, it isn’t fun. Things were becoming exactly that for Allison and Krystal. Not fun.
They needed a change, but they didn’t need anyone giving them advice on what needed to be “fixed” anymore. What they needed was really simple. They needed to be themselves. Allison said it best. “We named our new album ‘The Real Thing’ because it’s really us.” This new project is a full-length, 11-song album and it isn’t anything even remotely like any of their previous music.
I was contacted by Allison and asked if I wanted to listen to their new music and possibly review it. I was given strict instructions to be totally honest. Good, bad or downright ugly. Any press is better than nothing at all. Well, alright then. We strive to be positive here at Think Country, but she really wanted honesty, so you will see me in my most transparent form here. Be ready.
When I hear that a band is going in a completely new direction, it interests me, but usually, it scares me. I come from a world where some of my favorite artists have gone through an “experimental” phase and I wished they had experimented in their secret laboratory and not a recording studio. Think Styx and “Kilroy Was Here”, and the list goes on and on with bands that I followed and then, well, they suddenly got “weird”. In their defense, artistry is a personal thing. Maybe I thought “Kilroy Was Here” was weird, but Styx certainly liked it enough to release it to the public, but I watch trends. I wasn’t the only one to feel it when that record came out. There were a lot of fans stuck against the wall with the breath sucked out of their lungs. What happened to our beloved band? Too many drugs? Not enough drugs? Were we all on a collective bad trip? Or was it really just that bad? Who knows? If you liked it, I apologize, but I hope you understand what I’m saying.
Sometimes our favorite artists do something really different and we just don’t get it. Again, art in any form is subject to personal opinion. Some people think a painting that costs thousands of dollars looks like a four-year old created it. Others will pay that money. The same goes for music. The question I pose to my readers is if a band can shock us and make us suddenly not want to listen to them because they’ve done something radically different, can they do the opposite and make us want to listen to them a whole lot more than they ever did before? Can they go so far as to make us want to trash all of their previous records and start fresh with their newest one? That has never happened to me. I promise you, I have listened to so much music since I was young enough to figure out how to operate a turntable (and I can also promise you that I learned to operate a turntable before I was even allowed to do that on my parents’ French Provincial console, playing whatever LPs were available to self-teach with), and no artist has ever IMPROVED so dramatically that I looked at my record collection and went, “This old stuff sucks compared to their new stuff”, and I threw it in the trash. Never. Until now.
“2Steel Girls” are “technically” labeled as a country duo. What is “country”? Don’t even get me started. If you consider yourself a traditional country music purist, you may as well stop right here. Nothing I say will matter from this point. Country music, in my mind, has evolved over time. If we start at the beginning, and really, what is the beginning? That’s an argument for another time, but let’s just take Hank Williams for example, since he’s pretty early and a lot of people consider him an icon of country music. He sounds nothing like, say, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, two other country music icons who came later on. Cash and Jennings sound nothing like Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw, two more who are being added to the “legendary” category, and these are just the male country artists. Does Patsy Cline sound like Lynn Anderson? No. Does Lynn Anderson sound like Mary Chapin Carpenter? No. Does Mary Chapin Carpenter sound like Taylor Swift? No, and if we go back around in a circle, does Taylor Swift sound like Patsy Cline, no. Music evolves. It has to.
Rock music evolves too, or bands like “Imagine Dragons” would sound like “Bill Haley & The Comets”. Time, technology, life events and so much else goes into what people write about and how music gets played, written and produced. We either roll with those changes or we end up listening to the same old things. Sure, there are artists that can make songs that sound like the old songs, but that takes ingenuity too, and then there are artists that can take music that blends old, new and everything in between and create something else. That’s real magic to me. I think it’s a sweet spot that doesn’t happen all that often, but it happened for “2Steel Girls” with “The Real Thing” and it happened because they shut the door on the past, found a producer that was not only very experienced and knowledgeable, but was really enthusiastic and decided to stop trying to find a perfect formula to please everyone. They threw up their hands and chose to do something that they loved themselves.
After a year and a half of looking for the right songs, they got to work on something that, at long last, they actually are proud of. Admittedly, they hope the fans that have stood by them for so long will embrace it, but they also aren’t worried if they don’t. This is how much they, themselves love it. In an interview Annette Gibbons and I did with Allison and Krystal, to be published soon, I’ll go further into detail about their feelings on the new music, but this music tells the story of who they are, what they like, and what they listen to. It IS “2Steel Girls”. Anything that came before this album was what outside forces were telling them they should try to be. Not this time. They were at the helm of this ship. Whether you like it or not, they were behind the wheel, so hang on tight, you are in for the ride of your life. Let me hop in the shotgun seat and tell you about it.
There’s a first time for everything, right? Usually, the first time I listen to new music, I’m by myself with headphones on. Not this time. It was a whole new experience. British people, in general, listen to music differently than Americans. We are, in general, impatient. If we like it, we just can’t wait to say so. If we don’t like it, we can’t wait to say that either. We should listen to an entire song before we pass judgment, but many times, we give it until the chorus at best and we’re all over it one way or the other. Tell me I’m wrong. Americans, just own it. We’re impatient.
I can’t fake a British accent to save my life (although I did fake one good enough to get a free drink once, but that’s another story), but I did put on my “Brit hat” in order to sit down on my patio with Annette Gibbons (British as they come) and listen to the new “2Steel Girls” album. I promised myself I would sit stoically and not say a word or make any expressions until the first song was over, just as she did. I was proud of myself. I handled it just like a Brit. When Track number 1, “Lost”, (written by Nolan Neal, also a contestant on “The Voice” Seasons 10 & 11) set to be the first single from “The Real Thing”, was over, I glanced to my left where Annette was sitting. I didn’t say a word. I waited for her to speak first. She looked at me and said, “That was amazing.” I felt the sweat on the back of my neck start to dry and I said, “Hell yeah it was!” I could once again be American. I was only going to be half-British now. If the first song passed muster, I was going to be myself for the rest of the album.
“Lost” is one of the best songs they could have chosen for a first single because all you need is one lyric in the song to sum up the album and Allison and Krystal themselves.
“Today I found myself
Today I found myself
Lost for the last time
Lost for the last time
Lost for the last time”
The song starts off with an almost sweet sounding, lonely vocal. My immediate thought was “ballad”. She’s lost. A ballad of a girl lost in life, a relationship, a vast desert, a mall parking lot. I don’t know. I was kind of off. This is where being British for one track was wise. I really focused. I listened carefully. It picks up fairly quickly with an elegant sounding piano and before you know it, this sad, confused girl and her pianist are invaded by an entire rock band and apparently, they have a good GPS because she ain’t lost anymore! This is no ballad. This quickly ranked among one of the best ROCK songs I’ve heard in a long time. It’s very current sounding. I think it could be played on rock radio right now and it would be a hit. It could also crossover to pop radio and be a hit.
Annette and I struggled trying to think of who it reminded us of and we fell short. I spent the better part of my week searching through my own music library trying to find comparisons with the songs on this album and I did find some, but for this one, I couldn’t really nail anything down that was a close enough match. I find that to be a good thing. It’s very original to me. It has a bit of an Evanescence-feel to it, but Allison and Krystal own these vocals. Alright then, “2Steel Girls” have gone rock. This was going to be a rock album. I was perfectly fine with that. I grew up on that kind of music, I like that kind of music. On to Track number 2.
Track 2 is called “Sugar Rush” (Kelly Paige) and forget everything I said about this being a rock album. This is pure pop. It places me right back somewhere circa 1985. If we rounded up all the writers from songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “I Want Candy” and some more lost 80’s hits, like Jellybean’s “Sidewalk Talk” and “Rush Hour” by Jane Wiedlin in one room and said, “Write something”, this might be what they come up with. It isn’t deep and thought-provoking, but it’s good fun and most definitely a throwback to the indulgent 80’s. If you lived through that time, you are going to feel it. Did we party a little too much in the 80’s? Probably so, but the fact that we remember the music, even the bubblegum pop, speaks highly of the power of the medium. I like this one just for the blast back to the era and the hint that maybe, this record is going to be an 11-song surprise package.
“Inside Your Head” is the next one on the album and you might have heard of the guy who wrote it. His name is Chris Stapleton. He’s written a few here and there. It’s actually a cover from when Chris Stapleton was with The Jompson Brothers, and you can listen to that version and as good as that version is, and it is very, very good, “2Steel Girls” have really done it justice. Guy song turned girl song with excellent guitars and vocals. This one could be a country song with a very noticeable rock edge. It’s got all the drama of a Lifetime movie in the lyrics but none of the cheese. Great songwriter, stellar cover. I think Stapleton would be proud of this. I hope he hears it. I’m sure he doesn’t read my work, but I’m inviting him to get this song just in case. Stranger things have happened in my life.
Coming in at Track 4 is “In My Head”, not to be confused with “Inside Your Head” at Track 3. Yes, the titles are similar, but these are two very different songs. This one was penned by Kelly Paige and it’s what I call a classic ballad of regret. Most of us have been there at some point in our lives. We imagine that guy or girl is the one. They look perfect and they seem perfect, that is until the dream becomes a reality. Then it all crumbles down.
“I should have kept you as a dream
At least then you’d still be lovin’ me
I’m doin’ fine
it doesn’t hurt
Cause you can’t lose what isn’t yours”
As if the vocals in this beauty aren’t strong enough to call it a winner, the fantastic lead guitar is performed by none other than Jeff King, session player extraordinaire who has worked with countless big-name artists, including, Reba McEntire, Randy Houser, Luke Bryan, Brett Eldredge, The Oak Ridge Boys and the list goes on. We’ve really turned a corner now because this song could find itself on country, pop or adult contemporary radio. This album is proving to be an eclectic mix of something for everyone, and we’re only four songs into it.
I don’t review every album track by track, but this one demanded it. The next number almost tricked me into believing it was the end of the surprises and we were headed back to the Land of Pop, and actually we did. For a while. “You Get Me” (Kelly Paige) opens with an obvious pop vibe and Krystal singing these lyrics with just enough attitude to let us know she’s had a rough time, but she’s dusted herself off and she’s got some good news to share:
“Sometimes you gotta have your heart broken
If it’s ever gonna be open”
This is an upbeat story of new love that utilizes Krystal and Allison’s harmonies and introduces a new genre to the record. Rap. Yes, do not adjust the brightness on your device. You are reading that right. Christian rapper, B. Cooper hops in near the end of the song with a very cool rap. So, any misconceptions I had about the surprises being over were a clear sign that I had really gone back to being an American. You see? Impatient. I need to work on this. From this point on, I was prepared to expect the unexpected.
Moving right along to Track number 6. I looked at the title, and I remembered Allison and Krystal telling us they had a cover on the record. Not the Chris Stapleton cover. No. This was another cover. I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever and I also remember thinking it was the RISKIEST thing ever. Before I hit “play”, I put on my skeptic hat.
Before I tell you what the cover is, I have to tell you, I did my homework. I dug around to see how many times this thing has been covered (not in bars, but on a record). There’s another song by this artist that I’ve heard covered on records and I thought of a couple right off the top of my head, but this other one, I was drawing a blank. I thought, “Man, if they pulled this one off, I’m going to bow down.” Then I thought, “If they screwed it up, I’m going to pray for them.”
So, in my research, I found that the song was made really famous AS A COVER. So, “2Steel Girls” were actually covering a cover. The original song was written by Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy and released in 1963 by Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters and spent a few weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles Chart in October and November of that year. Then in 1971, an artist quite different from Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters covered it, and it only made it to number 42 on Billboard’s US Hot 100 Chart, yet there’s not much argument that this cover version is the one that most people think of when they hear the title of this song.
I searched around and aside from some performances here and there, including one by Joss Stone, it really hasn’t been done as a recorded version, until now. Oh, the bravery of Allison and Krystal Steel. They were courageous enough to take on Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby”, and THEY NAILED IT. TO THE WALL.
Let’s spend some time talking about what it takes to handle a song like this. Anyone with a halfway decent voice can enter a karaoke bar and belt it out. In fact, anyone with a terrible voice can give it a shot in a karaoke bar and the drunks will probably applaud. A cover band in a bar can work it out if the lead vocalist has a pretty good range, and again, the drunks will think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard. I’ve heard “Piece of My Heart” covered. I’ve heard “Mercedes Benz” covered, but this one? Not lately. I watched a video of Natalia Sikora singing it on The Voice Poland and she wailed it out really well, but again, it was a one and done. I looked to see if she ever put it on a record. I couldn’t find it.
“2Steel Girls” found the perfect arrangement and if this doesn’t showcase the pure power of their collective voices, nothing ever will. It also shows that they have confidence in themselves. They took a song from Janis Joplin’s catalog (no disrespect to Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters, their version is excellent, but I’m being realistic with the fact that people recognize this song as a Joplin song first) that nobody seems to want to go into a studio and put on a record for all the world to hear and they laid it all out.
The vocals against the piano in this number make me feel as if I’m in a smoky blues bar where it’s all about the music. I don’t know if there’s a Cover Hall of Fame, but if there is, this needs to go in there. If there isn’t, maybe I should start one and put this in on opening day. For a track I was almost afraid to listen to, I can’t give it enough props. As far as I can tell, Garnet Mimms is still alive. I think he’d enjoy this. If anyone knows how to find him, send him a copy. The writers have passed on or they would deserve one as well. Now that I’ve given you the skinny on “Cry Baby”, I suggest you pour yourself a glass of the best whiskey you have before you listen to it first. I’m just saying it deserves that type of treatment. Sip it slowly and drink the whole experience in, because what’s next is going to make you want to be sure you poured your own drink, and that you were watching it the whole time you were listening to the song.
I’m not even going to tell you what happens during the next track except that Producer Mike Kyle (Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn), Allison and Krystal get the credit.
Are you into musical time travel? I am. We just got out of my time machine and we’re in the Big Band era, in a dancehall. We’re hanging with the bad girl crowd. Our parents don’t know it, they think we’re at the church social helping serve pie and coffee to the pastor and all the town gossips. Instead, we’re smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking gin rickys, staring at the cute boys in the band. We don’t talk like ladies like we’re supposed to, at least not now. We clean up real nice when we have to, but for the moment, if you ask me, “I Won’t Grow Up”.
This Audra Mae cover is all of 2:55 long and it’s been given a whole lotta swing! This might be one to skip if you have kids in the vicinity, there’s some “adult language” involved, but the only bad thing I have to say about it is I wish it was longer. I’ve fixed that problem though. My highly advanced production skills have allowed me to create an extended version. I hit repeat.
I think since we’re up to Track 9, we should pause to take stock of where “The Real Thing” has taken us so far. We started off with “Lost”, a rock song. “Sugar Rush” gave us just that, a sugar rush of bubblegum pop. “Inside Your Head” offered up an edgy Chris Stapleton country/rock type ballad. “In My Head” was more of an across-the-board pop/adult contemporary/country ballad. Then we had “You Get Me” that mixed pop with rap. Who could forget the Garnet Mimms/Janis Joplin cover of “Cry Baby”? The bravest throwback of a throwback I can recall. There was a surprise that I didn’t give you any details on. “I Won’t Grow Up”, the Audra Mae cover that brought us back to the 1940’s, so what could they possibly do next? Let’s see.
I hear fingers snapping. I hear some seriously sassy girls singing about bowing down… hold on a minute. Let me listen to this again.
“If you wanna fly with the Queen Bee
You better bow down”
I know what happened here. I was hacked! Someone booked us a trip on my own time travel machine without telling me and now we’re in Detroit circa 1966! I don’t know how they’re doing this, but these ladies that hail from small town Ohio just turned into a Motown girl group! What is going on here?! Is there nothing they can’t do?! The versatility is incredulous. “Queen Bee”, yet another written by Kelly Paige, combines the sauciness of a Tanya Tucker song and the sound of a girl group like Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. Guys, if your girlfriend plays this for you and gets very quiet, she might be trying to tell you something. Be afraid. Aside from that bit of advice to the men of the world, I give this one a blue ribbon. I’m still not sure how they worked this one out… I mean, it’s THEM. I can tell it’s them. Kudos to the producer. I would have loved to have been in the studio for this.
I’m going to have a lot of hate mail for this next one. Track 10, the second last cut on the record is what I consider to be THE POWER BALLAD of the album. There. I said it. You know me. The ballad girl. Alright. Not everyone knows me or my writing, so I’ll take a second to go down this road again. I’m not that big on ballads. I’m bigger on girl ballads than guy ballads, but when it comes to ballads in general, I have to really like them or I usually don’t. In fact, if I LIKE a ballad, I usually LOVE it. Guess what? I LOVE this ballad. I love it so much, I think it could be a number one hit in several genres. It’s called “Forward”. Co-written by Allison and Krystal Steel, it is simply stunning. It begins with Allison’s striking vocals and a piano, and to be honest, it could continue on that way until the end and be a great song, it really could. It’s when Krystal joins in with her equally superb voice, that the harmonies and the layering of the vocals create something dazzling.
“Forward” isn’t just musically incredible. It has a message lyrically. For anyone who is struggling, this is your song. It’s like a gift. I can imagine “2Steel Girls” singing this somewhere like The Ryman Auditorium, with its rich history and its acoustics and the power of their voices sending the message of this song out in all its glory to people that need it. We’ve all had times where we needed this song. Maybe right now. The world probably always needs it.
Here’s where I think the hate mail will come in. I would put this song up against the biggest power ballads in country and pop music. I’d put it up against Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be”, Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, Martina McBride’s “Valentine” and I could go on. I think it’s THAT good. Let me have it. I can take it. I’ll defend this song. For the love of God, someone get this song on the radio. Everyone needs to hear this song. It’s a hit.
The very last track on this record was co-written by Donny and Justin Ruggles. “Flying High” might be my favorite song on the record thanks to its creativity. To love it, you have to have an open mind. To understand it, you have to do psychedelic drugs. No, I’m just kidding, sort of. No, I really am kidding, but it is reminiscent of albums that came out during the height of Haight-Ashbury. I would best describe this song in terms of entire albums. If “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” had a love child, this might be it as an infant.
For someone like me, who listens to everything from Barry Manilow to Yes to Merle Haggard to Metallica, I’m really good with this song. I love this type of song. What genre is it? Now? I don’t know. It would have been rock at one time. I would still call it rock. It makes the most of Allison and Krystal’s perfect harmonies. It uses sound effects. If I was talking to you over drinks, I would say, “It’s cool as Hell.” That’s what it is to me. You can judge for yourself. I wish people would make more music like this.
Here we are. The end of what I consider to be a musical journey. An odyssey of sorts. Something I don’t feel we do much anymore in music. Remember the days when we opened a double album and it was almost an adventure? When music didn’t seem so perfectly aligned? Everything wasn’t as squeaky clean, so to speak. Or perhaps a record was an event. Think Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. Maybe “2Steel Girls” “The Real Thing” isn’t a double album stringing together a story of war horrors or maybe they weren’t popping handfuls of pills to get inspired, but somehow, they managed to make an album that, in the simplest terms, isn’t boring.
One song doesn’t sound like the next. In fact, no two songs on the entire album sound alike. It’s fun. It reminded me of when I was young and had ten dollars to spend at the record store. I might be able to get two whole albums if I shopped wisely. I would walk around forever, flipping through those records, reading the album covers, trying to decide what to do. In the end, I might end up with two rock albums that were in the Top 10, or one in the Top 10 and one that was much older. Or maybe a more pop album and one rock album. It was always fun to try and figure it out, but that was before we could just download ANYTHING whenever we wanted. Now, if we buy an entire album, we’re going to get about 10 songs of the same thing. That’s it. That’s why so many people buy singles these days. Or at least that’s how I see it. Or they skip over tracks. “The Real Thing” does the work for us. It’s like buying 11 albums in one. It’s a whole new idea.
The best part is “2Steel Girls” made it that way because they wanted to. They didn’t make it that way because someone told them they should. This is who they really are. If they had been true to themselves years ago, this is the album they would have made way before now. This is the one they SHOULD have made way before now. I told you I never felt the need to throw out all the previous music of an artist after hearing their latest work before. Until now.
I hope you now understand why I don’t need anything they’ve done before. They’ve told me they weren’t happy with what they did before. I think this work is so far above everything they’ve put out in the past, I wouldn’t listen to the old stuff anyway. This is GREAT music. Why would I listen to something that’s just alright, when I can listen to something that’s outstanding? “The Real Thing” might not fit into a perfect little box and it might be hard to categorize, but does it matter if I never have to hit the “skip” button? I hate hitting the “skip” button.
“2Steel Girls” can be found:
“The Real Thing” release date is June 15, 2018
“The Real Thing” Credits:
Producer: Mike Kyle
Co-Producers: Krystal Steel & Allison Steel
Vocals: Allison Steel, Krystal Steel
Piano: Mike Kyle, Andy Flores, Catherine Marx
Guitars: Aaron Steel, Jeff King, Dave Baker
Bass Guitar: Don Mott, Barney Johnston
Drums: Todd Steel