Mike Ireland & Holler

Learning How to Live

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Pain has traditionally formed the lyrical basis for much country music, and even in the late-'90s era of radio-friendly New Country schlock, many popular country albums are packed with cheating and leaving songs. But few artists cut as deeply with raw, honest desperation as Mike Ireland does in his ten compositions and two cover choices on this album. On the first track, "House of Secrets," the opening notes grab the listener with their haunting bleakness, and then Mike Ireland's sometimes twangy, sometimes smooth tenor holds that attention. But what ultimately makes this album great is Ireland's lyrics. In that first song, Ireland tells the story of an empty house that holds such painful memories that the only thing he can think to do is burn it down. Sometimes the melodies and arrangements are beautiful, in stark contrast with Ireland's lyrics. "Christmas Past" opens and closes with a glockenspiel, but the singer is sitting up late on Christmas Eve, wistfully looking back at better Decembers with his lost love. On four of the tracks here, Ireland, who considers Nashville-sound producer Billy Sherrill one of his musical heroes, uses strings to accentuate the agony of his lyrics. And indeed, the arrangements fit the songs well, but even if Ireland's only accompaniment were an acoustic guitar, his lyrics would stand out.

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