Friday, April 5, 2013

album review: 'pioneer' by the band perry

It's hard talking about acts that can be considered 'good'.

And I know that's the sort of comment you only ever hear from critics, but as someone who has reached their fiftieth review on this blog, it's kind of true. But the reason you typically only hear the criticism from critics is because we experience so much material that our frame of reference becomes a bit too expansive. It's a bit of a strange conundrum, but it's always a little odd when I realize that I'll probably listen to around a hundred different albums this year and ten times that many songs. I'm going to hear things I'll both like and despise - but for the average consumer who gets maybe two to five albums a year and listens to the radio, they aren't going to have that frame of reference. They'll hear something that's good and like it without question - and while I'd really prefer that more people seek out the great, there's nothing wrong with liking things, particularly when those things arguably succeed in what they set out to do. 

However, speaking as a critic, the hardest reviews to write and articulate are of the albums that are just 'good'. Everyone can go on for hours at length about something that's bad - there's a whole swarm of internet critics that have made their fame on that premise alone. And those reviews are easy to write too (the difficult part is often experiencing the awful). It takes a lot more courage of convictions to say something is great, because there will always be people who'll challenge it. I know there are people who probably find my love of Avril Lavigne and Panic At The Disco and the Backstreet Boys and Ke$ha completely baffling, but if you're a good critic, you should be able to stand by what you like.

Now most professional critics typically say that the hardest things to criticize are those in the middle: the mediocre, the 3/5, the passing grade. And that particularly becomes a problem with reviewing albums, because you tend to find filler tracks that aren't precisely bad, but they aren't going to stand out. To say something meaningful about them often requires deeper analysis, but sometimes there just isn't anything there, nothing to say.

But when I dug a little deeper, I realized that those songs can be criticized or discussed, simply by pinpointing the purpose of what those songs are intending to do and seeing whether or not they complete those goals. More often than not, mediocrity comes with more failures than weak successes. In fact, I'd argue the hardest songs to discuss and criticize aren't the ones that are mediocre or middle-of-the-road, but the ones that are good, but not great. Just above album filler in that they accomplish what they set out to do, but otherwise provide nothing interesting to talk about. Nothing that blows your mind, the average consumer will be fine with it, but it's not going to set their worlds on fire either. And speaking as someone who has spent far too much time poring over Billboard charts, there is a lot of this material.

In fact, the more I've delved into the country charts, the more I've found a significant heap of this material performing well on the charts. Sure, there's plenty of mediocre and more bad and awful than I'd like, but there's a lot of good stuff there too, music that won't ever change someone's life or be emotionally evocative or a big smash hit, but passes the time in a way that won't frustrate or disappoint anyone. 

And I remember reading a discussion regarding criticisms of Pitchfork a while ago, which made the claim that critics tend to like the imperfect and incomplete, often raising them above that of the competent and good. And while that is a problem with Pitchfork (among another things), it's not just a problem with that site. Hell, I'd argue that as a critic, I fall into the exact same trap far too often - most of the time because the flawed and incomplete often present a more complete picture of what the artist is like, providing more nuance between the lines. Critics find that more interesting and ultimately more compelling that the works of artists that are good, but nothing all that incredible or special.

But I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so with that, let's talk about The Band Perry.

The Band Perry is a bit of a strange act, at least for me. As a mixed gender country group, the immediate comparisons to Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum were made by more than a few, but to me they fell more into the Taylor Swift mold of country: unthreatening,  a little clumsy, and generally immature. Their biggest hit of their first album was 'If I Die Young', a shockingly bad song about a teenage girl's immature fascination and fantasies about death, which felt more than a little awkward coming from Kimberly Perry at age 28. But at least that song got a reaction from me, and produced some material that I could talk about - their other singles off of that first album were bland as all hell and didn't really produce any reaction from me other than 'meh'. To me, they were definitely a b-list act, one looking to take chunks out of the teenage girl fanbase that Taylor Swift had newly cultivated in the country scene. 

And yeah, while I was very much tempted to completely disregard their sophomore effort Pioneer, I also remembered that second albums tend to be the places where bands innovate and try to evolve and expand their sound to better crystallize their image. So I was a little intrigued going into Pioneer and not entirely sure what to expect.

So what was the result? Well, at the end of the day... a resounding 'ehh'. As I mentioned above, this isn't an album that's bad or even all that mediocre. It's actually pretty good, all things considered, as it accomplishes its goals in a brisk, reasonable fashion. But it's also the sort of album I'm very much lukewarm to, mostly because it hardly inspires a reaction from me at all.

Let's start with the instrumentation, because it's here I have the most complimentary things to say, mostly because The Band Perry do succeed in expanding their sound. Sure, you get your fair amount of bluegrass-edged country here, but there's an odd theatrical tone that appears on a few of the tracks that really caught me off-guard. It doesn't reach epic by a longshot - Nick Cave can make quiet, understated tracks feel far more epic than The Band Perry will with their loudest, most reverb-saturated song - but it's a nice touch. It really contributes to an aesthetic that The Band Perry have been cultivating, which is very much in the vein of southern gothic culture, with the theatricality of times past decaying into something with a harsher, grimier edge. Now granted, it doesn't feel nearly as organic as anything Kacey Musgraves has done - if anything, it feels a bit like a throwback to the pop-country made by Reba McEntire in the 80s and 90s, which is a style I really dig. It's a little theatrical, it feels a bit artificial, but The Band Perry get the atmosphere right enough that I can look past that. In fact, I'd argue they're much better at this sort of music than the more 'down-to-earth' material they bring to the table, because those songs are boring as all hell.

However, the problems begin cropping up as soon as we look to the vocals. Yes, I won't deny that Kimberley Perry has a pretty voice, but she also has a very thick, twang-infused country accent. Now this can work in country music, but when combined with the breathy thinness of Miss Perry's delivery, it gets distracting and a bit annoying. Reba McEntire made that kind of strong accent work because she had the raw feistiness and passion to pull it off - Kimberley Perry, on the other hand, just can't deliver in the same vein. In fact, the few places where she attempts to belt or scream just comes across as painfully weak, which is really a disappointment.

The problem continues into the lyrics, which haven't really improved since their debut album. And after hearing what Kacey Musgraves brought to the table with rhythmic flow and delivery, I really found the disjointed, clumsy, amateurish lyrics of The Band Perry to be both distracting and kind of disappointing. And once again, these are some relatively simple things to fix - a word swapped out here and there would make her songs a lot more tolerable. It does help matters that the instrumentation is often clattery and plucky in the same sharp vein as the lyrics, but the lack of lyrical flow does get a little frustrating.

But what about subject matter? Well, the frustrating thing about the album is that The Band Perry really don't have that much interesting or original to say, and while their delivery might be a bit distinctive, there's little here that feels fresh or all that special for a country act. You get your love songs, your breakup songs, your party songs, your 'gosh, I love family' songs (on that note, their song 'Mother Like Mine' is easily the low point of the album, groan-inducing in its whole-hearted embrace of 'traditional values' and a lack of corniness). They even try a 'journeyman' song with the title track, like what the Zac Brown Band did on Uncaged, but it suffers the blows of being meandering, without focus and dull as dogshit.

What is frustrating is that The Band Perry do actually try to write a few interesting tracks, albeit with mixed results. 'Better Dig Two' is a rather hysterical track where the fascination and fantasies with death from 'If I Die Young' blows up into a surprisingly creepy obsession/fetish. It really puts the 'goth' back in Southern Gothic, and if I'm completely honest, I wish they had pushed that angle harder. You see a lot of country music discussing death, particularly in outlaw country music (although thanks to Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, you're seeing a fair amount in the mainstream as well), but with the aesthetic commitment and intensity Kimberley Perry brings to 'Better Dig Two', I think they could have really nailed this. Now, granted, none of this helps 'Better Dig Two' be a good song, but it's clear they were trying. 

And they do indeed have one song I'd call without compromise pretty damn excellent, which is 'Back To Me Without You'. It is a 'break-up/getting over you' song, which isn't something all that special in country music, but The Band Perry use the juxtaposition of vocals between Kimberley and the rest of the band to enhance the atmosphere and harmony of the track. Coupled with surprisingly deft lyrics and a nice breadth of instrumentation that still maintained the atmosphere, I dug the hell out of the song. It's proof that The Band Perry does have the potential to be more than just a B-List act - which unfortunately the rest of their album seems to disprove.

The most frustrating thing about The Band Perry's Pioneer is not that it's bad or even mediocre - as I said, it's pretty damn good. Everyone in the band at least sounds like they're trying, and the instrumentation often does a lot of heavy lifting to make the songs distinct and unique. And yeah, there are a couple clever turns of phrase and rhymes that redeem some tracks from being forgettable. But the problem is that after a few spins, this album just isn't sticking with me - despite having its own unique style and aesthetic and sound (which counts for a lot these days in the modern country scene, believe me), I can't find The Band Perry all that interesting. I think ultimately my issue comes down to some of the weaknesses in the songwriting, with the clumsiness and bland subject matter distracting from some of the better elements. 

However, I will say this: despite not liking this album quite as much as Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park, I do like a lot of what The Band Perry is doing in preserving a unique sound and aesthetic. I like it a hell of a lot more than I like Taylor Swift's pop sell-out with Red, and I really do think that if marketed and played in the right way, The Band Perry could carve out a pretty impressive niche. The songwriting does need to improve, but part of that does come with experience and time.

So I guess I can recommend The Band Perry's newest album Pioneer, and while you probably could do better, you could definitely do a whole fucking ton worse.

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