Thursday, May 9, 2013

album review: 'golden' by lady antebellum

A few days ago when I walking home, I flipped up Rumours, the classic 1976 Fleetwood Mac album. Completely unsurprisingly, the music held up and I enjoyed a few very solid moments walking in the sunset listening to several of the classic songs from that album that haven't aged in the slightest. It was a great moment, and one I definitely cherished.

But then I started thinking why Fleetwood Mac's music seems so timeless, at least off of Rumours. Why does that album remain so goddamn solid nearly forty years later, a pop rock album that still feels as relevant and poignant as the best music released today? Why, in short, does Rumours work?

Well, it became fairly clear as I continued listening. The songs are rooted in catchy, memorable melodies that stick in the mind, the performances are solid across the board, and most importantly, very few of the musical 'quirks' that can make 70s pop seem dated are here. Instead, the album seems grounded in simplicity, sticking to the elements that made Fleetwood Mac attractive to a mass audience. And by rooting the album in the tumultuous and complicated internal conflicts of the bandmates, the album gains a surprising emotional resonance that carries their best songs. Rumours feels, for lack of a better word, real, in that it both came from sincere emotional responses and is rooted in genuine feelings that the songwriters had.

And really, the more I listen to music, the more I've come to cherish sincerity and the acts that rely upon it. Eminem, Ke$ha, Meat Loaf, early Avril Lavigne, Nick Cave, these are all acts I love because the emotions powering their music are genuine and came from a real place. Sure, the sincerity can be awkward or uncomfortable at points, but it adds a fresh paint of reality to their music that you can't really fake. Hell, on that note, though I think the man has made serious missteps, I'll still defend Kanye West in this regard. On the other hand, that's why late-period Taylor Swift and Chris Brown piss me off so much - it's so obvious their music is hollow and lacks poignancy, and Taylor Swift's case, where real emotion was hurled aside in favour of plastic artifice. Sure, some of the original appearance might be there, but there's no soul left in this music.

But let's pose an interesting question: what happens if you do perform with sincerity and maybe even some emotion, but the topics you choose to talk about don't entirely fit well with that sort of delivery, or the instrumentation or lyrics doesn't back you up? Or what if the ideas you want to talk about just can't support that emotion?

Well, in that case, you run smack into the band we're going to talk about today, Lady Antebellum - or, as I like to say, the band that really, really wants to be Fleetwood Mac.

Now, let's be fair, because there's nothing wrong with wanting to emulate Fleetwood Mac, particularly considering that they were one of the most successful musical acts of all time. That said, Lady Antebellum's approach to their aspirations is a bit of an odd one, and it really should be examined, particularly in context of their most recent album Golden.

For starters, let's consider the differences in origin, particularly when it came to sound. Fleetwood Mac came from blues and folk rock for their sound, gradually adapting and slightly softening it for mainstream radio. Lady Antebellum, on the other hand, came from modern country radio, with a very distinctive Nashville tone. Now, admittedly, one could make the argument that there aren't that many differences between the instrumentation directions taken by both acts, but to be honest, the differentiation factor for me comes not in instrumentation, but in values. 

Because make no mistake, the values that inform one's music do tend to come out, particularly in this genre. And while normally this doesn't really affect the music all that negatively, here it comes through in the songwriting in a rather perplexing way. While they never were all that political, Fleetwood Mac's songwriting does have a distinctive 'California' vibe, and given it was the 70s, this vibe translated into a looser, more sexual vibe that lent itself to a lot of drama, both in the music and among the band. In terms of adding an edge, it wasn't nearly as bold or dangerous as some acts (particularly in 1976, when punk rock had coalesced in a big way), but in that genre, it gave the band some distinctive personality.

And in a rather ironic way, Lady Antebellum also managed to distinguish themselves from the pop scene when they broke through in 2010 - but their value set was distinctively more traditional than that of Fleetwood Mac, which stuck out vividly in the middle of the club boom. And while 'Need You Now' might have gotten so high on the charts solely on the basis of being an excellent song, it was also a country hit that played a late night booty call with the weight of great transgression, a desperate move that could have only been inspired by alcohol. That's why the emotions behind the song feel real, and thus prompted the original Fleetwood Mac comparison (also, mixed-gender band with an acoustic, more mature sound and a generally solid grasp of good technical songwriting).

Unfortunately, the comparison with Fleetwood Mac began to crumble when I listened to their other work, which couldn't hope to be as 'edgy' as 'Need You Now' or carry the same weight. Sure, the band was technically competent and wrote smooth pop-country with some emotion, but their material didn't move me in the same way because it wasn't nearly as raw or dramatic, which I can attribute to the differing value set. Try as you might like, it can be harder to write good drama when you stick to 'family values' material and don't step out of it. And sure, you can get a lot of innocent, pretty-sounding material out of that, but it can get really boring really fast, with the absolute nadir of this being 'Just A Kiss'. A song, which I should remind you, is about two people feeling passionate for each other and then at exactly the same moment, coming to a realization that they will not have sex because they 'shouldn't rush this' and 'should do this right' - for no goddamn reason whatsoever. Yes, I know there have been decent songs about putting off sex for good reasons, but there's none of that here, just the rejection of the possibility of sex without any decent reason to back it up. And that's not a song, that's a sermon.

And that's ultimately why I don't think the Fleetwood Mac comparison completely works, because that band showed no compunctions from fucking freely and openly, often to the detriment of the band's stability. There's a value difference here, and without the drive to push those values, Lady Antebellum come across as too safe and bland to get a reaction out of me. And to be honest, I wasn't expecting anything more out of Golden, their most recent album. So what did I get?

Well, to be honest, I got pretty much exactly what I expected - a couple of very solid tunes, a couple painfully awful tracks, and a whole lot of bland in between. The album is passable, but it's not going to blow your mind and it's not within spitting distance of classic territory. Hell, in comparison to their 'protege' Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum aren't nearly as emotionally evocative and potent.

However, I will acknowledge the steps they took in the right direction, and the things that Lady Antebellum have continued to do right. As always, they've got a smooth sound and the interplay between singers Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley is often the most interesting part of their material, lending interesting context to their music. As vocalists, I think I prefer Charles Kelley's earthy grit to Hillary Scott's often plaintive singing, but they're both reasonably talented. And both have an opportunity to showcase their best talents on the mid-album tracks 'Better Off Now' and 'It Ain't Pretty', the former giving Kelley some much needed balls and the latter giving Miss Scott some emotional depth that she can sell. They're definitely the highlights of the album, mostly because they stand out as the most 'Fleetwood Mac' of the tracks, organic and genuine. And their second single 'Goodbye Town' also sticks out for its folk-like production and pretty solid lyrics, and if Kacey Musgraves hadn't done a whole album of similar songs this year, I'd call it a definite highlight.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the album succumbs to many of the unfortunate trends in country music right now, and it really undercuts any depth or emotional resonance. What's strange about this is that Lady Antebellum is one of the few acts that doesn't hesitate to acknowledge their age, both in their vocal delivery and in their subject matter. Their lead single 'Downtown' is a prime example of this, where they talk about how they don't go downtown anymore to hang out and raise hell like they used to, a song crying out for youth in a way you don't typically see in modern country.

But there's a twofold problem in this. The first comes with instrumentation, in that Lady Antebellum are very much a pop-country act in their production and music, and that can undercut the emotional authenticity and render some of their material shallower than they might intend. Sure, it's very polished and smooth, but with that comes a distinctive deficit of personality and energy. And this isn't helped by the fact that the songwriting is skewed towards a 'summer, good-time partying' vibe, which to me undercuts the maturity of their better material. And undercutting that maturity isn't a good thing for Lady Antebellum, as it makes their acknowledgements of age and good times in the past comes across as tired or catty. The big reason why 'Downtown' doesn't work as a single is because it's so smooth and polished and upbeat that it makes Hillary Scott's delivery come across as catty and unnecessarily sharp, and it's a jarring feeling. And the absolute nadir of this is 'Generation Away', an album that attempts to acknowledge the music of the past and raise the question what the generation to come will be listening to - but the lyrics are so shallow and the instrumentation so painfully weak that the song comes across as immature and juvenile, which doesn't match the tone delivered in the vocals. 

Look, at their best, I can see the Lady Antebellum comparison to Fleetwood Mac, because there are similar elements. But the more Lady Antebellum stick to polished pop country sounds and themes, the more jarring the dissonance between their vocals and lyrics becomes. I'd argue that they'd be better sticking to a more organic country sound, both in lyrics and instrumentation. And yeah, there will always be the values dissonance between California and Nashville, but Lady Antebellum have proven that they can sell the transgression well enough to create an emotionally evocative song. 

But while I don't think Golden is all that bad, I can't really recommend it. If you're a fan of Lady Antebellum and the good time party vibe that seems to have infected country music and refuses to go away, you'll probably like this album because it's more of the same. But the tonal dissonance between lyrics and delivery made this album feel like a bit of a wash. It's not going to blow your mind or offend you - and really, I kind of wish it would. I wish Lady Antebellum would push those boundaries and write the emotionally evocative music I know they can sell. As it is, I'm reminded of Josh Groban's All That Echoes that I reviewed earlier this year, in that the album feels smaller and shallower than it should.

Lady Antebellum, if you want to be Fleetwood Mac, you might need to 'go your own way', because right now, I don't see much reason why I shouldn't 'never go back again'.

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