Tuesday, November 26, 2013

album review: 'danielle bradbery' by danielle bradbery

Okay, let's try this again. 

Back when I reviewed Cassadee Pope's long-delayed debut album Frame By Frame, I made the point that I didn't really watch NBC's The Voice, half because I don't have a TV and half because I've never cared. To me, it was yet another reality show with an overcomplicated competition narrative between a selection of big-name stars using their 'proteges' to win over their colleagues. The question I don't think anyone was prepared to answer was how on earth The Voice would help the careers of the new acts they were promoting.

Well, it did what its predecessor American Idol did: set the artist up with a selection of professional songwriters and proceeded to scrub every iota of distinctive personality to create more blandly-written pablum for the public at large, which was arguably my biggest problem with Frame By Frame. It wasn't precisely bad as it was boring, and a big step down in terms of personality from her days with Hey Monday, which at least had something of a distinctive sound and soul in comparison to the neutered pop-country she was pursuing now.

But at least on that album Cassadee Pope had songwriting credits, which ultimately led to the few songs I actually kind of liked on that album. With our newcomer Danielle Bradbery, the winner from Season 4 of The Voice, we've got no such luck, and thus I had a real sinking feeling when I prepared myself to look at her self-titled debut album from Big Machine Records. I mentally set myself up for yet another Taylor Swift wannabe, especially considering she's seventeen and every iota of her public persona seemed to emphasize the 'cute' factor. What did I find?

Well, a better album than I was expecting. Yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone, but the self-titled album from Danielle Bradbery is a bit better than I was expecting and actually pretty good. No, it's not great, but for a debut album coming from a reality show act, it's about as good as you could expect, considering the label was likely breathing down her neck to make sure she made something vaguely sellable. And while she definitely did that (placing her up against One Direction this week probably won't help matters), there are a few tracks on this album that show signs that Danielle Bradbery could be a promising act in the future.

Let's start with her, and I can say without hesitation that it's no surprise her songs did so well on the charts when they were released to iTunes, because this girl has a beautiful voice and a lot of presence. There are some vocal affectations that are somewhat reminiscent of Taylor Swift (undoubtedly played up in the marketing of the album, as well as her 'innocence'), but there are a few moments where she comes across as a little more downbeat with a little more honest maturity than you'd expect. Plus, she's got great pipes, and when the production truly gives her the room to go for broke on this album, she definitely delivers. A little pitchy at points, but that goes away with experience.

And really, when her production and instrumentation are on point, they compliment Bradbery's voice quite well. At its best, the plucky instrumentation and broad selection of guitar tones adds a lot of personality to the delivery, and I could even hear traces of accordion, fiddles, and banjo, all of which do a solid job complimenting her voice, never being too broad or heavy to overwhelm her. And I have to single out the guitar work on this album - the wide selection of tones and fantastic texture lends the album a shocking amount of character, to the point where the guitar work is easily the highlight of a few of the blander tracks. And while there are points where modern pop country tropes rear their heads - some questionable production that lowers Bradbery's voice in favour of some rougher guitars that don't quite fit as well, a few traces of backbeats that just don't work with the organic instrumentation, a selection of backing singers that just do nothing in the mix - for the most part this album stays really quite close to its country roots.

And shockingly, there are tracks where the songwriting isn't half bad either. Yeah, there are definitely moments of clumsiness, and the cliched nature of the love songs can get a little exasperating, but Danielle Bradbery is still a teenager, and songs of innocent young love fit her delivery. But it's where the songwriting tries a little harder that this album truly shines, particularly on the two standout tracks, 'Heart Of Dixie' and especially 'Wild Boy'. The former is an escape song that has a surprising amount of maturity and texture that feels a little awkward sung by Bradbery, but she does deliver it well. And 'Wild Boy' is easily the album standout track, as it's smart enough to capture both the romantic appeal of chasing the bad boy, but also with enough wisdom to recognize he's not one to be tamed or one with which to fall in love. Even though the song wasn't written by Bradbery, her delivery does just enough to imply that maybe we should all give teenage girls more credit.

So, okay, if I've got all of that praise, where does this album slip up? Well, pretty much exactly I expected it would, as it runs straight into the same problems that all 'debut albums from reality show contestants' run into. See, here's the thing: for these records to sell well and not alienate the audience, labels will often seek to keep the songs as bland and inoffensive as possible, nothing that could potentially scare off a buyer. So that means pop production, less texture in the instrumentation, and underwritten empowerment anthem lyrics that give the singer plenty of chances to belt. And while that doesn't make the songs bad, it can make them tedious. And yet, Danielle Bradbery sidesteps most of this, and I think I know why: as a singer, she already comes across as sweet and innocent, and thus she seems to have gotten away with instrumentation that has a bit more of a country flavour to it. Then again, that might have been a marketing decision: considering how Taylor Swift is trending towards pop, Big Machine might need somebody to replace her on country radio, and Danielle Bradbery wouldn't really be a bad candidate - and in the process, they added enough flavour to make a pretty solid country album.

So in short, I actually liked the self-titled album from Danielle Bradbery, mostly because it knows exactly what it is and it keeps a firm hold on its scope. It's an upbeat pop-country album that's all sweetness and smiles, and by sticking to that template, it took the time to add flavour and variety to the edges. It's nothing that's going to blow your mind, but it's a more cohesive work than Cassadee Pope's effort and with the standout 'Wild Boy', it showed good songwriting chops and some great delivery from Bradbery. I'm giving this album a 7/10 and a recommendation - and while it might be a little too saccharine for some listeners, it's an album with stronger hooks and more texture than you usually see in pop-country, and it's never bad. Check it out.

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