Saturday, November 2, 2013

album review: 'drinks after work' by toby keith

My name is Mark, I run the review show called Spectrum-Pulse... and I am a fan of Toby Keith.

And here's one of the infuriating things about being a fan of country music - every time I say this, people raise an eyebrow and they mutter, 'Is he serious?' And you know what, I'm goddamn sick of that, because believe it or not, what most people think they know about this guy is mostly untrue or based upon a skewed vision of the guy's music, and if you asked them to name a Toby Keith song outside of 'Red Solo Cup' or 'Courtesy of the Red, White, And Blue', you'd get a series of blank expressions.

Let's deal the elephant in the room first, shall we? First off, Toby Keith is not some hectoring Republican - he's always described himself as a Conservative democrat, a 'blue dog' if you will, and he's done a ton to support the troops, mostly because his father was an army veteran. When he wrote 'Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue' in the aftermath of 9/11 (a song that is lyrically clumsy, but not one I can hate because it's clear that it comes from a real, heartfelt place) and the death of his father, he actually refused to record a copy of it and only played it live. He only recorded a copy when he started to get a real emphatic reaction from his fans and the military at large - and then the whole Dixie Chicks feud happened and a lot of stupid was flung in both direction. For the record, though, Toby Keith is a better songwriter than the Dixie Chicks ever were, and he was actually the one who called off the feud, even if they were right in the end about Bush.

See, here's the thing that most people don't know - Toby Keith has been in the country music scene for about twenty years. He started off in the early 90s and had a steady string of hits on the country charts until his mainstream breakthrough in the late 90s and early 2000s. Primarily, his singles have been light, upbeat, self-aggrandizing and kind of jokey, and it helps that he's a clever enough songwriter who's able to laugh at himself. What's contributed to his longevity, however, is his emotional range and his skill as a songwriter - believe it or not, Toby Keith has had a huge hand in writing his material, often being one of the only songwriters on his tracks, and his work has spanned legitimate love songs, borderline comedy tracks, and his more serious work. Yes, he's got a penchant for staying on the right side of the law and he's a huge supporter of the army, but the funny thing is that he's a good enough songwriter and sings with enough conviction to bypass political biases, and he's thrown support to both Republicans and Democrats.

But Toby Keith is now 52, and while he's put out enough good-to-great albums to have the artistic clout he wants (it helps he runs his own small label under Universal), his voice has been added to the chorus of those who aren't all that pleased with the rise of bro-country. To quote directly, 'You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’ Keep those thoughts in mind when you also consider that Toby Keith also had major writing credits on eleven of the thirteen songs on his newest album Drinks After Work. So you'd better bet I was intrigued, both as a fan of the guy and as someone who has kept a keen eye on the state of modern country - so, what did we get on Drinks After Work?


Eh, it's all right. I wouldn't call it a fantastic album or anything, but Drinks After Work is very serviceable in what it's trying to do and it didn't really offend. Is it Toby Keith's best work? God no, but it's far from his worst and it's easy enough to recommend.

It's also pretty much exactly what you would expect from a Toby Keith record - a couple songs about hard partying and kicking ass, a few heartfelt songs about love and loss, a few tracks about the southern lifestyle that don't so much pander as feature rural tropes, and a collection of pretty corny jokes. Toby Keith is playing in very familiar territory here, and there's an ease and comfort to his delivery on the more laid-back tracks that show he's not really stretching himself where he doesn't need to.

What becomes interesting about this record are the cautious steps that Keith has made towards modern country, particularly in the 'pick up girls and party' vein. It's a refreshing twist to see that Keith has completely ignored the 'checklist' variety of bro-country tracks in favour of his own take on the genre, but I don't think it works as well as he'd like it to. Both 'Little Miss Tearstain' and 'Show Me What You're Workin' With' are easily the worst songs on the album, the latter which sounds astoundingly derivative of 'Rock My World (Little Country Girl)' by Brooks & Dunn, and most of it is because Toby Keith plays the songs a little too broad, which comes off as sleazier than he'd probably like. It's already an awkward fit for him, and it doesn't work well here. What's bizarre is that Keith also shows a variety of modern country music that does work shocking well for him in 'Shut Up And Hold On' - it's a hard partying song, but it's heavier and rougher, borderline-line country rock, and when Toby Keith drops into his lower range, it really makes the song gain some potence. It's the same thing that Chris Young tried with his last album and it worked pretty damn well, so if nothing else, I'd like to see more male country baritones go in that direction.

It doesn't happen nearly enough, though, and that brings us to the first issue with this album: the instrumentation and production aren't uniformly great. Since Toby Keith produced the album himself (yeah, I'm as shocked as you probably are), you can tell there are moments on this album where he's toying with different guitar tones and styles in order to fit with the modern sound, and he gets some mixed results. Sure, 'Before We Knew They Were Good' manages to blend guitars with multiple tones reasonably well, but 'Drinks After Work' feels a little too slick and pop for Keith, and the vocal overdubs don't help. And about halfway through the album, Keith reverts back to traditional country anyway, and surprise surprise, he's a much better fit with it. Even with that, though, there are moments of inorganic percussion that just don't blend well in the mix, and only make me wish Keith had utilized his drummer more often.

So, what about the lyrics? Well, there are the occasional moments of cleverness, but there's also more clumsiness on this record than should reasonably be excused. Don't get me wrong, there's still a fair amount of wit and charm, but Toby Keith hasn't always been the best technical songwriting, and it's pretty easy to tell when he's not trying in the same way. That being said, when he does try, he delivers well and his vocals do a lot to save most of his songs. He's still as expressive and energetic as ever, and songs like 'The Other Side Of Him' and the heartbreaking 'Chuckie's Gone' (about a death in his touring band) show he's got a real skill for melancholic and emotionally effective songs.

And I'll say this, Toby Keith is probably one of the few country stars who is not afraid to and can pull off being righteously pissed off, with the big example on this album being 'Hard Way To Make An Easy Living', a bitter and very angry defense of the American farmer that is overloaded with contempt at those who consider the farm life an easy job. Considering how bad the drought was across the American Midwest this year, I can definitely hear real empathy in this song from Toby Keith - he makes it sound like he really cares - and while some might find it pretty abrasive, it did work for me. And while Keith is still a huge fan of the troops, both of his songs talking about the military are actually fairly light-hearted and comedic with 'I'll Probably Be Out Fishing' and the surprisingly witty 'Call A Marine', which I found to be a nice change of pace.

So look, if you want a Toby Keith album this year, Drinks After Work is probably worth your time, but I'm not sure it'll stick around long in your memory, or in mine. Sure, it's breezy and upbeat and generally solid, but it's not going to change your life and I don't think it has some of the strong singles that earlier Toby Keith albums brought to the table. Unleashed was better, Shock'n Y'all was better, hell, there have been seventeen Toby Keith albums over the past twenty years, and this one fits comfortably in the middle. For me, it's a solid 7/10 and a recommendation, but keep a firm grip on your expectations here. It doesn't quite have the impact I was hoping for or the innovation against some of the trends in the modern country genre, but it's serviceable enough and worth a look. Check it out.

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