Wednesday, August 14, 2013

album review: 'crash my party' by luke bryan

Let's talk a bit about supply and demand.

See, it's very basic economics that if you have a lot of demand and the supply stays constant, the price will go up. Similarly, if you keep the demand constant and increase the supply, the price will go down. And you might not believe it, but a similar conceit applies to music - if you have an influx of artists who are making similar versions of the same basic genre and no added increase in demand, how much people care about said artists will decrease. And if you think I'm kidding, think back to the boy band explosion of the late 90s or the crunk boom of the early 2000s - there might have been a few standouts, but the music industry pumped out a lot of very similar artists in order to capitalize on presumed trends.

And really, that's one of the few explanations I have for the current massive influx of male country acts on the pop charts right now. As of now, there are about twenty unique male country acts occupying spots on Billboard's Hot 100 - that's a fifth of the chart. In comparison, there are precisely two female country acts (Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift) and I have a hard time calling either of them pure country acts!

So how to explain this sudden influx? Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I suspect it might be partially linked to the indie rock explosion last year, where a more organic sound and 'greater authenticity' became more attractive to the mainstream public in the aftermath of the club boom. So at some point the industry executives looked up from their cocaine buckets and thought, "Well, we could go into the indie or folk rock scene and find some new acts - but oh man, they have distortion and a grittier sound and occasionally challenging subject matter and that just makes my brain hurt!" And then some bright young jackass in the board room thought, "Hey, what about those country guys? They're inoffensive and easy enough to market - we've been doing it for years, after all - and the country music scene is so polished it's practically pop anyways! Let's leave the folk rock to Mumford & Sons and Phillip Phillips, leave Kurt Vile twisting in the wind, and force Kacey Musgraves to tour with Kenny freaking Chesney if she wants to build any buzz! See, problem solved!"

Ugh. So there you have it, folks, the reason why we have over a dozen practically interchangeable male country acts dominating the charts. Sure, there's a few bright spots - Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley routinely have a fair amount of quality, and Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band will always get a few crossover hits - but certainly not many. The pandering insincerity of it all makes me sick, even if it doesn't surprise me.

And speaking of acts that don't surprise me and also kind of make me sick, let's talk about Luke Bryan.

Now let me qualify this a bit and say Luke Bryan is better than the majority of his peers. For starters, he actually has a personality, some charisma, and a distinctive voice that has country flavour. I wouldn't quite say he has a sense of humour in the vein of Brad Paisley or Toby Keith, but he's sincere enough and his delivery tends to be believable. His instrumentation is a bit more of a mixed bag, but occasionally can have some real texture and rock energy. And better yet, he doesn't tend to engage in the heavy-handed political moralizing that taints acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore, preferring to have a much smaller, more intimate focus (there is still some southern pandering, but it's a modern country album, there'll always be that out of Nashville). Hell, I'd even argue that he's a reasonably talented songwriter, at least on a technical level.

Here's my big problem, though: Luke Bryan can really be an asshole, sort of in the same vein as Adam Levine from Maroon 5. He's not nearly as catty, but there definitely can be that undercurrent of leering douchebaggery that really rubs me the wrong way, mostly because of the delivery and framing of the songs. Take 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye' from his album Tailgates and Tanlines (which is just an album title that tells you more than you ever needed to know about Luke Bryan's priorities), which is basically 'One More Night' by Maroon 5 with a country twist. It's a song about a toxic relationship that only works when Bryan and his partner are having sex, but it's set up as being so romantic, when it reality it's unrealistic, sleazy, and a little misogynist, all traits that are amped to eleven on 'Country Girl (Shake It For Me)'. And look, I like my share of rap and hair metal debauchery, but when Luke Bryan tries to fuse in a call list of items of southern pride, it sounds both pandering and leering in the worst possible way. And then, of course, there's 'I Know You're Gonna Be There', where Luke Bryan cheats on his wife/girlfriend in plain sight of her just to make sure she still cares about him, with no consideration for his wife or the other girl (who he flat out admits he doesn't care about), and it's another song that's framed as him just testing her love. I honestly shouldn't have to explain everything that's wrong with that. (EDIT: I'm been informed by a trusted source that my interpretation of 'I Know You're Gonna Be There' is likely incorrect, with Bryan not referring to a current relationship, but an ex-girlfriend he's not over. I'm still of the opinion it doesn't make things better.)

But with all of that being said, I took a look at Luke Bryan's newest album Crash My Party, curious to see if some of the texture and good songwriting I liked made it over and the asshole behaviour had been dropped. For once, did I get lucky?

YouTube review after the jump

Well, no. While I wouldn't consider Crash My Party a 'bad' album, per se, it's far from good, and probably one of the weaker country albums I've reviewed thus far this year, and the reasons why can be directly linked to a set of creative missteps that do real damage to this album, rendering it not so much bad but painfully bland. If I can listen through the album multiple times and only remember maybe two songs I like, we're definitely heading into trouble.

So let's start with talking about the elements of this album that work, namely Luke Bryan as a performer. He still has a lot of energy, and his vocals are still very solid. On top of that, he's still a strong technical songwriter, with a good natural flow and some talent for interesting hooks. And I'll say this: I was happy to see Luke Bryan's usage of heavy, distorted guitar come back in a big way on a number of tracks, lending them some real personality and grit.

And this is where my praise comes to an abrupt conclusion, because more of than not, that instrumental texture gets shoved to the background in favour of processed beats on loan from the hip-hop recording next door. And I can't even begin to tell you how strikingly out-of-place it sounds when put up against organic instrumentation, particularly against the guitars. It might have worked better if the backbeat replaced the drums across the board, but there are multiple places where there are real drums on the track, and it makes all the songs with the electronic beats sound a lot worse in comparison. And it really doesn't help matters that more often than not, the production seems designed to keep the instrumentation from gaining any real force or energy - it's very distinctly pop, and it's a not a good fit for Luke Bryan's lower voice. And incidentally, the production on those vocal tracks is pretty haphazard, mostly falling between passable and overloaded with echo (which doesn't do much for preserving Bryan's unique delivery).

But all of these problems fade in comparison with the real issues on this album: the lyrics and themes. Now like most modern country stars, Bryan has a pretty limited set of priorities in his lyrics: beer, cars, and girls. This isn't an automatic breaking point for me (after all, the topics presented in most hip-hop and hair metal are pretty similar), but it can get a little tiresome when the songs feel like they're recycling the exact same formula from the previous album. And it doesn't help matters that more often than not, Bryan delivers his lyrics with the leering sensibilities of a fratboy douche who's just looking to get laid. This comes back to a bit of an odd issue with Bryan's delivery, he always comes across a bit too serious, which is more often than not reflected in the often dour instrumentation.

And when combined with some seriously questionable lyrical choices, it renders some of the songs a little uncomfortable. Take 'Blood Brothers', a bro-anthem (and one of the worst songs on the album) contains the line 'Chasing the girls that weren't fast enough' - I know the context behind those words, but even still, it comes across as pretty damn creepy! Or take the title track, which is based around the principle that his girl can show up whenever she wants and 'crash his party'. Now I get the sentiment behind the song, I really do, but I can't help but feel that with Bryan's humourless delivery, he honestly sounds less romantic and more like he's guilt-tripping the girl in question. And on a similar note, I get the sentiment behind 'Drink A Beer' (having a drink to try and get over a breakup), but when placed up against so many songs throughout the album where beer is a celebratory drink, I can't help but feel it's a bit disingenuous.

And here's the really frustrating thing: whenever Bryan chooses to step away from the typical songs about beer, cars, and girls (and, of course, the obligatory Southern pandering tracks), he actually can write interesting material that's thought-provoking and unique. He proved this on his previous album with 'You Don't Know Jack' (a heart-breaking song about alcoholism), and he does it here too. The best song on Crash My Party is 'I See You', which is a song about him out with his friends trying to find a girl to help him 'get over' his breakup, yet whenever he talks to said girls, all he sees is his ex. That's a believable scene that very few songs ever tackle, and there are very few songs that can accurately get that tricky balance between anger and regret, and Bryan absolutely nails it. Or take 'Goodbye Girl', a song where the girl Bryan is seeing is something of a drifter, but Bryan's still too hopelessly in love with her to leave. Once again, it's an uncommon situation that you don't typically see in country, and Bryan makes it work.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say there was that much innovation on the rest of the album. Too much of it feels like Bryan is settling into a comfort zone, and combined with the bland production, it makes a lot of songs feel interchangeable on this album. Once again, I wouldn't say this album is bad, but it does feel that, outside of a few specific cases, Luke Bryan just isn't trying to the same degree anymore, and that's disappointing. On top of that, in an era where too many other male country artists are treading the exact same ground as Luke Bryan, it doesn't help him stand out from the crowd (particularly when the production is only stripping away his rougher edges or making him move more towards 'pop'). 

All of that being said, if you're looking for a few more songs about beer, cars, and girls, you could definitely do worse than Luke Bryan, and while I hesitate to give the album a pass, I will say that if you're a fan, you'll probably like this album. Otherwise, he's rarely doing anything all that special in comparison to the rest of the country scene, and Crash My Party isn't going to change that.  You could do a lot worse than Luke Bryan, but this year, you could also do a lot better.

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