Thursday, September 19, 2013

album review 'a.m.' by chris young

I've written a number of times about how modern country music, particularly that which has had some appeal to the mainstream, has lost something of its edge and texture in favour of catering to a larger audience. Now, I've reviewed a few of these acts who have either gone straight towards pop country (this is your Keith Urban or Taylor Swift) or towards what's been branded 'bro-country' (this would be your Luke Bryan and Billy Curringnton, for example). Now what needs to be stressed is that, in country music, this shift towards the mainstream has happened a few times before - it happened in the 80s, it happened in a big way in the 90s (although there were a lot more factors in that particular shift, given the rise of alternative rock and Garth Brooks) - and it's happening again today.

And at each point in these shifts towards popularity and a subsequent loss of culture, there has been pushback in the form of what some have deemed 'neotraditionalist country'. This is country music that harkens back to the bluegrass and traditional country of the 50s and 60s, and there have been some highly successful acts who have led the charge here, like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Randy Travis, Tracy Byrd, and (to a much lesser extent) Vince Gill. Now as somebody who likes country on both sides, both moving towards the mainstream and those who would prefer to maintain the homegrown culture of the past, I can see both positives and negatives in the neotraditionalist country movement. After all, it's a good thing to know your history, and I certainly prefer this sort of culturally-minded country music compared to the offensive pandering put forward by the Nashville album-producing machine. That being said, if you stay too close to the well of the music of the past without innovation, you can occasionally run into stagnation. Fortunately, this hasn't happened (a big sigh of relief from me), and thus, it goes without saying that I'm fond of the neotraditionalist country movement. 

But for a while, I was starting to get concerned that there wouldn't be that push back in country music against the mainstream that would achieve sort of success. Would I be forced to retreat into alternative country or outlaw country to find any country music with texture and culture and quality anymore?

Fortunately, outside of the mainstay stalwarts, we do have a newer country act who's willing to bear the torch of neotraditionalist country music, and he comes from an unlikely source: Chris Young. For those of you who don't know, Chris Young started his career quite young when he was encouraged to try out for Nashville Star, a country-oriented version of American Idol. And when he won, it'd be the reasonable assumption this guy would immediately start making the sort of polished pop country that gets popular...

And that didn't happen. Chris Young pulled something of a 'Kelly Clarkson' in the country music scene and began working to take control of his own career, particularly in songwriting and artistic direction. It definitely helped matters that Chris Young has a great voice that is born to sing traditional country music: rich, powerful, impressively deep, and loaded with heartfelt emotion. And after several assorted successes (including several number one songs and the critical hit 'Gettin' You Home'), he's finally come roaring back with his new album A.M. this year. So, how did it turn out?

Well, pretty damn good, all things considered. Chris Young delivers a very solid, very strong country album with A.M., and I'm definitely to like it. However, I wouldn't quite consider it a masterpiece, mostly due to a few small missteps throughout this album that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. However, I'm not sure I can assign all the blame to Young here, which makes talking about this album a bit complicated. That being said, this is a very good album I can recommend immediately, and definitely show signs of how Chris Young has matured as an artist.

First, let's start with the unequivocal positives. Chris Young is a great country singer, and between his voice and the way he throws himself into his songs with impressive gusto gives him a lot of personality both on tracks where he's expected to play the rougher country guy and the sensitive type (although he does the former a bit better). His voice is rich, naturally deep, and manages to sound impressively imposing almost without trying - and yet on the slower tracks, he still manages to sound romantic and genuine without coming across as a condescending alpha male.

A big part of this credit must go to the songwriting, and here's where I honestly wish Young had more songwriting credits, because he and his collaborators are good technical songwriters in a traditional country vein. Sure, there are songs about booze and girls (only one or two car references, which is nice), but they're not framed with any of the obnoxious Southern pandering you see cropping up elsewhere in country music. These are songs informed by southern culture, not reinforcing stereotypes, which is a great fit for Chris Young.

What becomes interesting on this album is that the artistic direction that Chris Young is leaning towards is rather split: the first leg towards hard-edged country rock that is borderline outlaw country on songs like 'We're Gonna Find It Tonight'; while the second leg is leaning towards the softer ballads that made Chris Young a hit on his past few albums. It helps he's a good fit for both directions, but I'd argue he's better suited for the ass-kicking, hell-raising brand of country that's still able to have a good time (mostly thanks to his deep voice and huge charisma) rather than the slower material, if only because we have a lot fewer of the former in the mainstream. 

The interesting thing, though, is when Chris Young writes his songs about raising hell and partying hard, there are little bits of nuance that kind of throw an interesting light on these songs and make them less interchangeable. The opening single 'Aw Naw' might sound like a bunch of braying assholes at a bar, but really, it's a song about how Chris Young wants to go home for work in the morning and ends up getting dragged along for the ride. And then there's 'We're Gonna Find It Tonight', where Chris Young and his girlfriend set out to have a fantastic time, and it's a song with the momentum and energy of a pair of equals set about to have the best night of their lives. 

And it definitely helps the instrumentation is with him on this, with a lot of the brawny, swaggering texture in the guitars along for the ride. These are heavy tracks with thick, potent guitar riffs, designed for hard wild nights and are destined to be the tracks paired with country girls riding the mechanical bull. As I said, these songs are borderline country rock, and Chris Young does a great job matching them for intensity. The one big nitpick I'll make against the instrumentation is in the attempted elements of modernity (some drum machine and thinner, electronic beats they clearly tried to hide in the mix) don't do anything to contribute to the tracks at all and really feel out of place, and while the production is mostly solid, the moments where these elements appear feels really awkward. But that's reasonably minor, all things considered.

A bigger issue, however, comes in the album creative direction. As I said, Chris Young seems to have a fair idea where he wants to take his material, but a few of his other songwriters appear to have other plans to push him more towards bro-country and pop country, and it leads to some songs that aren't bad, but aren't great either. What's more, some of the slower tracks (with the exception of the superb standout 'Goodbye') are inundated with some real corniness that doesn't fit Chris Young particularly well. Sure, 'Text Me Texas' isn't a bad song, but I don't think it works as well with Chris Young, who seems to be more of an old-fashioned romantic. And as I said, none of these songs are bad, per se, but they are a bit generic and boiler-plate, and I wasn't really all that impressed.

So, where do I stand on Chris Young's A.M.? Well, it's kind of hard to say, to be honest. It has better highs and arguably less lows than Billy Currington, but at the same time, it feels like an album stalled between multiple artistic directions and thus a bit of a hodgepodge of the various choices. That said, the majority of those choices were executed well, and the fact that the songwriting was solid (for the most part) and Chris Young is a great performer does a lot to make up for the mistakes. I'm going to go easy, weigh a bit more in favour of Chris Young and give this album a soft 8/10, if only to send the message back to the industry that this is the sort of country music that I wish I could hear more of these days. 

And while I don't think we'll get much more of that in the mainstream this day and age... well, we have Chris Young, and that's a pretty damn good start.

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