Wednesday, September 18, 2013

album review: 'we are tonight' by billy currington

Here's something about modern music that the majority of you know: there are a lot of singers and musicians who do not write their own songs. In some cases, they might be the primary songwriter or they might compose the lyrics, but they typically have somebody helping them with the melody line or the instrumentation or other elements of the song. It takes a supremely gifted songwriter who is able to compose every single element of the song, and particularly in pop music, you don't see them as often anymore. It's not often you find guys like Prince or Beck, for example.

However, you used to see singer-songwriters a lot more in country music, and one of the big frustrations of the movement of modern country towards the mainstream is the fact that most country artists don't write their own songs in the same way anymore. With the rise of Garth Brooks, there are some country musicians who don't even write any of their own material, simply relying on the Nashville country song generating machine to crank out song after song. And I realize this isn't exactly a new thing, but it is something that frustrates me as a critic, because certain songs can lose something when you know in your mind that these songs don't have that direct, intimate connection with the singer in the same way.

That being said, I'm not exactly about to condemn the practice of other people writing musicians' songs for them - some people aren't good songwriters, it happens, and thus the job of the singer and performer changes - it's now to sell us the song, to make it their own not through composition, but through their delivery. I know that Garth Brooks didn't write 'The Dance', but his delivery is so damn good on that song that you can associate it with him forever in your mind. It transcends the fact that he didn't write the song and he makes it his own in a big way. And that's one of the big reasons when I look at pop music and country music that I don't mind the fact that producer-songwriters like Max Martin and Dr. Luke exist - in the best cases, I don't associate Max Martin with 'I Want It That Way' or 'Since U Been Gone', I associate those songs with the acts that made them real, The Backstreet Boys and Kelly Clarkson.

But even with all of that in mind, a big warning light tends to go off in my mind when I hear that a guy who used to write the majority of his own material is now only performing songs written by other people, which is the case of the new album by Billy Currington We Are Tonight. Now for those of you who are having trouble telling the various modern male country acts apart, Billy Currington has been, in my mind, one of the better ones, mostly because he's something of a traditionalist, harkening back to the country of guys like Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw and Brooks & Dunn. It also helps a little that this guy is a little older and isn't exactly a great singer, relying more on soul and honest delivery. If I'm going to describe his vocals on previous albums, he's got something of a 'hangdog' style of delivery - not exactly polished in the vein of a singer like Keith Urban, but having the same sort of honest likability. Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to tell if some of that likability is an act, given that he's currently facing charges linked to his poor response to a tour boat buzzing his island home (he got in his own boat and chased away the tour boat rather recklessly - might be the reason all of his marketing for this album vanished). Despite that uncomfortable incident, I was looking forward to his newest album, even though, as I mentioned, he didn't write or contribute to any of the songs on his album. So, how did it go?

Hmm... well, it's definitely a bit more interesting than I expected. I won't say that Billy Currington's newest album is great by any stretch of the mind, but there are elements of this album I liked a bit - and considering I should really despise this album, that's saying a lot. 

You see, folks, Billy Currington's newest album can be slotted into the growing number of 'bro-country' albums. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular genre, 'bro-country' was a term coined by Jody Rosen with respect to the recent rise of male country stars targeting, well, my demographic with easily digestible mainstream country music aimed at talking about booze, cars, and girls with the sort of focus you wouldn't find outside of hip-hop. But I'd like to clarify that definition somewhat, to focus a little tighter - after all, country musicians have been singing about booze, cars, and girls for decades. To me, bro-country has a very specific mood and tone: it tends to be light, breezy, occasionally having a harder rock edge, and doesn't strain to challenge the slightest thought or preconception the listener might have.

And on that note, Billy Currington's We Are Tonight might be the quintessential bro-country album in nearly every way. Light, upbeat tone with songs about booze and girls? Check. Occasional bits of a rock edge? Check. I mean, for God's sake, there's even a song on this album titled 'Wingman' which is about a guy getting 'betrayed' by his wingman when picking up a girl at a club! This is the closest you get to bro-country without AXE Body Spray and bad tattoos!

But okay, so this is a bro-country album - so why is it any good? Well, a few reasons that I didn't quite expect. For one, the production nearly completely abstains from grabbing a pop edge, outside of some more spacious sounds on loan from the Eric Church and Brad Paisley studios, which means that a fair amount of the instrumental texture survives, particularly in the guitars and strings. It also helps matters that there are some good hooks and not many real issues with the technical songwriting, which tends to keep a quick pace and surprisingly avoids many of the uglier cliches of bad country music, like pandering to Southern pride and other such nonsense. Yeah, songs like 'Wingman' and 'It's Hard To Be A Hippie' (where Currington makes the right choice and recruits Willie Nelson for a surprisingly melancholic verse) and especially 'Banana Pancakes' are goofy and more than a little stupid, but I get the feeling that's part of the point. And to be fair to this album, there are a few songs that aim to tap into that free-roaming, 'you can do anything' male instinct that work fairly well, like '23 Degrees And South' and especially the title track.

But really, the real strength of this album is Billy Currington himself, and this comes back to what I was saying regarding pop stars who make songs written by others their own. Simply put, Billy Currington is thankfully one of the least-threatening country singers working today, and his voice does a fair job painting him as an underdog - and that does miles for his likability. One of my overriding issues with bro-country is that it can get abrasive and harsh and rely too much on alpha dog swagger that doesn't always work or come across as authentic. But Billy Currington doesn't even try for that - even on songs like 'Hey Girl', he seems to be astounded the girl is even paying attention to him at all. And he's not trying to milk for sympathy, he just comes across as a nice guy, if a bit of a doofus. Maybe it's the fact that he's a little older and he's left the swaggering and the ass-kicking to other singers, but Currington is a lover, not a fighter, and it's hard to work up any real dislike for the guy. 

So, in the end, I can kind of recommend We Are Tonight by Billy Currington. Yes, it's a bro-country album with a few of the characteristics of modern country that piss people off, but it's not threatening or offensive - hell, it's not even really leering or objectifying either. The weak moments come from when some of Currington's bad jokes and complacency bite him in the ass - but then again, that's typically where traditionalist country singers in the 90s went wrong too. What really helps this album is Currington's general likability and the fact that the instrumentation and production is remarkably solid, even where the songwriting goes awry. With that, I'm going to give this one a 7/10. It's not exactly going to be an album that really stays with you, but if you're looking for modern country that won't offend, you could definitely do a lot worse than Billy Currington.

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