Monday, October 14, 2013

album review: 'crickets' by joe nichols

We return to our country story already in progress, as more and more artists drift to the sides of the widening divide between those who are concerned about the pop and rap tendencies in country music as it drifts towards the mainstream - this would be your Zac Brown, your Gary Allan, your Alan Jackson, your Kacey Musgraves - and those who are riding the trend out as long as they can - your Jason Aldean, your Luke Bryan, your Tyler Farr, your Justin Moore. Recently, there's been a surprising addition to the former category: Jake Owen. For those of you who don't know who this guy is, he's a mainstream country star whose most recent single sticks so closely to the 'tailgates, booze, and girls' template that it's kind of astounding. 

And while those hunting for hypocrisy could get whiplash at this most recent development, it's raising an interesting question all the same for those who love traditional country music: where does one draw the line? Jake Owen has freely admitted that he doesn't write the deepest music in the world, but is this a genuine move or just the savvy calculation of a smart businessman knowing the trend has reached its peak? And even if it is rooted in genuine feeling - which to me, it kind of seems like it is - will the traditional country music scene be willing to accept the guy who performed 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night'? That's one of the funny things about country music: there's always going to be some room for good time party music, and to some extent, defining a hard line on 'authenticity' to exclude that group could prove detrimental. Hell, even the Zac Brown Band wrote their fair share of gulf & western-inspired music with songs like 'Toes', 'Knee Deep', and 'Jump Right In'. 

Of course, the majority of country acts aren't protesting the concept of the good time party tune - no, their targets are the small group of songwriters behind this material who churn out song after interchangeable song that only seem to sink to lower and lower points of leering debauchery. And if we're looking for an act that might seem to be an obvious target, Joe Nichols would be near the front of the line. Over the course of his eight album career thus far, he has writing credits on seven songs, and none on this album which we'll be talking about today, titled Crickets. Don't know who this guy is? Well, he's the charming fellow who sung 'Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off' - charming.

But hey, as I've said before, there's room for good music both in traditional country and the stuff that's being written for the mainstream. With that in mind, how does Crickets turn out?

Hmm. Well, it's okay. Joe Nichols' Crickets isn't going to blow your mind or change your life - for the most part, it's very serviceable country music that's trying to straddle the difference between the old school and modern country (depending on what professional songwriter is taking the reins). As such, the album feels very distinctly disjointed and fragmented, a collection of moments rather than a coherent album whole, some shockingly good, some atrociously bad.

Okay, so let's start with Joe Nichols himself. To be honest, I like his vocal delivery - it's got a rollicking quality to it that's appealing, and he definitely understands his vocal and emotional range, which is pretty serviceable for a country singer. He definitely sounds like he would be a bit better in traditional country music, but he acquits himself decently in the mainstream scene because, like Billy Currington, Nichols is a little older and comes across a little more mature and a little more likable. He's definitely corny, which is a bit of a mixed blessing, as sometimes as he comes across as a little too 'in' on the joke, which can make some of his songs strain tolerance. That being said, he sounds heartfelt and serious when he needs to, and his vocal delivery is solid enough, if a little skewed to traditional country.

And here's where the first big problem comes in: the instrumentation and production on this album is all over the place, and not in a good way. At points, they stick with a traditional country style that works well enough, but then the elements of modern mainstream country production start creeping in and they don't fit well with Joe Nichols' voice at all. Sure, I might like the more rollicking guitar that pops occasionally on tracks like 'Hard To Be Cool', but it's never allowed to gain any prominence in the overstuffed mix, full of inorganic drum machines and male tenor backing vocals (which do not match Nichols' rich baritone in any way, shape, or form) and production that's trying to sound big but more often than not comes across as overstuffed. The sad fact is that this overproduction doesn't tend to give the songs much of a distinct personality - instead, most of the songs in the modern vein tend to come across as homogeneous, which is disappointing. And on some songs here, like the big hit 'Sunny and 75', the minor tones brought by the instrumentation clashes rather poorly with Joe Nichols' big, cheerful delivery on the song.

And now we must come to the lyrics, which is arguably where I think the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses on this album are. It's clear from the huge repertoire of songwriters they brought in to write songs for Joe Nichols that nobody has the slightest clue what he should be singing about, so we get a grab-bag of both traditional country and bro-country trends, and none of it feels remotely consistent. The absolute worst example of this is 'Hee Haw' (no, seriously), where Joe Nichols starts trading country-themed sexual double entendres, and it just gets gross and juvenile in a hurry. The problem here is simple: Joe Nichols is a bit of a cornball and his jokey, kind of self-deprecating style doesn't fit well with the alpha male 'pick-up girls' style of country music that's he's handed on the weaker tracks of this album. He's a better fit for traditional country, and it's on songs like 'Better Than Beautiful' and 'Footlights' (a cover of an old Merle Haggard song) where he really stands out.

But the absolute best track on this album - and one that's in contention for one of the best songs of the year - is 'Old School Country Song'. I'll say it - this is the sort of country song of which traditional country singers should be making more, because it's the sort of material that keeps the texture and culture of traditional country and makes it relevant to the modern world. In this song, Joe Nichols points out that despite how life has changed and evolved in the modern world, with the rise of technology and the internet, the things referenced in those country songs - love, heartbreak, loneliness, drinking, cheating - are still things that happen today. We're all still human, after all, and while the situation might have changed on the surface, the old school country songs remain just as relevant because the emotional resonance hasn't changed. The song is goddamn fantastic and probably justifies the entire album on its own for me, and like Brad Paisley's 'Southern Comfort Zone', it shows how country music can fit into the modern world without having to sell out or lose its culture.

So, what about the entire album as a whole. Ehh, it's okay, but outside of 'Old School Country Song' being amazing, it's a hard record to recommend. There are more good points than bad points, to be sure, so it's getting a 6/10 from me, but I don't quite think it's as good as it could have been, mostly due to the inconsistent production and tone, to say nothing about a few of the stupider songs that really should have been cut from this rather long album. In the end, if you're a fan of Joe Nichols, you'll get more of the same from this record and you'll probably like it, but if you're casually interested, check out 'Old School Country Song' and then... eh, it's up to you.

And as for country as a whole... I wonder what would happen if Joe Nichols came out in favour of traditional country music. Just for the reaction. I'm curious, at least.

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