Wednesday, December 4, 2013

album review: 'days of gold' by jake owen

A few months back, I reviewed the mostly-ignored album from Joe Nichols, and in that review, I mentioned that a certain male country singer had come out against the rising trends of bro-country, stating that 'we need more songs that just songs about tailgates and cups and Bacardi and stuff like that'. And yet, the traditional country music press had to restrain some scoffs of disbelief when they heard that comment - mostly because it was coming from Jake Owen. 

Okay, some background. Jake Owen is a country singer that had his major breakthrough hit in 2011 with 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night', a song I only ever thought was okay, mostly buoyed by the strengths of the performer himself. As much as Jake Owen doesn't seem to be the brightest apple in the bunch (at least to judge by his songs), he has the energy and affability of a born showman, a guy with a ton of natural charisma and likability, which is a natural fit for his upbeat, beach-ready brand of country. But it's hard to deny that songs like 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night' were the prototypes for the rise of bro-country that we have today, and thus it was a little difficult for some to take Owen remotely seriously in his comments about going back to tradition. 

But then I thought, 'Wait, how the hell is that fair? We let the Zac Brown Band retain their traditionalist country credentials when they do songs with Jimmy Buffett, and there isn't anything inherently wrong with making dumb, fun party songs! The bigger problem has always been the gradual stripping away of individuality between songwriters across Music Row, and if we're looking to call Jake Owen on any hypocrisy, it might be here, because he doesn't have a single writing credit on his newest album Days of Gold. But on the other hand, there has been 'bro country' music that I've liked, and one of my biggest issues with the genre has been how unnecessarily serious and over-the-top macho so many of the artists have played it, so maybe Owen's goofball charm and charisma might play to his advantage. So, how did Days of Gold turn out?

Well, better than I expected. Let's make this clear, Days of Gold is a bit of an odd animal, and there are a number of disparate elements that should kill it in the crib, but somehow, it comes together surprisingly well and turns out pretty damn good. Is it great? No. Is it smart? Well, not particularly, but as I've mentioned a number of times before, it's a matter of managing scope as an artist, and Jake Owen's Days Of Gold makes a fair amount out of being a riotous mess of country of all stripes jammed together, and ends up being a bit more fun than one might expect.

Let's get the biggest issue out of the way with this album: this might be the most compressed and overproduced country album I've ever heard. Every sound in the mix is hurled straight to the front at full volume, which can lead to quite the overwhelming listening experience as rock guitars, traditional country instrumentation, electronic elements, and everything in between war in the mix for dominance. The bizarre thing is that a fair amount of instrumental texture manages to make it across - the electric guitars have swell and presence, the drums have a lot of pounding energy, and even the vocals have a bit of grit to them (that is, when you can hear them - they sometimes get swallowed up in the mix). What's even stranger is that this cacophony of sound manages to form coherent and memorable melodies, and while they aren't anything all that complex or revolutionary - they stick pretty closely to power chords - they still end up being way catchier than you might think. The major downside to this, however, is that most of the instrumental solos lose some personality, including an incredibly messy guitar solo in the nostalgia trip '1972'. 

And it's a bit of a shame that Jake Owen himself doesn't quite deliver as strongly as he could. Oh, he certainly tries with what he's been given, and you can tell when he gets a chance to sing, he's definitely game - but too many of the songs, particularly in the 'good time partying' vein, stick with country rap, and that doesn't really give Jake Owen the best opportunities to show off his emotional range. Sure, his flow might be decent and it's kind of miraculous he doesn't lose a lot of his natural charisma with the switch (although I can see why some people might consider it smug - it didn't bother me), but he's better when he's given the chance to actually sing, and despite his limited vocal range, he's got a lot of passion and charisma to back him up. He might come across as simple or corny, but when it's so goddamn earnest and backed with legitimate feeling and smiles, it can work.

Part of this is a credit to the lyrics - which are surprisingly good for an album released in December overloaded with summer songs. It definitely helps matters that Jake Owen doesn't engage in any of the macho posturing nonsense that typically poisons bro-country, and while rougher textures in his instrumentation are normally easy steps down that road, Owen doesn't go there, opting for a fair number of straightforward songs about girls, drinking, and partying, trying to not care and have a good time. And while you do get your duds here - 'Tall Glass of Something' stands out as a lowpoint - Owen has enough rambunctious energy and the lyrics are often well-constructed and unique enough to distinguish them from run-of-the-mill bro-country. Fortunately for us, the album often rises above that ceiling and actually delivers some songs in this vein with a surprising amount of nuance: 'Ghost Town' takes the idea behind Luke Bryan's 'I See You' and plays it a little more creatively. And then you have 'Life Of The Party', a shockingly strong song where Jake Owen struggles to enjoy himself and put on a happy face at a party when it only reminds him of his girl - it's easily the best thing songwriter Dallas Davidson has ever co-written, and while it's not quite as strong as Scotty McCreery's 'Feel Good Country Song' playing in the same vein, it's still incredibly strong and a real album highlight for me. 

And yeah, it might look like I'm overselling pretty basic things here on this album, but that's the primary strength of Days Of Gold by Jake Owen: its simplicity. It's aiming for broad strokes and big emotions, and while I don't quite think it nails all of the little moments (although 'What We Ain't Got', a fairly simple piano ballad, is pretty damn heartbreaking), it gets the big elements so right it's hard to dislike the guy. Sure, Jake Owen might be opting for basic songs about love and partying, and subtlety might be a foreign word on this record, and I would be lying to say Days of Gold is anything close to smart - but I can't deny it when the basics work as well as they do. It's an album that works because it knows its scope and plays in that range. Frankly, the only thing that holds this album back from being truly great is the production and perhaps a bit more heft in the songwriting. So with that... yeah, I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation. Days of Gold by Jake Owen might not be the smartest album you'll hear this year, but goddamn it, it's a lot of fun that doesn't take itself too seriously, and sometimes, that's all you need.

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