Tuesday, January 28, 2014

album review: 'daylight & dark' by jason eady

I've recently come to a realization about my own musical preferences that is both unsurprising and a little exasperating: I tend to prefer interesting or powerful songwriting over grand musical experimentation at points. It's one of the reasons I've long been reticent about covering a lot of material with growled or screamed vocals - or, on that note, covering a lot of R&B - because the actual words on the page don't quite matter as much as the way they're delivered with that style. To me, presentation isn't always enough, which means I tend to be harsher on underwritten indie or hard rock in comparison to some critics or kinder to acts with more narrative ambition in genres like country. Now obviously there's more to it than that - I love good melodies, solid production, and sheer epic music as much as any, and my favourite music combines all these elements, but if I were given the choice between endlessly catchy earworms but lousy songwriting or riveting lyrics with quieter or less interesting instrumentation, I'll usually take the latter.

So it always puts a smile on my face when I find country acts like Jason Eady, a critically-praised singer-songwriter who is easily one of the strongest songwriters I've seen in a while, with an uncanny knack for great melodies and original lyrics with a ton of detail and flavour. I wouldn't say he's the greatest singer in the world and the basic building blocks of his songs are reasonably conventional by country standards, but the details are what knocked him into my good graces. The first album I took a look at was 2009's When The Money's All Gone, a rough-edged, incredibly organic record that wasn't afraid to go into the bleak, lurid details that you didn't see hit mainstream country radio in the same way. It was dark, it went for emotional gut-punches, it was brilliantly framed thanks to Jason Eady's expressive delivery, and if I had been reviewing five years ago, it would have had a solid shot at my Top Ten list that year.

Eady followed that album in 2012 with AM Country Heaven, which proved to be a small mainstream breakout and a critical success, but I have to be honest and say I didn't quite like the album as much. Oh, the songwriting was still great and songs like 'AM Country Heaven' were perfect barbs launched at the increasingly sterile country music establishment, but at the same time I felt the production and instrumentation weren't as varied or interesting. Some of the texture had been sanded away and the instrumentation had a more accessible vibe (which was inevitably why the album was successful), and while that was fine, his previous album just stood out as more unique and closer to the grimy outlaw country that I've always loved. So when he released his newest album Daylight & Dark, I wasn't sure what to expect. The songwriting was likely to still be there, but would he move towards an even more polished and accessible sound, or return to the roughness of his earlier work?

Well, some of both actually - and he may have made one of his best albums yet, and I'm happy to report that Daylight & Dark is a goddamn great country album that unquestionably earns a recommendation from me. While it doesn't quite have the heartbreaking gut-punch of a song that was 'Promises In Pieces' (which for me is still his best work), that doesn't stop Daylight & Dark from being a powerfully organic and genuinely moving country record that has incredible soul, nuance, and texture. You don't hear country music like this on mainstream radio - and really, I wish we did, because country would be a whole lot better for it.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, where Jason Eady has thankfully taken a step back towards the rougher edges. Forget processing the guitars or rounding off the grit in anyone's voice, this is textured production that lets every sound swell and simmer in the mix. The electric guitars have growling presence, the fiddles squeal, the acoustic guitars are mellow and gentle but you can pinpoint every note and pluck, and all of it is perfectly balanced in the mix. Honestly, from a production standpoint, it's functionally perfect - this is what I want country production to sound like, and it delivers. Coupled with melody lines that aren't as conventional but still decidedly country and the courage to go for darkness, the instrumentation creates an incredibly intimate and decidedly real atmosphere (more on this in a bit).

And to help us along the way we have Jason Eady. He still doesn't have a great voice and I think softening some of his rougher edges production-wise isn't the best of choices (one of the reasons I liked him so much on When The Money's All Gone is that his voice conveyed so much unique texture), but the man has a gift for wonderfully emotive and empathetic delivery that takes real risks in not framing all of his bad decisions as turning out well. To compliment him he brought on his fiance Courtney Patton, and her delivery is a perfect balance with his, which comes most to the forefront in the phenomenal duet 'We Might Just Miss Each Other'.

Indeed, 'balance' is the word probably best fits this album, across the board. The instrumentation varies between bleak melancholy and upbeat cheerful country, but looking past that you find lyrics that play in much darker shades of grey between them. For every upbeat song about swigging whiskey, there are moments of regret and remorse to colour it and the undercurrent of alcoholism that runs deep through this album. And while the album does have a loose narrative, it's really a series of short stories about a man's lonely journey through his own vices and the string of failed relationships, hookups or otherwise. What's interesting about this album's framing is that it does show both sides of the coin and doesn't implicitly pass judgement on either of them - it shows the consequences of Jason Eady's drinking and sleeping around in the music and shows how lonely he might be, but doesn't really make an outward moral judgement on it. Hell, on the magnificent 'Temptation', it makes the case that the only 'code' he holds himself to is his own, refusing to be led, and he just prays he got it right and is walking the right path. And yet then you have songs like the title track where he questions even that, and he wonders how on earth people balance that internal dichotomy between virtue and vice - or if they even care one way or the other. 

In other words, it's an album that can contain covers of 'Whiskey & You' by Tim McGraw and 'Late Night Diner' by Adam Hood and still make their moral ambiguity feels incredibly cohesive. In fact, on a pure technical songwriting note, this album flows incredibly well and the poetry is better than ever, with Texoma texture that feels organic and rich without being pandering. In fact, that's arguably the biggest strength of this album: how relatable and real it sounds. Jason Eady's songwriting paints a vivid picture and the fact he doesn't shy away from the little details makes it all the more intimate. And it's a testament to how good of a songwriting he is that that intimacy inspires empathy rather than discomfort or alienation, particularly on the darker moments. Indeed, if I'm going to nitpick this album, it'd be on the two tracks 'One, Two... Many' and 'A Memory Now', if only because they come across as a little cynical and the lighter tone doesn't quite work. It's an extremely tricky balance between the earnest charm and real nuance to make songs like that work, and while he nails for the most part, both songs are a bit too jokey to hold that balance together.

Yet if that's the only real criticism I can muster, that says a lot. I don't like saying this, but it's hard to deny there's a real element of truth: Jason Eady's Daylight & Dark is too good for mainstream country radio in its current form. It's not a record that's looking to make it easy on the listener lyrically, but he's a talented enough songwriter and the instrumentation is great enough to suck you in all the same for an emotional roller coaster you'll be glad you tried. For me, it's a 9/10 and I can't recommend this album highly enough. If you're listening to country music and you haven't heard Jason Eady's Daylight & Dark, you need to listen to it. I can't promise it'll be an easy listen, but it's an incredibly rewarding one all the same.

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