Friday, January 17, 2014

album review: 'write you a song' by jon pardi

Way back in my Special Comment on the state of modern country music, I made an observation that I feel will prove frighteningly relevant this year: that when the bro-country bubble implodes, there are going to be a lot of new country acts who hopped on the bandwagon who are going to suffer from it. Sure, the a-list acts like Luke Bryan are going nowhere, but what about the b-listers, the guys who might only be able to count on one or two hits charting at all? What will happen to their careers when the bro-country well runs dry?

And make no mistake, it's coming. Between the increasingly large number of country acts speaking out against the trend and both songwriters and radio programmers questioning the lack of diversity in country radio, the winds are changing. Even guys like Florida Georgia Line are opting for less obviously pandering bro-country with their new singles like 'Stay', to prove they are more than just 'Cruise'. As such, I'm suspecting 2014 will be a transitional year for country music, and from a look at upcoming albums, it could be a very interesting one.

That said, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease when I picked up the debut album of Jon Pardi. His 'hit' was 'Up All Night', which was a song that did fit into the realm of interchangeable bro-country, albeit with a little less of the leering sensibilities that irk me in that genre. And combined with a criminally underwritten Wikipedia page and every picture of the guy reinforcing the bro-country image, I got the feeling Jon Pardi might be headed for rough times in the early months of 2014 as a very late arrival to the bro-country scene. But then again, there has been bro-country songs and material I've liked, so I gave the album a few listens - how did it turn out?

Well, I have to say this: I may have misjudged Jon Pardi - because outside of his main hit, his album is not a bro-country record, instead sticking much closer to the neotraditional country music well such as acts like Chris Young. In other words, Jon Pardi is probably going to end up being unfairly judged by his hit, when instead we have an artist who on a musical level could fit into any neotraditional country scene throughout the past two decades - which will probably end up saving his career in the long-term. That being said, I can't say that Write You A Song is anything close to a great album - it might be fairly decent, but there are a few big problems on it that are impossible for me to ignore.

Let's start with Jon Pardi himself, and I'll begin by saying I'm not the biggest fan of his voice. It's a bit nasal and doesn't exactly have a lot of emotional range, but to his credit, it's not like his material requires a lot of range. He's looking to sound sincere and straightforward in his affections on a bunch of lightweight songs about life on the road and tumultuous relationships, and he can pull this off fairly easily, and it helps that there really aren't any ballads on this album that require him to stretch himself all that much. That being said, he's not exactly subtle, and you can definitely tell from some of his delivery that he's still getting used to being a country singer and performer - that will likely go away with time, but it is noticeable.

The one area that definitely shows some quality and expertise is in the instrumentation, which for me was easily the highlight of this album. The production was crisp and memorable, the guitar tones were well-chosen, and the album had a lot of country flavour in an early-to-mid-90s way, with banjos, fiddles, and enough texture to really stand out. In fact, you could almost deem this album, with its lack of drum machines, rougher guitar tones, pluckier instrumentation, or backing vocals, something of a throwback to earlier times - which, I should stress, isn't a bad thing. However, once you get used to the older style of instrumentation, you start to notice the melodies on this album aren't exactly complex or all that interesting, and there are plenty of points that come across as aggressively corny. Sure, there are some decent hooks, but it's hard to see a lot in the instrumentation on this record that's all that special. Passable, sure, but not great.

So what about the songwriting? Well, to Jon Pardi's credit, he's a decent technical songwriter and there are a couple tracks that did stand out for me. The title track is a road song where he promises to write songs for all the girls he meets and sleeps with on the road, and to be fair to Pardi, he frames it as if he'd like to have a relationship with some of these women if his touring schedule would allow it. And 'Empty Beer Cans' tackles the tricky balance of a kissoff song blasting an ex and yet shows just how petty and crass such behaviour can be and properly doesn't frame him in a pleasant light. 

But there's an odd element to this album that really put me off some of the songs, and it's that some of the songs just sound presumptuous, especially when they're talking about potential girls Jon Pardi is going to hook up with. 'That Man' tries to play the nice guy card stepping in when a long-held crush of his breaks up, and it doesn't come across as classy. Then there's 'Love You From Here' where the girl walks out on him and he tries to convince her to stay by saying he'll love her wherever she is and he's not giving up - and it's fortunate Pardi doesn't have a wide range, because while he doesn't really come across as threatening or creepy, he doesn't look nearly as good as he thinks he does. And then there's the final track 'When I've Been Drinkin', where he tries to apologize for calling an ex drunk, and you can tell the intent of the song that he'd think the girl in question would find this all sweet or romantic. 

And here's the strange problem: Pardi clearly isn't a bad guy and his lack of vocal range does play to his credit, almost painting him as naive instead of creepy. But the presumptions he makes suggesting that women will find his brand of clumsy affection actually romantic sucks some of the drama out of the songs for me. He seems so assured that things will happen and the audience will buy into his romantic entreaties that he loses a certain amount of charm and likability. And I get that women are drawn to confidence, but there's a strange lack of perspective from his point-of-view on these songs that doesn't match the nuance on other tracks. And the sad fact is that this strange problems crops up more often than it doesn't, which is a shame.

So in summary, Jon Pardi's Write You A Song is an album that surprised me by going in an old-school direction, but ultimately doesn't do enough in that vein to stand out. I'll admit I like 'Empty Beer Cans' and the title track more than I probably should, but even the 'bad' songs on this album show more clumsiness and novice songwriting than poor intent. The flaws are in execution, and I'm confident that things will get better on future albums for Jon Pardi. That being said, I'm going to give this album a 6/10, and a recommendation only if you're looking for some solid if unremarkable neotraditional country. However, I will say this: given how modern country radio is going with the collapse of bro-country and the inevitable rush to fill the void, I suspect we'll be seeing a fair bit of Jon Pardi very soon.

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