Thursday, February 6, 2014

album review: 'eric paslay' by eric paslay

I've got the sinking feeling that bro-country isn't going away.

No, despite Kacey Musgraves winning the Grammy for Best Country Album for Same Trailer, Different Park - a well-deserved win, I might add - it doesn't mean the country music paradigm is going to change overnight, and some of the bigger bro-country acts aren't just going to evaporate. Like in the aftermath of the club boom of 2009-11, the b-listers are the ones that fall away in, leaving the heavyweights behind. 

But that's not to say that bro-country is going to stay in the same form, and if you take a look at the hits from Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Blake Shelton, they've opted to move away from the summer time party anthem to mid-tempo relationship songs, with mixed results. For Blake Shelton it's an easy shift, he's been making this material for over a decade, but Florida Georgia Line's 'Stay' is clumsy, overwrought, and really hard to take seriously, and it's becoming apparent that band might not have a lot of staying power.

But maybe I'm even wrong about that, because there are still acts looking to hop on the good-time bro-country bandwagon, which takes us to Eric Paslay, another country singer with a criminally underwritten Wikipedia page. He struck a hit with his song 'Friday Night', which is clearly trying to jump on the trend, but he doesn't strike the image of the typical bro-country act. For one, he's older, 31 at the time of this review, and for another, he has major writing credits on all of his songs. He doesn't quite look the part of a bro-country singer, and if that wasn't convincing, his collaborating work with Amy Grant of all people might be indicative that we're dealing with someone different. And while I thought 'Friday Night' was played-out and not that interesting, I had a feeling there was more to this guy, so I checked out his debut, self-titled album: how was it?

Well, I was right, there is more to Eric Paslay. A lot more, as we might be dealing with one of the best mainstream country albums of the year. Believe me, I'm as shocked anyone, but Eric Paslay's self-titled album is genuinely great, an moving, emotionally compelling record with nuance, intelligence, maturity, and a distinctive sense of identity. It very quickly becomes abundantly clear that 'Friday Night' was simply used to get this guy's name out there, because along with his album opener 'Keep On Fallin' (a song that has an opening that bizarrely reminded me of 'Santa Monica' by Theory Of A Deadman), it's the weakest track on this album.

And really, I'm at a bit of loss of where to start with this album, so let's talk about instrumental direction - because initially, I had no idea how to classify this album. Because while it did have some country flair with the steel guitars and fast-picked acoustic instrumentation, it decidedly shuns most mainstream country instrumentation. The guitars are smooth but they do have some snarl with real texture and presence, and there's a significantly greater breadth of strings and orchestral elements to support Paslay on this record. Honestly, the guitarwork put me most in mind of the Americana-drenched acts of the mid-80s like Bryan Adams, and Paslay's got an uncanny knack for great guitar melody choices that never quite sound conventional. And the guitar tonal choices are just great, always sounding cohesive and yet giving plenty of tracks a lot of unique texture. Tracks in the vein of 'Like A Song' or 'Good With Wine' or 'Song About A Girl' don't rely on reverb or heavy guitar force - mostly because the melodies are so good they don't need to - talk about a shift!

And the more I think about it, the more the Bryan Adams comparison holds up, especially when we move into Paslay's vocals. I will say his voice is probably the weakest element on the album, in that he's not a great singer technically. But I don't think anyone told him that, because he still managed to sell me on his vocals through pure charisma, earnestness, and an ability to convey a ton of emotion through his delivery. There are some tracks on this record that really require a tricky emotional balance to pull off like 'Never Really Wanted' and the downright incredible 'She Don't Love You', and Paslay nails it. Most of this comes from his age - this is an album where the songwriting is decidedly more mature, and the delivery needs a certain amount of nuance to support it, and Eric Paslay's up to that challenge.

And this is where we get to the element that really got to me in a great way: the songwriting on this album is goddamn great, to the point where it made the two nominally religious tracks actually pretty damn great (I see why Amy Grant likes him now...). And they work because they aren't preachy, they feel very sincere, and Paslay knows enough to keep these songs rooted outside of the 'god' paradigm into something more relatable in 'Country Side Of Heaven' or deeply abstract in 'Deep As It Is Wide'. But those songs aren't where Paslay wins the big points with me: it's in the maturity and nuance in his songwriting. 'Never Really Wanted' talks about a girl who Paslay rejected now with somebody else and how he's feeling jealous, but the song never frames him as being in the right and it focuses on the message to keep your eyes open and be aware of the feelings of others. 'Like A Song' and 'Song About A Girl' might sound initially like standard bro-country tracks lyrically, but Paslay locks the focus on the romance and the girl in question and tosses the country tropes like the needless chaff they are ('Song About A Girl' does it shockingly well). 'Good With Wine' contrasts the hard-living whiskey lifestyle he had before with the classy wine he drinks with his girl now, which works as wonderful subtext of how, to hold onto a serious relationship, some need to grow up and mature, and how the pleasures that come with it are just as rewarding.

And 'She Don't Love You'... folks, this will be one of the best songs of the year, mark my words. One of the few slow ballads on the album, it's a song about a girl who has emotionally detached through so many hookups and heartbreaks that she doesn't bother searching for love in the same way. And then the tragedy is revealed in the final verse: that Paslay was the first one to love and leave her and start the whole cycle. And it's a strength of his delivery that makes you feel really sad for the both of them: the heartbroken girl who can't trust relationships in the same way and now breaks hearts of nice guys who are looking for her love; and Paslay himself, who clearly feels a ton of guilt and remorse for hurting this girl but also aware that he's a man who had to go on his road to chase his dreams. In the end, both are lonely, and while the song mentions no history between the two, you can tell there's so much more beneath the surface that probably should remain unsaid.

In the end, this album is great, transcending the bro-country single that introduced Eric Paslay into something much stronger. Don't be discouraged by the first two songs - which honestly are passable for bro-country songs - and check this album out. The songwriting is mature and intelligent, the instrumentation has flavour and texture, and Paslay brings real passion and emotion to this album in a way I couldn't have expected. This is an 8/10 and a solid recommendation. Folks, if you've heard 'Friday Night' on the radio and have discounted Eric Paslay as just another interchangeable bro country artist... well, you're doing yourself a disservice. Check this guy out - you won't regret it.

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