Wednesday, February 26, 2014

album review: 'riser' by dierks bentley

So I'm going to tell you all something I'm not fond of admitting: from about mid-2008 to 2011, I didn't listen to a huge amount of country music. Sure, there were a few artists, new and old, that I did follow, and a few of my favourite country acts like the Zac Brown Band really exploded in that period. But mainstream country radio and I weren't seeing eye to eye, and the only acts outside of my favourites that I followed were the ones that eventually ended up on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart. 

But honestly, I was drifting away from country music even earlier than that, and thus going back to explore the discography of Dierks Bentley was something of a revelation. While I recognize a number of his singles, it became very quickly apparent why I never really followed him. Unlike acts like Rascal Flatts (a band I've never liked and one that was mostly responsible for driving me away from country for a time), Dierks Bentley stuck with more rough-edged neotraditional country music, but at the same time he didn't really stand out. He didn't have Eric Church's ambition, Jason Aldean's politics, Toby Keith or Brad Paisley's humour, or even Tim McGraw's gift for comforting music and killer hooks, and for a guy who churned out an impressive number of high charting hits and albums, he never really stuck with me.

Now that's not saying that he makes bad music, or that his career hasn't been interesting. In 2010 after three critically well-received releases and one dud, he pulled a hard left away from mainstream country radio and released a bluegrass-inspired album that featured plenty of supporting acts from the edges of mainstream country (and was actually pretty damn solid), but that was more of an overgrown side-project and he came roaring back in 2012 with Home. That was an album that did notch some hits but nothing I really loved, mostly because they were lodged in proto-bro country territory and not the charming side at that. And thus I was seriously skeptical about his newest album Riser, partially because I recognized many of the Nashville songwriting machine behind it and not - bizarrely - Jim or Brett Beavers, two songwriters he's been working with since the beginning of his career. Yet on the other hand, he also recruited Kacey Musgraves as a collaborator on his opening track so I had no idea what to expect. So how did it go?

Well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but Dierks Bentley might have won me over with Riser. Not to the point where I'd call myself a fan, but the fact that there are so many elements on this record that shouldn't work at all and yet somehow come together into an album that's actually pretty decent is impressive to say the least. 

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, where if you know my tastes in country music, you'd expect me to give this album a thrashing, because it doesn't even attempt to hide its more synthetic elements. The spacey, very clean electric guitar tones, the reverb-heavy production, the occasional drum machines, the vocal effects, the reliance on heavier percussion over strong melody, I've been railing against all of these things for months now! So why does it somehow work here? Well, part of it is genuinely good composition and tone especially in correlation with the songwriting, as all the elements work in contribution to the atmosphere. Bentley went on record that he was trying to create a more spacious, concert-driven sound, and I'd argue he does it well, with well-chosen guitar tones that either deliver a fair amount of punch and texture or plucky exuberance, and it somehow feels cohesive. His production reminds me a lot of Eric Church's at his best, and Dierks Bentley isn't a bad fit for it, mostly because he avoids the aggression and sticks with a disposition that's more human and exposed.

So let's talk about Bentley himself. His voice is very reminiscent of a cross between Jake Owen and Billy Currington, and yet he doesn't quite have the huge charisma that Owen brings to the table, which is probably one of the reasons that Dierks Bentley doesn't really stand out. But the more understated nature of his presentation does lend a lot of quieter emotion and subtlety to this record that I wasn't expecting, and it helps that he's rarely obnoxious or leering or immature. Take 'Pretty Girls', a song that might seem to be your typical bro-country song about girls drinking beer and clubbing, but the more atmospheric tone and the lyrical content stresses that Dierks Bentley is just content to watch and take in the atmosphere, and his delivery belies that. And it helps he has emotional range: he can play being genuinely wounded as well as the quiet, sturdy, mature country singer as well.

That takes us to the lyrics and themes, where Riser reveals itself as an album where Dierks Bentley is trying to get over a breakup and move on with his life. And while there is an undercurrent of bitterness in songs like 'Bourbon In Kentucky' and 'Drunk On A Plane', the latter of which is a song that's really too stupidly hilarious to hate, there's a lot more melancholy sadness and it's played very well. And while I won't say the technical songwriting is stellar - it's not - the variety of situations he puts forward are effectively realized. 'Say You Do' and 'Five' are the songs where he's hoping without hope for reconciliation, 'I Hold On' and 'Riser' are declarations of faith and support in his new love, and 'Drunk On A Plane' tries to imitate Jake Owen's 'Life Of The Party' except on the plane and with less emotional impact - and coherence, although that may have been the point. But the two songs that really jumped out at me were 'Here On Earth' and 'Damn These Dreams'. The former is probably the riskier track, because it tackles a crisis of religious faith along side the break-up, and it's more than a little surprising how far Bentley goes, acknowledging that even though he's read scripture and has tried to believe, sometimes faith just doesn't land - and even if he did have it, it's not going to bring her back. And then there's 'Damn These Dreams', a song where Bentley is caught between his passions and his family - and it doesn't exactly provide a resolution to that song and it really hit me surprisingly hard. 

So what didn't work about Riser? Honestly, it's a series of little things. I'm still not the biggest fan of the slicker, more spacious and less intimately textured guitars he brings to country radio, but he certainly does better than the majority of people who attempt this method of production. Where this album suffers a little is in a few of the 'party' tracks, most notably 'Sounds of Summer' and 'Back Porch' - neither are bad songs by any stretch, but they aren't exactly memorable mostly due to the typical arsenal of country party cliches. And while I know that the melodies are more anchored to Bentley's vocals than the guitar lines, I can't help but feel that this album isn't going to stick with me in the same way because the instrumental hooks aren't quite there in the same way.

In the end, I wasn't expecting to be floored by this album - and I'm not, let me stress this - but Dierks Bentley's Riser is a unique-sounding, defiantly modern country record, but there's warmth and subtlety and good songwriting talent underneath it that manages to lend this album a lot of character and likability. It's an album with maturity and real emotion underscoring it, and it takes some pretty sizable songwriting risks for a mainstream country album, and the fact Bentley manages to stick the landing is impressive. I won't say it's entirely my thing, or even an album that'll stick with me for the next few months, but I can recognize quality when I see it - so this record gets a 7/10 and a recommendation. Fans of Dierks Bentley, you're going to love this album, but even if you're not, give Riser a chance - I did, and I'm actually pretty satisfied with the result.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I was wondering if you would be able to do a review of the album "Bring Up the Sun" by Sundy Best which comes out on March 4th. I tried to ask you in the comments over at Saving Country Music but figured that wasn't the best way to do it. Sundy Best is signed to eOne Music and their videos have been popular on CMT Pure and Country and Zuus Country but they haven't had a radio hit. They're pretty good but nobody reviews them. Would you have time to do a review?

    Six String Richie