Saturday, February 15, 2014

album review: 'sunshine & whiskey' by frankie ballard

Let's talk - again - about bro-country. Because at this point, its prevalence in mainstream country is starting to really get on my nerves. And not for the reason you might think - as I've said in the past, bro-country is a qualifying term and not immediately a denigrating factor; just because something is bro-country doesn't immediately make it bad. But since it's everywhere, it immediately colours my expectations when it comes to certain debut acts. I mean, I can take a look at the album cover, that one hit single that gets popular, and the track list overloaded with Music Row's songwriting machine, and I can make a snap judgement on the genre.

But now I'm not so sure that holds up anymore. Both Eric Paslay and (to a lesser extent) Jon Pardi surprised me by being more than just their hit singles and actually being promising country artists when I delved into their albums. In other words, I'm not quite sure what to expect going into acts like Frankie Ballard, who recently released his second album Sunshine & Whiskey. And on the surface, this looks like an archetypal bro-country album: he has only one writing credit on this record, you have a selection of Nashville's 'finest' writing for this guy, and his lead single 'Helluva Life' fits directly into the softer 'bros-trying-to-be-sensitive' brand of country that's popular right now as bro-country tries to show it has variety and staying power. And considering he was yet another male country star with an underwritten Wikipedia page and was introduced to the world via a contest run by Kenny Chesney, I had no high hopes this album would be very good.

But I've been surprised in the past, and I went into this record with the slightest hope that even if it was bro-country, it'd be listenable. Was I right?

Ugh... well, to be honest, it's an album that's tolerable, but not one I especially like or can recommend. Make no mistake, Sunshine & Whiskey by Frankie Ballard is bro-country, plain and simple - and honestly, if it was just that, this album would have gotten a pass. But there are some significant problems I can't overlook and it's enough to say that this album definitely isn't for me.

For one, I can understand why Kenny Chesney likes this guy, because Frankie Ballard is playing the same roadhouse that Jimmy Buffett built and Kenny Chesney's been ripping off for years. Now, I don't have any real vitriol for Jimmy Buffett - the man has written some incredibly dumb songs, but he's also had a knack for infusing his brand of gulf & western music with occasional insight and weight. But like Kenny Chesney, Frankie Ballard doesn't really bring that level of nuance to the table - or indeed much insight at all. The two best songs on the album are 'Young & Crazy' and 'It Don't Take Much', the former being an agreeable justification for partying hard (he wants to have stories and experiences while he's young), and the second showing how if you're not careful with your fun, you could quickly screw up your life in a hurry, which is an acknowledgement you don't often see in bro-country.

But it would be a stretch to say this album has anything close to intelligence, because the lyrics get really stupid in a hurry. After all, this is an album that has the interchangeable and leering bro-country track called 'Drinky Drink', which to my shock was not written by Dallas Davidson. No, that particular songwriter contributed 'Tell Me You Get Lonely', which is a guilt-trip song trying to convince an ex to get back together with Frankie by preying on her loneliness - classy. And that's not even tackling the songs where they try for depth and end up screwing it up, namely the album closer 'Don't Tell Mama I Was Drinking', which is an old and pretty sad George Jones song about drunk driving that Frankie decides to pump up with meatier instrumentation that strips away some of its poignancy. The closest he comes to insight would be 'Tip Jar', the one ballad that does have some lyrical flair and a good atmosphere, but it never adds up to something substantial or genuinely moving.

Part of this might be Ballard's vocal delivery. Many people have made the comparison with Gary Allan, and I can see it, but Ballard's voice isn't great for conveying deeper emotions, and while he has energy, I wouldn't say he's a great singer. On top of that, the dry nasal raspiness to his delivery doesn't help him on the sleazier tracks, which unfortunately makes them come across as even more obnoxious. On the plus side, though, he does seem to be enjoying himself and he never really bothers with the alpha male posturing that I find abhorrent in bro-country - which I guess is the one thing for which I can thank Kenny Chesney's influence

But if I have all of these negative things to say, why don't have I have a stronger opinion on this record? Well, the instrumentation on this album pretty much saves it. The production is inconsistent - sometimes the guitars are a little too processed, the cymbals a little too prominent in the mix, some of the more synthetic elements feel out-of-place - but when it works, this is probably one of the better mixed bro-country albums I've heard this year. There's a lot of energy in the guitars, some surprising instrumental diversity (including the harmonica that effectively saves 'Drinky Drink' from being unlistenable), some organ texture that I've always liked, and the guitar work from Ballard is pretty damn solid. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly blown away by any of the hooks, and I could swear the song 'Sober Me Up' lifts the same chords from Pink's collaboration with Steven Tyler back in 2001 called 'Misery', which was a little annoying. 

But it's the tone of this album that I find both its biggest strength and weakness: it's laid back, it's casual, it's mellow, and it does it well - but that tone in music just doesn't resonate with me whatsoever. I've gone on in the past of why I don't like music in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' vein (think your Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Jason Mraz) - and tonally, this album fits that bill. If it was going for greater meaning and depth, it didn't really work, but I get the feeling it wasn't trying to do that. In other words, I can't really criticize this album for being lightweight and mellow, because that's the sound he was trying to create - and even though that's not my thing, I can't really criticize it. But on that note, even though this album is not to my taste, I still don't think it's strong, even by the standards of the genre. It's not bad or offensive bro-country, but it's not exactly good bro-country either, and I'm left rather ambivalent on it. I'm giving the album a 5/10, but keep in mind this record's style isn't my thing and will probably go over better if you fit the target audience, and it'll probably be played on repeat in a frathouse at some point this summer. I wouldn't exactly call it quality, but you could do a lot worse.

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