Wednesday, March 26, 2014

album review: 'high noon' by jerrod niemann

Do you guys remember back when I reviewed the Eli Young Band that I said there was just a period of time I wasn't listening to much country music outside of the material that hit the charts? Well, even with that scant knowledge, I had no idea who Jerrod Niemann was before starting to research this album - and he had a number one country single that actually briefly landed on the pop charts! 

That was the first warning sign I got when I started going through Niemann's discography and those hit singles. Signed to Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville, a label co-owned by Brad Paisley, Jerrod Niemann released his major label debut in 2010 and it's not hard to see some of Paisley's influences on that album - it was silly, hopelessly corny country music, but it wasn't offensive. But then again, I'd have a hard time calling it interesting or all that distinctive either - outside some of the comedy bits and the fact that Niemann had an agreeable voice, I'd have a hard time picking him out of a line-up of other good time country singers. And it looked like the general public agreed, as his second album did have greater musical flavour and diversity, but not a lot else especially in the breezy songwriting to really give Niemann a lot of distinctive staying power. He reminded a lot of Jake Owen, except Owen always seemed to have more charisma or maybe better songwriters.

And thus, I can't exactly say I was enthused to listen to Jerrod Niemann's third album High Noon, especially off of his lead single 'Drink To That All Night', which featured the twin cardinal sins of bro-country in bad low-key rapping and auto-tune, and none of the instrumental diversity or humour that at least made Jerrod Niemann remotely distinctive. And thus, I wasn't looking forward to covering this album but I figured I owed him at least one chance to really surprise me. How did it go?

Ugh. Frankly, I shouldn't be reviewing albums like this at this point, because with the grace of god, maybe if I stopped drawing attention to albums like this, these albums would just go away. But if anything, this record is an even bigger disappointment than I was expecting, and I can't imagine how hardcore fans of Jerrod Niemann are taking this. Because not only does this album thoroughly wedge Jerrod Niemann into 'just another bro-country' act, they stripped away any of the elements that would have at least given him some identity in that subgenre! And while I can't say this album is as obnoxious as Thomas Rhett or as asinine as Cole Swindell or as just plain awful as Justin Moore, Jerrod Niemann still manages to deliver with High Moon a thudding slog of a record that I can't and won't recommend.

So let's start with Jerrod Niemann himself, and I'll hand it to him, the man gets the kind of breezy, lightweight material he's working with - in that his delivery tends to have the lazy drawl of being drunk and half-asleep in a lawn chair. If you put him in comparison with other lightweight country acts like Jake Owen, the difference becomes even starker - because at least when Jake Owen makes stupid music, he's at least trying. What's frustrating is that Jerrod Niemann does seem to have some emotional range, or at least the capacity to sing more than just these brands of songs or imbibe them with deeper meaning through his delivery, but it doesn't happen here. What's worse is that when he actually does show some energy, the minor chords, the bleaker tone, and the fact he frequently gets eclipsed by his backing vocalists never really establish him as a presence - especially not a comedic one, his one big distinguishing factor on previous albums. And of course there's rapping here, both courtesy of him and Colt Fold, and it's certainly terrible and inexcusable, but fortunately it's a reasonably sparse presence on this album and can mostly be ignored. 

What can't be ignored are the problems in the instrumentation and production, and let me give this album a solitary compliment: the percussion can have some texture and get kind of interesting, and like every Jerrod Niemann album, there are instrumental flourishes I do appreciate, mostly in the gulf & western-inspired songs. Nothing special, to be fair, but it was certainly preferable to the arsenal of incohesive electronic elements that are shoveled onto this record! Drum machines crop up everywhere, the guitars frequently sound processed when they aren't shoved to the back of the mix, and there even record-scratching noises on tracks like 'Buzz Back Girl' that made me think we had jumped into a time machine had gone back to 1999! And the autotune on this album might the most blatant I've ever seen on a country album, thankfully mostly confined to the back-up vocals, but even they don't work well because their volume against Niemann's is often too loud. And while Niemann has defended this production by calling it experimentation and saying it's the same sort of thing Willie and Waylon did back in the 70s, the difference here is cohesion: when you have to crush your guitars and only rely on the acoustic strumming at the front of the mix, with neither carrying a good melody line or a decent hook just so you can cram electronic elements in and they still don't flow well into the mix or restore any texture, you're doing it wrong!

And do I even need to mention the songwriting at this point? I counted, eight of the thirteen songs on this album are stereotypical bro-country drinking and hookup songs, with nothing you haven't seen a dozen times or more in the lyrics. You want copious day drinking, rural Southern pandering, and songs that might claim to be hunting for girls with personality and yet do nothing to describe said personality, Jerrod Niemann has those songs in spades. Now to be fair, there are a few songs that try something new: 'Space' is a song about Jerrod Niemann wanting to be left alone and have some quiet time to just breathe, but we don't get any reasons why or what makes his sudden antisocial behavior interesting or introspective. 'I Can't Give In Anymore' is the song-equivalent of Jerrod Niemann throwing his hands in the air about his relationship and saying, 'I don't know you anymore, if you keep changing, I'm just going to leave you, I'm tired to trying' - because that's an attractive attitude! And then there's 'Donkey', one of the stupidest songs you'll hear this decade, where since Jerrod Niemann put his car in the ditch and can't pay to fix it, he's going to ride into town on a donkey - you know, like he's Jesus riding into Jerusalem or something. And the women will all swoon even as the jocks - rightfully - start laughing and all the ladies will want to ride his ass so they can go for a roll in the hay. I wish I was kidding - and if this is what Jerrod Niemann thinks is comedy now, that's telling in its own way.

Honestly, the one song I kind of liked is 'Lucky #7', a song where Niemann marvels how he somehow ended up with an '11' while he's just a '7'. It's corny as hell, but it's kind of endearing in a silly sort of way and the lyrics aren't terrible. But Niemann, I have a hard time calling you - and this album - a 7. Try more like a '4' out of ten for this overproduced, slick, hook-less clump of below-average bro-country. With this record, Jerrod Niemann forfeited his personality to become yet another laid-back bro and the only unique elements are either poorly executed or obnoxious. And the worst part of all of it is that for all of the selling out, he's made his most sterile and empty album to date. Skip it.

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