Thursday, March 13, 2014

album review: 'i'm a fire' by david nail

I feel like releasing this particular review so close to that of the Eli Young Band really makes my job that much harder - because, in the danger of repeating myself, I never felt I got the full picture about David Nail by listening to the singles he sent to radio. Like the Eli Young Band, he debuted in the mainstream near the end of the 2000s and he's had a steady stream of modest hits on the country charts. Like the Eli Young Band, he has a slew of songwriting credits but most of his albums have been defined by the Nashville songwriting machine throwing credits his way. 

But unlike the Eli Young Band, every impression I got surrounding David Nail from his singles was universally negative. I don't know if it was his too-polished instrumentation, his voice that had a bit of presence but didn't quite have charm or raw passion, or the fact that his lyrics toed the line between condescending dickishness and unwittingly painting him as an asshole, but it didn't work for me whatsoever. I think part of the problem was that his singles were mostly break-up songs and were often instigated by his actions, and thus, I had little sympathy for the guy on songs like 'Let It Rain' - I'm sorry, you're not going to get me feel anything but disgust from me for your cheating, David Nail!

And when I heard the opening single from his new album 'Whatever She's Got', I was immediately steeling myself for the worst. It was the sort of bro-country love song I always find a little repulsive, a song about some capricious girl that David Nail was to screw - and what's worse is that the description of this girl is pretty far from flattering and David Nail doesn't come across much better. But then I reminded myself that David Nail is usually better than his singles and despite some deep misgivings on my part, and besides, there were some good songwriters and collaborations on the record, so it couldn't be that bad, right?

 Well, I can say this, the title of I'm A Fire is a complete misnomer for this record, because I would lying if I said there was anything close to fire on this record. Instead, we got the kind of album I hate reviewing: a mellow slice of pop-country that trades on romantic sentiments rather than good melodies, interesting lyrics, or indeed anything that would require David Nail to actually exert himself as a performer. In other words, this album is impressively mediocre with some low points that really annoyed me, but otherwise not an album that I can get worked up about for that long.

Now don't get me wrong, I get the feeling this album could have worked. The instrumentation, for one, isn't bad - sure, there's more obvious electronic production than there should be and there's a couple bad guitar tone choices (the one that stands out the most is on 'Broke My Heart'), but overall there's some decent dramatic swell and potency on this record, and some pretty solid textured percussion that I did like. Where I feel the instrumentation stumbled were in the crescendos and melodic flow - there was a lot of buildup and slow burn, but the pay-off always felt muted to me, and I get the feeling that was the point. This record wasn't looking to explode with bombast and while I think some of the rougher guitars would be a better fit for that approach, I don't mind artists going in a more subtle direction.

But if we take that approach in mind, we immediately run into problems with David Nail's vocal performance, and while he is a talented singer with some stage presence, he's not exactly a distinctive personality. His vocals are very polished and clean and technically sound, but when supplemented with the fact he never really goes for broke or pushes himself emotionally on this record, he comes across as very calculated, and not in a good way. And it really lessens his presence on this record and doesn't help him stand out, especially compared to his frequent backing vocals and collaborators, which include Little Big Town and Lee Ann Womack, both who seem to care a lot more than he does, which leads him to get lost a bit in the shuffle. But I'll give him this, his more muted delivery is mostly consistent with the instrumentation, which places the majority of the emotional weight on the lyrical content.

And this is where I'm A Fire by David Nail seriously stumbles, and not because the lyrics are all that bad, but because they really don't stand out the way they should, especially in terms of deeper subtext and nuance. Outside of a cover of the modern country standard 'Galveston', this album really does not impress me lyrically, almost entirely because the framing of the songs is so off-kilter with respect to the lyrical content. For example, let's take the second track 'Broke My Heart', which falls into the 'picking up girls' mold, except this time the song is talking an ex that David Nail isn't over - in fact, it hammers on that point in the chorus with the lines 'Even if you never broke my heart / I'd still be begging you to tear it apart'. But since David Nail has so little emotional range, he delivers the song with a sincerity that would be endearing in a different song but really comes across as jarring with the lyrical content. 

And the frustrating thing is that it keeps happening. 'Kiss You Tonight' is playing in the same mold as 'Broke My Heart' with regards to an ex, and he's convinced that she'll come back if he just manages to kiss her tonight - uh, that's awfully presumptuous? And then 'The Secret' hits the mother load of bad framing and songwriting - to break it down, David Nail cheated with a girl, she got pregnant and went back to her husband, and much later on, she dies and David Nail is informed about this when he's working at a bar in a different town. So not only does he go back for the funeral, he confronts the grieving husband all the while wondering who she'd miss more, David Nail or her spouse, and how some day David Nail will find peace. The self-absorption in this song is mind-blowing, and yet, it's all framed that it's some special secret between Nail and this girl who didn't choose him and who he hasn't seen for years because he skipped town! Forget the husband who probably wasn't happy to see a man he might not know confess deep feelings for his dead wife or the child who's now without a mother - nope, David Nail has to reminisce 'what might have been' and he has none of the range required to sell that complicated grief.

Now to be fair to the guy, there are simpler songs on this record where his brand of earnestness can fit reasonably well. 'Brand New Day', the title track, the Little Big Town collaboration 'When They're Gone', those are decent enough songs, and the Brandy Clark-written track 'Burnin' Bed' has some weight, but Nail is such an inert presence behind the microphone that he doesn't manage to sell those subtler emotions. That's the big problem with this record, it's trying to be a softer, more restrained record that can hit those smaller emotional beats, but David Nail just doesn't have the presence, charisma, or emotional range to pull them off. And since he's continuously saddled with a load of break-up songs that require more finesse in the delivery, the album consistently stumbles. And what's worst about it all is that for all of its problems, I'm A Fire isn't nearly memorable or interesting enough to have any staying power in my memory. It honestly sounds like just another interchangeable modern country album, only distinctive because of how poor of a fit David Nail is for this sort of material. As an album, it's a 5/10, and only worth your time if you're a fan of the guy. Otherwise, skip it.

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