Tuesday, April 8, 2014

album review: 'where it all began' by dan + shay

Well, I shouldn't have been surprised this was happening.

And really, after the runaway success of Florida Georgia Line last year, it was all but inevitable that major labels would start hunting for other duos that could fill the bro-country mold. Frankly, I'm surprised I haven't tackled more groups of artists in this vein. I mean, last year there was Parmalee who were more of a band, and this year we had Sundy Best, who weren't remotely close to bro-country and were actually pretty damn awesome. And yet outside of them, bro-country has mostly been the genre of solo male artists in the vast majority - and despite many of them copying the same tropes and formulas, you could almost lay out a spectrum of how they present themselves.

And as tempted as I'd be to call it a spectrum between crap and not-quite-crap, that's not really fair or representative of a difference I find interesting within the subgenre, and that is how the acts present themselves. Let's face it, as much as some bro-country artists come across as swaggering alpha male douchebags, it's not indicative of the entire genre and there are some artists who are looking to opt a more sensitive side. And sure, it doesn't always work and some of the worse acts in bro-country have been when said affectations prove completely unconvincing, but given how many bro-country artists are trying to pivot in this direction, it's interesting to see how the newest crop make it work.

Enter Dan + Shay, a new country duo who started their career writing for Rascal Flatts before getting signed themselves. Now with the hit single '19 You + Me', they've got a debut album and a fair amount of popular buzz behind them, especially on the charts. So, I gave their new album Where It All Began a listen and hoped for the best: how was it?

Well, believe it or not, this album is actually better than you might think it is. No jokes, I expected this album to absolutely suck, and I was wrong, Where It All Began by Dan + Shay isn't bad at all. Yet when I say that, it's under adjusted expectations - because in the majority of elements, these guys are barely a country band, and are much closer to a pop-country crossover act in the vein of Taylor Swift or Keith Urban. And judged on that standard, these guys are actually pretty good - not amazing or anything I'm going to find mind-blowing in a year, but honestly, I enjoyed this album a lot more than I thought I would, and that's saying something.

So let's get the problems out of the way first, most of which are in the instrumentation and production - because even on the standards of pop music, these guys write some pretty formulaic melodies, and coupled with song topics that don't stray far from conventional love songs, it can makes some of their material really run together. And while I didn't mind the smoother pop production which did capture some real pluckiness in the guitars that did accent some of the better tracks, the electronic elements in the production and the autotune are not good fits. It's a matter of cohesion, and while I'd argue it's a little more subtle than the autotune on Jerrod Niemann's most recent album, it's still doesn't flow well with the more organic instrumentation. On top of that, while the duo does have a better flow and rhyme scheme than most who brush with country rap, they do come across as ridiculously corny and songs in this direction like 'What You Do To Me', 'Somewhere Only We Know', and 'Party Girl' are the weakest tracks on the album. And plus, I couldn't help but notice that their rhyming cadence reminded a little of mid-period R. Kelly, and knowing it was completely unintentional makes the songs that much funnier to me.

But putting aside that, even though Dan + Shay can be corny and a little ridiculous, they have one big redeeming element in their vocal delivery that pretty much saves this album: sincerity. Quite simply, there's not a trace of irony or leering debauchery in any of their delivery and they sell their corny material with the love-struck, almost boy band-esque honesty that really makes them come off better than some boy bands out right now. On top of that, they have decent harmonies and interplay with each other, and while I do wish Dan Smyers got more lead vocals with his richer lower voice, he adds a lot of balance to the mix that I did like. What's important is that even when the love songs do get kind of silly - and they do - it's so sincere it's kind of hard not to buy into it.

This takes us to the lyrics. Now as I've said, a lot of this material can start sounding very similar in terms of meeting/hanging out with girls, and you can tell the lyrics are laser-focused on cultivating a big young female fanbase. And let's be honest, songs like the acoustic 'Can't Say No', where he's so haplessly lovestruck he goes along with everything the girl wants to do, and 'Nothing Like You', where he falls for an archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl, are almost too ridiculous to take seriously or any level of depth. But that being said, there are moments I liked - for instance, they do reference acts like Tom Petty, Bruce Springstreen and George Strait, and while I'll argue they don't exactly incorporate many of their references into their songs instrumentally, it adds some lyrical flavour that can feel cohesive. On top of that, Dan + Shay are at their best when dealing with material that's a little less conventional love stories, or with heartbreak. The two best songs on the album by a mile are 'First Time Feeling', which might as well be a remake of 'Summer Nights' from Grease with sex and Springsteen references, and my favourite 'I Heard Goodbye', a song where a relationship just fizzles out and the song captures those complicated emotions pretty damn well. Sure, it's tempting for me to look at the song as the light version of 'Goodbye In Your Eyes' by The Zac Brown Band, but it works for the same reasons that song does, and Dan + Shay manage to sell it. 

So in the end, I liked this album. It reminds me most of an Canadian pop rock act from the early 2000s called Wave that I actually quite liked, who had one major hit up here with the song 'California' and also were a duo who had well-harmonized songs with hit-and-miss production. And honestly, if Dan + Shay are simply the pop-country version of Wave for 2014, I'm okay with that. So keeping that in mind, this album gets a 7/10 from me and a recommendation. If you're a teenage girl or, hell, anyone who has a liking for the admittedly cheesy nature of decent boy bands either from the 90s or now, I recommend giving Dan + Shay a listen - you might find yourself surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment