Tuesday, May 20, 2014

album review: 'just as i am' by brantley gilbert

I've been looking forward to doing this review for weeks now.

Because sometimes you just know, when you sit down to write one of these things that you've got a record in your sights that will give you plenty of material with which to talk about. An album from an artist that I actually tolerated when I got back into mainstream country without really liking him. An album that from its opening single heralded something that sent a quiver of anticipation down my spine.

Not from the expectation that the album was going to be any good, mind you. Brantley Gilbert may have showed up in the country rock scene before bro-country took hold, but he bears the worst parts of the archetype, a sneering douchebag who traded in alpha male machismo and southern pandering in the cheapest way possible. I appreciate that he has the main writing credits on all of his material, because it made his songwriting much easier to castigate as the grabbag of formless country cliches that it was, especially on that last album. And speaking as both a country fan and a metalhead, I was never really impressed by his brand of country rock, which always felt too sterile and compromised to really fill in the gap between the two genres in a way like Whiskey Myers or Hank Williams III do easily. In fact, an easy comparison from his brand of self-serious, minor-key saturated post-grunge inspired country rock is Nickelback, but even if you don't like Chad Kroeger or his howl of a voice, you can at least admit he can sing and has real stage presence. Brantley Gilbert, on the other hand, has a delivery so flat and disaffected that I got nothing but smug obnoxiousness from his presentation. 

So yeah, I was looking forward to Just As I Am by Brantley Gilbert - in the same way I've been looking forward to Chris Brown's perpetually delayed album, and that is to give it the righteous thrashing it deserves. And off of the basis of 'Bottoms Up', an early front-runner to one of the worst hit songs of 2014, and the noted collaboration with Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore, I expected this album to blow and went in with zero expectations. Did Brantley Gilbert manage to surprise me?

Well, he did – because this album honestly isn’t as terrible as I was expecting. I went in expecting a disaster, and as much as I’d like to continue with my established idea and slam the album regardless, I can’t, in good conscience, admit that’s the case. So yeah, I was wrong, Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am isn’t really that bad at all. In fact, it’s actually quite passable, let down by a terrible lead-off single and an image of douchebaggery that Brantley Gilbert has cultivated, likely to his own detriment. Now that’s not saying this album is anything close to great, or even is all that good, but call it the benefit of lowered expectations because I can’t really hate this record.

Let’s start with the instrumentation – and honestly, it’s no-frills country rock: power chords, solid basslines and decent melodies, and enough distortion to rock but not too much to jump into metal. And yeah, the guitars have less texture than I’d prefer and the solos are not impressive, but to Gilbert’s credit, he does steer clear of the majority of bad musical gimmicks you normally see in bro-country. There are no electronic effects or unnecessary autotune, there are no attempts to have a rapping cadence, and there are even elements of organ and gospel that harken more to blues-inspired hard rock in the Whitesnake vein than post-grunge, which I definitely liked. That’s not saying all the melodies are stellar – I’m fairly certain ’17 Again’ took its opening riff from Our Lady Peace’s hit ‘Somewhere Out There’ – but the guitar tones are richer and the guitar-driven hooks are memorable enough, especially from ‘My Baby’s Guns ‘N Roses’ and ‘Lights Of My Hometown’. Now make no mistake, ‘Bottoms Up’ is still an atrocious song: the guitar tone feels jacked from bad down-tuned nu metal and the sullen melody line does not fit in the slightest with the bro-country party lyrics. It’s telling that there are songs like ‘Lights Of My Hometown’ and the Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore collaboration ‘Small Town Throwdown’ that execute a similar style a fair bit better. And yeah, ‘Small Town Throwdown’ is leering and stupid and painfully recycled, but it’s a better brand of it, mostly because the instrumentation has some sleazy grime, Justin Moore only gets one verse and Thomas Rhett is confined to occasional snippets, and Brantley Gilbert is significantly more convincing as a bro asshole than the lot of them, and he gets a certain grudging respect from me for that.

In fact, that might be one of the main factors that makes Brantley Gilbert at least marginally more tolerable in my eyes: he might be a swaggering alpha male, but he’s at least convincing and sincere in that role and doesn’t play up the obnoxiousness. Yeah, ‘If You Want A Bad Boy’ might play in the same field as most bro-country, but it’s at least got enough self-awareness to question whether or not the sweet girl really wants to follow his path. It does help to make songs like ‘My Baby’s Guns ‘N Roses’ slightly more believable, and I’ll give Gilbert credit for cramming that song full of as many references to that act as he possibly can. And while I might not like the flag-waving jingoism in ‘One Hell of An Amen’, the uber-patriotism is downplayed in favour of talking about how a man should face death and his God, and on a certain level, I definitely respect that. And since I’m not one to disrespect a man’s faith, I can definitely appreciate the sentiment behind ‘My Faith In You’, where Gilbert worries about how he’d react if he lost his faith. Now granted, I don’t think the dramatic stakes of the song are anywhere near as strong as, say, Dierks Bentley’s crisis of faith on ‘Here On Earth’, but Gilbert does his best to sell it.

That sincerity might be Gilbert’s biggest strength as a performer, and it makes the two best songs of the album, ‘That Was Us’ and ‘Let It Ride’, stand out a fair bit. ‘That Was Us’ is a song about old times and reconnecting with old friends, and it’s at least honest enough to capture elements like the big talk and special bond some bros have. And ‘Let It Ride’ is as good of a ‘love’ song as you’d find on this album, with Gilbert’s hesitation in the second verse when she wants a commitment before swearing to be true really coming across as sincere and kind of earned to me – it worked. That said, the other ‘relationship’ focused song on this record is ‘I’m Gone’ and is directed at ex-girlfriend and fellow country singer Jana Kramer. And while I don’t really like the song, I’ll give him some credit for marginally fair framing and not engaging in wishy-washy nonsense in the hopes of leading her on.

And then I started wondering, I’m giving this album a lot more credit and being a lot more fair to it than even I expected, so is there a possibility that I might end up liking this album? Because if I’m being honest, this album calls back to a lot of the shallow hard rock I love, and it’s self-aware enough to fit that role well – so why isn’t it clicking in the same way? Well, it all comes back to Brantley Gilbert himself: because like it or not, Gilbert isn’t Axl Rose and his vocals are easily the biggest strike against this album, at least for me. Now I get why he’s singing like this: having a grimy rasp is likely considered ‘cooler’ and more appropriate for his swaggering bro ‘bad boy’ image, and I don’t deny it has texture – but speaking as a singer, what it also does is painfully limit his vocal range and hurt him when he’s trying to come across as more emotional or sincere. I’m not saying he doesn’t try – I can tell he’s trying to emote more than his delivery allows, and I’ll give him credit for that – but his voice does very little for me, and it doesn’t help when he references hard rock tropes that get me thinking about better singers.

So in the end… you know, I really didn’t think I’d be in this position, but I’m seriously debating whether or not to recommend this album. The melodies and hooks are well done, but the solos and texture were seriously lacking. The lyrics aren’t especially creative and they can get pretty meat-headed, but their sincerity and occasional flashes of nuance and wordplay show promising signs of a better songwriter. And Gilbert’s vocals might not be my thing, but you can tell he’s pushing his range and he’s at least aware of his limits and what this record set out to be. So here’s what I’ll do: I’m giving this album a strong 5/10, but if you’re more of a fan of Brantley Gilbert’s vocals and they don’t bother you as much as they do me, check this album out. Yeah, it’s bro-country rock in every sense of the word, and I won’t call it even the best in this subgenre, but it’s a purer brand of it than most, and I’ve definitely heard worse. After all, the album is titled Just As I Am, and I can’t really deny that it is exactly that.

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