Thursday, May 15, 2014

album review: 'rewind' by rascal flatts

I've said before that there was a period in my life where I drifted away from country music. And it wasn't because of any teenage rebellion or any nonsense like that, but there was just a period of time on mainstream country radio where I was getting nothing out of the music. It felt soulless and generic or lacking any sort of genuine emotion or feeling, and it wasn't as if it evoked a response from me other than just apathy. And I hate saying that about a genre I love, but I can't deny the facts that throughout the mid-to-late 2000s, outside of a few artists I couldn't be less interested in country music.

And of the many acts that got huge in that time frame, the band I blame the most was Rascal Flatts. For me, they were always the spiritual successors to Lonestar, in that they performed a lot of soaring, middle-of-the-road pop country and had very limited writing credits on their material. But unlike Lonestar's Richie McDonald with the pipes and passion to back up his material, you had Gary Levox, a singer who delivers his middle-of-the-road pablum with a smile as plastic as his music, and voice that did nothing for me whatsoever. It's telling that Rascal Flatts signed to Big Machine in 2010 and joined in with artists affiliated with Taylor Swift, because at their worst, both acts produce the same sort of utterly empty pop-country with not a hint of texture or depth in sight. 

And thus, I couldn't tell you how much I was dreading a review of this album, especially after the lip-syncing debacle at the American Country Music awards this year and the rumours that their newest album Rewind was an attempt to modernize their sound. And even though I've been reasonable with pop country acts like Keith Urban, Danielle Bradbury, Dan + Shay, and even Hunter Hayes in the past, there was nothing you could tell me that would make me think this album was good. But then that terrible voice in my head that's actively encouraging me to review Brantley Gilbert's upcoming atrocity spoke up and whispered, 'Dude, you can't judge an album fairly until you give it a chance to prove you wrong.' And yeah, that's true, so I picked up Rascal Flatts Rewind over continuing to work through the Swans discography or revisiting Mariah Carey's discography in preparation for her new album or even just relistening to Sturgill Simpson's new record for the dozenth time because that album explodes country awesomeness from every pore. Was Rascal Flatts worth it?

Well, if I'm being completely honest, it kind of was - but not for the reason you might think. Because I'll be blunt and say Rewind by Rascal Flatts is not good in the slightest - in fact, there are large chunks of it that are pretty damn bad, but it's the kind of bad that doesn't show malicious intent or anything beyond hopping on a bandwagon and not being able to pull it off. In other words, there are bro-country tracks on this Rascal Flatts album, and I don't think I've ever heard an artist fail at this particular subgenre as hard as they do here, to the point where I can't take it seriously whatsoever and it just gets funny to me. So in other words, I can't hate this album so much as just point and laugh - by no means an endorsement of quality, but it was fun to listen through in the same way watching The Room or Winter's Tale is enjoyable. So yeah, one of those records.

Let's start with the least objectionable part of this, being the instrumentation. And look, it's pop-country, I knew what I was getting going in with no weight to the guitars, the drum machines, the obvious pitch correction, the production sanded down to be completely devoid of texture, a selection of generic classical instruments for the ballads and all-purpose uplifting songs, you get the picture. But what becomes a little interesting - and really quite funny - is the pseudo-rock instrumentation that Rascal Flatts brings in: to be blunt, I've heard harder and more convincing rock energy from One Direction than I hear from Rascal Flatts on this album, and it makes their entirely earnest attempts at bro swagger absolutely hilarious. And on that note, the harmonized backing vocals don't do a lot to dispel the imagery of a lightweight pop-country boy band - and like most pre-packaged boy bands, the melodies are almost cartoonishly simplistic and rarely bringing any sort of gravitas or power to the table. Now that's not saying some of them are all bad - I liked 'Powerful Stuff', it had some rollicking energy - but most of these compositions are so painfully basic that they aren't memorable in the slightest.

Now to be somewhat fair here, it's not as if Rascal Flatts and their arsenal of songwriters aren't trying - but then again, on a record with zero writing credits from the band and over thirty songwriters contributing material to this album, you're not looking at anything beyond a disjointed mess. That's not saying there aren't some good moments - Eric Paslay's natural grasp on cadence and strong sentiments nearly single-handedly redeem 'Rewind' from its godawful electric guitar tone, 'Riot' tries and mostly works well to remake Jake Owen's 'Life Of The Party' but misses the mark by having no real stakes, and 'Night Of Our Lives' tries to go for hookup drama and mostly works - but the songwriting on this album is where things get bad in a hurry. It's telling that the outright lie of 'I've Never Been To Memphis' is probably one of the moments where the songwriting is stronger on this record, because 'I Like The Sound Of That', 'DJ Tonight', 'Honeysuckle Lazy', and 'The Mechanic' are some serious duds. 'I Like The Sound of That' tries to make hooking up sound like fun, and praises the girl in question by saying 'You sing along with some Timberlake bumping / but he ain't got nothin' on you'. Now, call me crazy, but wouldn't you want to compare your female friend to a female singer instead of Justin Timberlake, because there is an implicit mixed message there! Or take 'The Mechanic', which has lines like 'When I cry, you're the sexiest clown I've ever seen', and outside of women I know who actually are in that profession, calling someone a sexy clown isn't exactly a turn-on. And hell, even the woman I know who is a clown wouldn't like the following line 'When I'm a sinner, you're a King James' - so you're comparing your woman to a book with genocide, incest, and the entire book of Leviticus? Look, I get the sentiments here, but there had to have been better ways to execute them! And that's not even counting the obvious bro-country tracks like the hook-up track 'I'm On Fire' and the sleazy revenge song 'Payback', where Gary Levox sneers his way through a song laughing at his hookup's ex - classy, dude.

And really, Levox is the biggest issue with this album. I've never been a fan of his vocals, even with the gratuitous pitch correction, but on this album he's required to carry songs that demand more of an edge or at least emotional range and it's stunning how he completely bungles them. I might not like Luke Bryan's brand of obnoxious bro-country, but he would at least sound more convincing on sleaze like 'Honeysuckle Lazy' and 'Payback' than Levox's earnest tenor. But even then, on songs where Levox is required to really step up and belt or sound invested like on 'Life's A Song', you can tell he's never really pushing himself or showing real texture in his voice, almost to the point where I start to wonder if he's in on the joke behind some of the awful songwriting on display - which arguably makes the songs even less tolerable and more tedious.

In the end, though, I have no idea who this record is for. Rascal Flatts' brand has been making bland, mid-tempo pop-country for over a decade now, so why switch up the formula when your version of bro-country is somehow even more sterile and lifeless and unconvincing than the majority? I get the need to modernize with the times, and on that note, I'll be the first to admit that Rascal Flatts might just not be for me and if you somehow find this engaging, I'm not going to take that away from you. But for me, outside of 'Powerful Stuff' and maybe 'Night Of Our Lives', this album is a wash. 4/10 and no recommendation here unless you're looking for something of a laugh at some of the missteps on display. But otherwise, there's a lot better pop country than this, and while Rascal Flatts weren't intolerable enough to drive me away from the genre this time, they certainly don't help.


  1. The writing of "I Have Never Been to Memphis" was hardly an "outright lie" for the original primary writer, Eric Holljes of Delta Rae. (Eric's brother and bandmate, Ian, also gets some songwriting credit here.)

    If I recall the story correctly, before his own band was signed and while working with well-known-in-Nashville Marcus Hummon, Eric confided that he'd been feeling compelled to write a song about the western Tennessee city of the song's title, "but I have never been to Memphis."

    Hummon replied: "There's your song."

    I first heard the tune, then known only as "Memphis," in Delta Rae's first live performance of the song at a small holiday show at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in December 2010. I was floored when it didn't make their debut major-label album in 2012, because it was my favorite song Eric's ever written. … I presumed (and was later proven correct) that the song was probably going to first appear in nationwide release performed by an established act. There was maybe more money in it for the Holljes brothers and particularly for Hummon if a well-known artist or group charted the single.

    I think the Rascal Flatts version of the song is OK, but will always prefer "Memphis" arranged the way I heard it first. And I hope it can appear on a future Delta Rae release, now that the formality of letting somebody who is already famous have first dibs is out of the way.

    If you or your readers would like to hear that version, just click:

    P.S. I've always assumed the pronunciation of the Rascal Flatts frontman's stage surname was le-VOX, not levux. ... "Vox" is a standard industry abbreviation for vocals and "Le" the French definite article for "the" -- LeVox, "The Vocals."

    1. Yeah, I've gotten responses suggesting I'm mispronouncing LeVox's name, but my issue is that I haven't heard any consistency on it or how it's spelled. I've seen LeVox, I've seen Levox, not quite sure which one is right.

      And as for the stuff about 'I've Never Been To Memphis', it's good to know about them, thanks for passing that along, I would never have heard any of that. And sure, if Delta Rae drops a new record this year, I'd be happy to take a look.