Monday, June 9, 2014

album review: 'road between' by lucy hale

So I've mentioned in the past that I really don't watch a lot of TV, on the count of not owning one. When I do sit down to watch TV... well, of currently running shows, that list is pretty thin. Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mad Men, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the occasional episode of Glee or The Big Bang Theory, but with Community's unfortunate cancellation and How I Met Your Mother's finale getting all the more frustrating every time I think about it, my TV schedule looks pretty thin right now.

Now one of the shows I haven't watched is Pretty Little Liars, the ABC thriller drama based on a series of teen novels of which the most I know about are the mostly hilarious and occasionally insightful recaps I read over at Autostraddle. And from that peripheral information, I discovered that one of the actresses of the show, Lucy Hale, was going to be releasing a country debut album Road Between

Now, normally I don't cover these sorts of albums - I make it a priority to mostly ignore this sort of soap-opera-to-music fare, mostly because it tends to be pretty plastic, assembled by committee in order to give young actresses another creative outlet - and especially when coming from Hollywood Records, which has a really bad reputation for this sort of production. But considering I cover whatever comes out of the increasingly large number of singing competitions which often has the same assembly process, and since I am the country music critic on YouTube who actually will give this stuff the time of day, and since I'm in favour of highlighting more women in country music, even if it's just pop country, I gave Road Between by Lucy Hale a chance. After all, it's got a song by Kacey Musgraves on it, it can't be that bad, right?

Well, no, it's not bad. In fact, I can make this statement with little qualification: this will be one of the most underrated albums of the year, because Lucy Hale's Road Between is goddamn excellent. My god, I did not see this coming, but putting aside lowered expectations entirely, this record can stand on its own as one of the best pop country releases of the year - hell, forget that, one of the best country albums of the year, period. In a just world, this would be the sort of album that makes Lucy Hale a goddamn superstar, because I was floored by how incredibly strong this debut album is. No, I have not taken leave of my senses, this album clicked for me in a way like... well, like how Taylor Swift clicked for so many people.

Because let me stress this, this album plays in much of the Taylor Swift template - or well, what used to be Taylor Swift's template, and I get the infuriating feeling that most people will dismiss the album on that basis. But like it or not, what made Taylor Swift's material so approachable and work at its better moments was that it felt like it was written and delivered by a teenage girl for teenage girls. Lucy Hale is a little older, and the immediate benefit of that is that she doesn't nearly sound as 'cute' in her delivery - a little older and deeper, a little more seasoned, and while her voice isn't stellar, it does convey a surprising emotional range, from bubbly upbeat passion to melancholy sadness to seething anger. And man, she sells it - Lucy Hale doesn't quite have the biggest range in the world, but personality can make up for that and she surprisingly won me over here.

Now granted, it helps matters that the production and instrumentation is - for a pop country record - shockingly on point. With the exception of the slight fuzzy synth line on 'That's What I Call Crazy' that should have been stripped away, the production calls more back to neotraditional country with the inclusion of strings, banjos, accordions, and even bluesy organ lines cropping up! But what's more impressive is the melodic compositions, because they are exactly what you should see in mainstream pop country: a tight melodic focus that uses clean yet textured tones to gently support Lucy Hale's voice and never overwhelm her. And there are so many little moments that just work for me: I love the rollicking shimmer of the guitars on 'From The Backseat', I love the subtle melancholy balance between the various instrumental tones of 'Nervous Girls', 'Just Another Song', and 'Red Dress', I dig it whenever the organ cuts through or the major focus it takes on 'My Little Black Wedding Dress', I really appreciate the plucked tone of the title track, and 'Lie A Little Better' takes a Shania Twain-inspired groove and adds a bluesy touch that just works! And while I won't say the production is stellar - this is pop country, after all, and I would always appreciate more texture in the mix - but it's a significant step above most simply by avoiding the obvious pitfalls: no gratuitous Autotune, no ridiculous reverb or synth lines, just well-balanced backing vocals that are only there when they're needed.

But that's not what won me over - nope, that comes down to the songwriting, which outside of Eric Paslay might be some of the best in mainstream country that I've seen this year. Simply on a poetic level, the forced rhymes and corniness are minimalized and the sheer sense of flow that the lyrics and chorus have is astounding. And while Lucy Hale didn't write the majority of songs on this record - only three writing credits out of fourteen - the contributors did put in some great work here. And as much as I want to praise Lucy Hale's songwriters for avoiding all of the missteps that continuously plagued Taylor Swift's songwriting - clumsy meter, painfully adolescent metaphors, the constant comparisons of her love stories to fairy tales - in reality, they just brought in the two things that was missing from a lot of Taylor Swift's material: maturity and reality. It lends real weight to the self-doubt and warring emotions of 'Nervous Girls', the wistful regret of 'Red Dress', the uncertainty of the title track, and the aching sadness of 'Just Another Song' and 'My Little Black Wedding Dress', the latter of which has a lot of surprisingly sharp subtext regarding wedding culture and the expectations of women in this area. And it's these moments of clever subtext that make the songs really stand out, even if it is a little cheesy at points like the head-over-heels-in-love tracks 'Loved', 'From The Backseat', and 'Lie A Little Better'. Take 'Kiss Me', a song about two exes who over-thought their relationship into extinction and who are trying to get on with their lives even though they both want each other back - or maybe they don't and it's only a moment of tipsy longing from Hale, and the fact the song cleverly sidesteps that question is a moment of nuance I appreciated. And then there's 'Love Tonight', a campfire song that deftly flips the stereotypes behind bro-country hookups and plays her intentions straightforward, and it ends up being shockingly progressive and a really great fit for Lucy Hale. 

Now I do have a few small nitpicks with the songwriting and the album as a whole, but to fair, they're way smaller than I was expecting. 'Goodbye Gone' is a good enough kiss-off song about getting back at a cheating fiance or husband, but the chorus could have been a little tighter and the song could have afforded some heavier guitars to cash in on that vicious catharsis. And there are a few clumsy lyrics on the opening single's chorus 'You Sound Good To Me' and the bonus track 'Feels Like Home' that knock them back a bit, even though on the latter track I think Lucy Hale captures that homegrown feeling and loneliness being in LA a lot better than Miley ever did with 'Party In The USA'. And as well as 'Red Dress' is written and orchestrated and as much as I like Joe Nichols, he's really not the best fit for that song, mostly because the age difference makes the song a little distracting. I mean, come on, you couldn't have gotten Scotty McCreery for the interplay instead, his clear lower tones would have probably been a better fit!

But look, I can't believe I'm saying this, but this album is great. There's not a bad song on Road Between by Lucy Hale and I can't deny it really got to me in a way that Taylor Swift never really managed. The instrumentation has great flow, Lucy Hale is a solid singer, and the songwriting has more maturity and nuance than anyone could have predicted. For me, this album is a strong 8/10 and a high recommendation. Folks, I know it's easy to look at the artist and the show from where she's coming and the label where she's signed and pass premature judgement, but this album is exactly what modern country radio needs right now. Go out and buy Lucy Hale's Road Between - I promise you will not regret it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Great review! I loved the album too. The part you said about it being one of the underrated albums this year is so true. I wish more people gave this a try. Btw, I'm a PLL fan too :p