Saturday, August 30, 2014

album review: 'moonshine in the trunk' by brad paisley

So I want you all to imagine that you're a world-famous country singer. Easy enough, I know, but imagine that you've managed to release a series of critically well-received records, albums that straddled commercial and critical appeal... and yet, you want to go further. You want to push the boundaries of country music while still maintaining commercial accessibility to country radio. You've already released a well-received instrumental album, but you're not willing to give up airplay to be that weird, at least not in your instrumentation. In the mean time, you're kind of stuck and very quickly getting bored with your genre of choice. What do you do?

Many critics have hypothesized this is the internal dichotomy Brad Paisley is struggling with right now. Ever since the mid-2000s, he's been straining and pushing at the edges of what is traditionally defined as mainstream country, adding more instrumentation and songwriting subjects, which culminated in last year's album Wheelhouse, a release largely overshadowed by 'Accidental Racist' with LL Cool J, a song attempting to tackle race relationships and pissing off everyone.

But people who have followed this series likely know that I didn't dislike Wheelhouse as an album - in fact, it featured two songs that featured highly on my year-end list of my favourite songs of the year, 'Karate' and 'Southern Comfort Zone', and there were other songs on that album that were close to the list too. The fact is that Brad Paisley as a songwriter still has a knack for a ridiculously catchy hook, a decent bit of lyrical nuance, and some interesting instrumentation and production - if he releases a record, at least it's not going to be boring.

So even though I wasn't impressed at all by his debut single 'River Bank', I made sure to give his new album Moonshine In The Trunk a lot of attention: how is it?

Okay, this is frustrating, because if we follow the story of said artist straining against the boundaries of country music, Moonshine In The Trunk is the half-hearted attempt to say 'screw it' and try to find a comfortable fit within the genre... and yet there are enough moments on this album that show he is still wishing he could push those boundaries farther. In other words, this album is defined by its contradiction: half jokey and silly party songs filled with broad comedy that Brad Paisley could do in his sleep; and the other half gestures at earnest or more sincere moments that are a fair bit stronger and really highlight how half-assed the rest of the album is. In other words, it's definitely not one of Paisley's stronger albums, and is nowhere near the genre-pushing subject matter and sound that defined Wheelhouse, an album that may have had failed experiments but tried a lot harder than this.

So let's start with Paisley himself - and honestly, he's a good country singer. Easy charm and charisma, real sincerity when he needs it, and he has long had a good handle on his brand of cornball humor. Perhaps too good of a handle, because even for a guy who can tolerate his fair share of ridiculous jokes, this album pushes it for me and Paisley's tone alternating between being a little too exaggerated and nonchalant to the point of not trying can get a little exasperating. What this means is that a few songs that it gets tricky to find out when Paisley is joking or not, like on '4WP', a song that feels straight out of the bro-country hookup playbook, but it's played so broad with squelchy synths and percussion and Paisley sampling in his own song 'Mud On The Tires' and actually using the word 'jorts'. On the other hand, you have the more acoustic leaning of the Emmylou Harris duet 'Gone Green', where Paisley's more restrained and the social commentary is sharper and yet you could imagine the 'environmentalist redneck' situations in the song to be almost comical. 

Granted, even when you can tell this album is going for humour, it's less clever and more broad slapstick if anything, not helped by lyrics that can feel pretty damn clunky. The opener 'Crushin' It' and the Carrie Underwood duet 'High Life' fall into this issue, the latter song ending with the equivalent of a Chick-Fil-A commercial as both artists talk about what they like at the restaurant Paisley scammed in the story of the song. And what's frustrating is that there are a few moments where the album does approach some solid vibes until you start asking questions. The title track really has a great driving beat and energy with lyrics that recall The Dukes Of Hazard... until you realize the entire song is just him and his girl pretending to be outlaws with moonshine. 'Cover Girl' has a similar issue, as it tells the story of a girl becoming a cover girl celebrity and Paisley getting shoved out of the spotlight... but there's no payoff verse to the setup, so it ends up feeling like we only got two thirds of the story. Honestly, when Paisley keeps things simple, like the party song 'Limes', the more sentimental love tracks 'Perfect Storm' and 'You Shouldn't Have To', and the incredibly earnest hopefulness of 'American Flag On The Moon', he gets his best songs, although I'll admit I have a real soft spot for songs featuring space-age optimism. And to Paisley's credit, he can sell these sorts of songs effortlessly because's got a natural populist, so it's hard to dislike, even on songs like 'Shattered Glass' which basically screams like a song that is destined for a duet with a final contestant on his TV show Rising Star and like all singing competition songs is aggressively bland.

Of course, the other element in Paisley's favour is production and instrumentation, where my biggest concerns were for this record. And those of you who were concerned that synthesizers and drum machines were going to creep in... well, they do, and I'd be lying if I said they were always cohesive. But if we're looking for a record that can incorporate electronic elements and do it reasonably well, I'd look at Moonshine In The Trunk, and that's for two reason: the fact Paisley always keeps the melody at the forefront; and he's not afraid to use rougher tones in the drum machine and guitars. That heaviness gives the mix a surprisingly amount of balance and texture, and while there are points where it feels a little compressed, it often feels surprisingly cohesive. The title track might start with sampled fragments, until the guitars, banjos and fiddles jump in for a quick-paced rollicking song, and songs like 'Limes' and 'River Bank' pull off a similar balance. The instrumentation only suffers when the melodies get a little too conventional and lazy, but even by that standard Paisley's not afraid to throw in a good guitar solo to spice things up.

But here's why ultimately I'm a little disappointed with this record, because for all of Paisley's frustrations with the state of modern country and his desire to expand the boundaries, there are moments where he touches into something different that works. Even though 'Perfect Storm' starts out with synth lines and sandy percussion, the track has a phenomenal balance and a bigness that's a natural fit for Paisley's earnest power and the rumbles of thunder at the end of the chorus are great musical punctuation. And yeah, I'll admit the child choir in 'American Flag On The Moon' is cheesy as hell, but the song's spacey production, subtle reverb, and echoing melodies give a ton of real power along the lines of Dierks Bentley's 'Here On Earth'. What these songs show is that if Paisley wanted to push the country sound forward, he's got a template for something that showcases melody, allows the incorporation of modern sounds, and is a perfect fit for his vocals...

And yet he spent the album making bad jokes and effectively running on autopilot, and that my big issue with Moonshine In The Trunk. Sure, I respect that Paisley can do whatever he wants, and if he wanted to kick back and make a party album, I'll judge it on that merit. And on that level, this album is pretty good and generally enjoyable. But when you put it on the same record as songs that strive for something bigger and actually stick the landing, the party feel of this album becomes a lot more hollow. That said, Moonshine In The Trunk does fulfill its intention which means I'm giving this album a light 7/10... but man, Brad Paisley is capable of better. I just wish he showed more of it.

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