Wednesday, September 24, 2014

album review: 'the big revival' by kenny chesney

Okay, if you've been listening to country music beyond just the past year or two, you've probably noticed that certain acts tend to take their party/relaxation songs to the beach or the Caribbean. It's lightweight, it's generally harmless, and occasionally it can be a fair amount of fun if you get acts like The Zac Brown Band or Jake Owen. Then again, both of these acts realize it isn't exactly a good thing to spend too much time at the beach, which is why Jake Owen's most recent single is an acoustic ballad and the Zac Brown Band are recording with Dave Grohl.

But you occasionally run into acts in country music that don't ever seem to leave the beach, and undoubtedly the most popular of these acts is Kenny Chesney. He may have started out in neotraditional country back the 90s, but in the very early 2000s he found a niche in lightweight country that seemed destined for all-inclusive resorts and cruise lines. And to his credit, it was a niche that fit him well, and he and his arsenal of cowriters produced a fair number of pretty good songs.

But as the decade wore on, astute listeners came to realize the beach for Kenny Chesney became less of a lane and more of a crutch, especially as he pumped out album after album of material that all sounded pretty similar. Sure, he'd occasionally drop an interesting collaboration or strike a more melancholy pose, but in the fourteen album released across his career, about eight or nine of them were firmly lodged in the beach. Kenny Chesney so thoroughly dropped himself into the Jimmy Buffett mold that there were many accusation of ripping Buffett off, but I'd argue that's not quite fair. As much as Jimmy Buffett has written some asinine songs, he wasn't afraid to be loose and silly and weird, and occasionally he did write some stellar songs. Kenny Chesney to me has always seemed like more of a workman with a little more dignity - he'll put out accessible, solid enough albums with plenty of songs that miss the point of 'Margaritaville', but he's never going to write 'A Pirate Looks At Forty' or a 'Cheeseburger In Paradise', and that means I've never really been that interested in him.

That said, Kenny Chesney's newest single 'American Kids' did seem like a bit of a departure for the guy and while he only has four writing credits on this album, he is working with some of the better songwriters in Nashville right now, so I figured what the hell and gave 'The Big Revival' a chance - what did I find?

Well, it depends on what you're expecting, because at the end of the day it's a Kenny Chesney album and a massive chunk of this album is devoted to getting sloshed at the beach and keeping that breezy, good time tone. And if you're going to this album for just that... yeah, okay, you're going to get that but at the same time there's stuff on the edges of the album that does deserve a fair amount of deeper scrutiny, both good and bad.

So let's start with Kenny Chesney himself - and look, just like Tim McGraw, I completely get why Kenny Chesney has stuck around as long as he has. His voice is warm, generally pleasant, and it's got enough broad emotional expressiveness to work for his material. Of course, it generally helps matters that the songs on this record don't require a huge emotional range or massive investment, but Kenny Chesney does have enough charisma to make kicking back with moonshine and beer can chicken - no, I'm not kidding - on a beach somewhere seem relaxing. And it's definitely good to see very little if any traces of pitch correction on Kenny Chesney's voice, because it definitely would not fit the atmosphere of this record.

And that's one thing that did surprise me about this album in a good way: the instrumentation actually has a fair bit of a pulse and some real texture, especially in the electric guitars. Sure, it's more polished than I'd normally like to see in country, and the guitars are mostly lodged in the upper end of the mix and don't exactly deliver many melodies that I'd consider all that special or unique, but there are a few high points. I liked the melody on 'Til It's Gone', the acoustic vibe of 'Wild Child' featuring Grace Potter and on 'Don't It', the breezy lightweight feel of 'Beer Can Chicken' that mostly keeps the heavier guitars behind the acoustic strums, which is the best possible choice, and the simple but effective piano melody on 'If This Bus Could Talk'. None of it is aiming to be that substantial, and on that note, it mostly succeeds, but there are a couple issues. For instance, the lead-off single 'American Kids' does feature a lot of high-end textured acoustic strumming and banjo and backing shouts that recalls the folk leanings that have coloured other Shane McAnally-written tunes... so why the hell is there a drum machine on the track for the bass? The worst is probably 'Rock Bottom', which might feature some decent guitar snarl but also features some of the worst horn presets I've ever heard - which is a shame because the song does attempt some heavier edge and that completely undercuts it.

But then again, some of the heaviness might be misplaced on this album, which takes us to lyrics and... look, at some point, you just need to throw up your hands and walk away because the songwriting is thin on this album. I'll give Kenny Chesney's songwriters this, they can occasionally provide a pretty impressive level of detail to set the scene, like on 'American Kids', 'Don't It', and 'If This Bus Could Talk', but for the most part these songs are all window dressing around the central conceit of hanging out and partying, and that can make many of the tracks seem pretty shallow. Now granted, it's hard to judge a shallow party song for being just that, but without gripping melodies or intriguing lyrics or anything close to a story, the songs just read as rote checklists of various country stuff and I'm sorry, but that doesn't stick with me. Now there are points where it can kind of work: 'If This Bus Could Talk' retraces Kenny Chesney's path to stardom and has some pretty solid weight even though the emotional resonance is kind of sidelined by the silly image of a talking bus. And 'Wild Child' isn't bad either - sure, the qualifiers of this girl running wild is based upon standard modern hippie tropes like unrecognizable music unless you've been to Bonnaroo or Burning Man, but like Danielle Bradbery's 'Wild Boy', it's at least self-aware enough to know any relationships with this wild girl probably won't last.

But there's a larger issue with this album and that's in the framing of some of the more ambitious songs. 'American Kids' is probably the best example: it tries to paint a realistic, textured picture of the normality of these kids' lives and how it isn't all sunshine and daisies, but that same upbeat spirit prevents the song from really saying anything or just going on pure populism, and it's not within spitting distance of similar tracks like 'Merry Go 'Round' by Kacey Musgraves that actually had something to say about those American kids. Or take 'Save It For A Rainy Day', a song where Chesney gets dumped and would try to process his emotions but hey, everyone's out on the dock and there's cold beer and you can't think about those things now! Compare this to 'Life Of The Party' by Jake Owen, where there's actual emotional stakes because Jake Owen's still in real pain over the breakup and he's forcing himself to be the life of the party to stop himself from thinking about it - there's no stakes to the Kenny Chesney song, and thus I can't get invested in it. And that's before we get to the framing of the real duds on this album. 'Rock Bottom' describes the narrator drinking himself into a hole because of a breakup, but it's suddenly okay because he's got a new girl from California and he already bounced back and it feels so weightless it's not even funny. And that's not even touching on the opening title track, by far the song that does not belong on this record under any circumstances, a song about snake handling in church that glorifies the practice. For my non-American viewers, snake handling is a process that has been outlawed in most sane states in the Union by which rattlesnakes and vipers are held in church and it's a sign of your faith by which you could hold such a snake and not get bitten. Those of have gotten bitten and died - and by today's count it's over seventy people, although that number is difficult to verify - are simply described as it being their time to die. Now, I'm Catholic and I believe in an interpretation of certain Biblical teachings as metaphorical as described by scholars, and that Jesus was a smart dude who expressed that people use some goddamn common sense! Now it's somewhat debatable how much Chesney is glorifying this practice - that's a matter of interpreting tone and there are points where you can make the argument he's winking at the audience, which is a little insulting in its own way - but when you have a chorus that features the lyric 'Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead' and you're a songwriter who filled the rest of his album with songs about beer can chickens, you're in way over your head. This isn't like Brad Paisley's 'Those Crazy Christians' which at least tried for a nuanced picture!

Ugh... so putting that song aside, this album is the sort of record that many would describe as 'critic-proof' - it's shallow beach-friendly party music and there's a limit to how much you can take it seriously. But that was the same defense used for a lot of bro-country and I've always maintained there's a standard of quality to this! And considering Kenny Chesney has churned out fourteen albums over the course of the last twenty years and most of them have been in this vein, I've heard this done before and done better. And combined with the other issues across this record, it's a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you need your standard dose of Kenny Chesney. And while it might be more consistent than his pseudo-reggae experiment last year, The Big Revival doesn't exactly impress me, and might be a sign I was way too hard on Brad Paisley or Jake Owen. They might be making shallow party songs on occasion, but there's more to them than this.

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