Thursday, September 11, 2014

album review: 'where it's at' by dustin lynch

So let's talk a bit about labels in country music. Like in any other genre, you've got your big labels and your independents, but unlike other genres, you don't really have one independent label that has accumulated tons of critical acclaim or real powerhouse artists under their banner. In other words, country doesn't seem to have a label like alt and indie rock's Sub Pop, or rap's TDE, or pop rock's Fueled by Ramen. 

But that's not saying some indie labels don't have power in mainstream country - far from it, which takes us to Broken Bow Records. Founded in 1999, it has grown most prominent in recent years for signing Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, Craig Morgan, and the artists we're going to be talking about today, Dustin Lynch. Now Lynch comes as a bit of an odd arrival to mainstream country music, in that he released his debut in 2012 just before the bro-country wave took over and subsequently collapsed. If anything he seemed to be looking more for the neotraditional smooth adult country where you'd usually find Chris Young or Blake Shelton, especially off of his highest charting single from that album 'Cowboys and Angels', a pretty solid song that had a bit of lyrical clumsiness but made up for it with great guitar tones and instrumentation all around. It was enough to get me curious about his follow-up album Where It's At, which was set to be released this year albeit with a much less impressive lead-off single. What did concern me was that his number of writing credits had fallen off significantly, from well over half of his self-titled debut down to just a third of this record. But then again, he was working with established country songwriters, which could mean good things, including with longtime Dierks Bentley collaborator Brett Beavers. So I gave it a look - what did I get?

Honestly, I don't know what I was expecting, but I was definitely surprised by this album... and the more I think about it, the less I should have been surprised because Dustin Lynch's Where It's At isn't exactly all that far removed from your standard bro-country record, at least in terms of its lyrical content. But the presentation of that content, both in terms of some of the songwriting and especially the instrumentation, feels different enough to elevate this album into something pretty damn unique, especially within mainstream country music. At the same time though, I'd hesitate to call this record great or even very good all the way through - while it is different, I'd be cautious to call it a true success.

So let's start with the element of this record that's inevitably going to be the most divisive: the instrumentation and production. To put it mildly, it's a very slick country record - while there are definitely fiddles and steel guitars and even organs that actually do have texture, this album definitely has more than its fair share of swirling, spacious electronic elements that are definitely an odd fit with the country instrumentation. Hell, for the song 'To The Sky', I honestly thought with the guitar tones and production I had grabbed the wrong record and was somehow listening to a Poets of the Fall album! And then I remembered that I love Poets of the Fall and the instrumentation clicked with me phenomenally well, and it's easy to say way: a strong melodic focus, the electronic elements are downplayed and used only to subtly accentuate the atmosphere, and the production while polished never comes across as incredibly synthetic or downplaying the organic sound. What also helps is that the guitar tone is light enough to balance well against the keyboards, and drum machines rarely crop up if ever, which gives the album a lot of loose, breezy energy, which is damn near perfect for its collection of party tracks. And from 'To The Sky' to the prominent strumming against the bouncy percussion of 'Halo' to the organ supporting the verses 'Right Where We Want It' to the classy elegance of the strings on 'She Wants A Cowboy' to the earnest pianos on 'Middle of Nowhere' down to the stripped back guitars of 'Your Daddy's Boots'. Yeah, there are points where the production does get a little too slick - I like 'Sing It To Me', but it's a little too synthetic even for me, especially in the vocal production - but more often than not, the electronic elements feel cohesive in crafting a lightweight sound that manages to work and feels earnest.

And that's probably how I'd describe Dustin Lynch too. I wouldn't call him a tremendous talent behind the microphone - he probably could do to push himself a little harder on some songs, which often doesn't happen given the subject matter - but he never sounds really sounds sleazy or like a douchebag, and some of the multi-tracked harmonies are pretty well-composed. I did mention before that the vocal production is not stellar - the AutoTune can be a little obvious and that should never be the case in country music - but he's got an earnest charm that often works in his favour.

And that takes us to the lyrics and themes of this album... and where I feel this album really could have done better. Now don't get me wrong, from a songwriting standpoint, most of the lyrics have a good easygoing flow that prevents them from being too unlikable, and there are few songs that aggressively annoy me. I mean, the hook of the title track can get annoying, and 'Mind Reader' contains just as many of the bad pick-up lines that Dustin Lynch later tries to brush off on 'What You Wanna Hear', another bro-country pick-up track that tries to show more cleverness than it really has. But let's be honest, the majority of this album lives and dies by the bro-country party-and-hookup playbook and all the cliches that come with it, and a full two thirds of this album falls straight into that territory. Now that's not exactly bad - I like the gentle challenge of 'Halo' and the bemused confusion of 'Middle of Nowhere', and solid enough melodies make 'After Party', 'Right Where We Want It', and 'Sing It To Me' passable enough bro-country tracks - but I'd be lying if I hadn't said I'd heard them all before.

But even the songs venturing outside of that template aren't exactly original or material I haven't heard before. 'She Wants A Cowboy' is a song where the girl forsakes the city glam for the country and 'American Prayer' and 'World to Me' are songs pandering to country lifestyles and God and family and prayer in ways I feel have been have done to death over the past decade. Now I'm not saying these songs are bad - objectively, I can't say they are - but they suffer from a broad lack of originality in the storytelling and presentation, albeit with solid melodies behind them. The one album standout that does provide interesting content is 'Your Daddy's Boots', where he's at his wedding and watching his new wife dance with his father-in-law and wondering how he can fill that role in being the most important guy in the girl's life. And it definitely helps Dustin Lynch has the sincerity to back the track up.

But overall, we're dealing with a collection of pretty lightweight bro-country tracks - admittedly presented pretty well and with some production and melodies behind them, but nothing all that substantial and potent. And if that was Dustin Lynch's goal, well, I can't deny he did reasonably well here in crafting at least an unique brand of bro-country in terms of the sound. But that said, I can't help but feel that if Lynch had more writing credits and was able to push his creative muscles a little further, we could have gotten some great subject matter to back up the more interesting production and this record could have had a little more impact. I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a decent recommendation is appropriate, if you're looking for bro-country with a bit more flavour and melody but more of the same substance. Let's just hope that Dustin Lynch can push his songwriting a little further going forward.

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