Wednesday, October 1, 2014

album review: '747' by lady antebellum

I'm starting to get the impression nobody in Lady Antebellum has the slightest damn clue what they're doing.

Now I've talked about this band when I reviewed their album 'Golden' and much of that review was monopolized by the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac that everyone seems to place on this band. And the more I examined the comparisons, the less they seemed to fit - sure, the bands did a fair bit with the interplay between male and female singers, and yeah, they did start with a certain rough-edged authentic power before sliding towards a more pop-friendly direction. But Fleetwood Mac had a loose, rougher edge and they occasionally got weirder with albums like Tusk, a brand of off-beat weirdness that Lady Antebellum will never embrace, given their tendency for more traditional and safe subject matter and slick pop-friendly hooks and production while still staying firmly lodged in the relative security of country music acts like Little Big Town or The Band Perry. 

...or at least that was what I thought was going to happen. The thing is that while Lady Antebellum have always firmly been lodged in pop country, the band has been looking more and more towards pop with every single since Golden with 'Downtown' and 'Compass', definitely a firm cry from their more reserved material like 'Need You Now'. And with the pseudo-rap delivery and very pop production of their leadoff single 'Bartender', I wasn't sure what to expect with their newest album 747, especially considering the lack of producer Paul Worley and frequent cowriter Eric Paslay, the latter being one of the biggest songwriting talents in country music right now. But I figured that Lady Antebellum has always delivered some measure of quality, so 747 was probably worth the look, right?

Well, it was... because it's the sort of album that shows a band that has no goddamn idea what it wants to be and a lot of profound confusion about their image going forward, including burying some of their old, more traditional image in ways I definitely wasn't expecting. Now that's not saying there aren't good songs on 747 by Lady Antebellum, because there definitely are, but it's very telling that of the pop country acts I've reviewed this year, this album shows less in common with Lucy Hale's tightly written hook-driven debut Road Between and more with the flailing desperation of Rascal Flatts' Rewind. In other words, I'm not sure I'd call 747 a good album, but it definitely is an interesting one.

So let's start with the first thing you'll notice right out of the gate: the instrumentation and production. Lady Antebellum have always been a slick band, but from the opening thin-sounding strums and heavy piano chords, it immediately became apparent the band is moving more towards the pop side than country with a busy mix and a focus on percussion  and groove over melody. And this immediately strikes me as a poor choice because Lady Antebellum do write good or at least interesting melodies - sure, 'Bartender' might be strikingly reminiscent of Eric Paslay's much better song 'Good With Wine', but that electric guitar line is a solid backbone for the song that the production has no idea how to utilize. It's very telling that when they ease back on the clatter and let the songs breathe, like on the slow acoustic burn of 'Lie With Me' even with the conventional vocal melody, or the spacious steel-guitar punctuated 'Damn You Seventeen', they get songs that fit much better, especially with Charles Kelley's more rugged vocals. And sure, Shane McAnally contributes a good melody line whenever he can on songs like 'Freestyle' or the more folk-inspired 'Just A Girl', but for the most part the instrumentation falls into either the middle-of-the-road midtempo pablum that clogs the arteries of every Lady Antebellum release, or attempted steps towards a 'modern' sound that sound painfully wedged in. Between the choppy guitar effect on 'Sounded Good At The Time' to the inverted leads at the front of the title track to the extremely lightweight guitars on 'Freestyle' to the way that 'Bartender' has some curdled sourness but nowhere near the grit to make the song feel remotely visceral or believable, it sounds like Lady Antebellum was taking tentative steps towards what they think is popular, but nothing that imply the slightest element of risk.

And if you need more proof than the instrumentation, the songwriting definitely reflects it. And let's get one thing out of the way: even in terms of country acts, Lady Antebellum are usually aggressively uncool and square - I mean, come on, on their brand of bro-country on 'Freestyle', instead of referencing Drake or Lil Wayne they reference Macklemore. And you know, that's fine - sure, it leads to boring tracks like 'One Great Mystery', but it also places the band in an interesting place: they have the populism and relatability to play to middlebrow sensibilities, but with production and a style that's polished enough to reflect a more cosmopolitan worldview. That's why their songs trying to replicate the drama of 'Need You Now' actually manage to work and the southern pandering in 'Down South' rings so unbelievably hollow, half because the production is way too slick and half because it's a song that I don't buy Lady Antebellum making. Granted, I also didn't expect them to have a song like 'Damn You Seventeen', a song where the lack of a sexual commitment or connection led to the fizzling of the relationship and leaving both of them frustrated that they didn't make the move, a song that flies in the face of the puritanical values of 'Just A Kiss' and is a lot more tolerable.

Now granted, Lady Antebellum's middlebrow position doesn't mean they take that many risks or show anywhere close to the heartbreaking vulnerability of their best song, which means that songs like the back-and-forth of 'Long Stretch Of Love', the pseudo bohemian love affair of 'She Is', and the desperate race to get home on the title track can feel a bit like a pose on occasion, albeit being good songs. The best complicated relationship song is 'Lie With Me', mostly because it takes the dual dynamic of the band and shows both the desperation of Charles Kelly trying to hold things together even against Hillary Scott's tired resignation that even despite that last night, it's not going to work out. And you know, I wish they used this dynamic more or at least considered it because the unique interplay between the two singers could make for unique songs in mainstream country. But outside of 'Lie With Me' and 'Damn You Seventeen', the dynamic doesn't really come into play and if anything makes certain songs come as solo tracks featuring opposite gender backing vocals - which definitely doesn't work when you have specifically gendered protagonists or stories like on 'She Is' or 'Just A Girl' or 'Bartender'. It's most amusing on 'Just A Girl, where Hillary Scott is sick of being treated like a one-night stand and just a girl, and to hear Charles Kelly singing the same words in the background is pretty damn funny. And that's not saying the song is bad - even though Karen Jonas made a very similar song with eons more nuance and texture this year with 'I Never Learn' - just that the songwriting could have done more with it.

And this takes us to the fundamental issue with Lady Antebellum, and that concerns the interplay between Hillary Scott and Charles Kelly. I'll be blunt and say that the harmonies on 747 are not strong or interesting, especially when both of them drop into their midrange, but the larger problem is that their voices belong in different brands of country music. Hillary Scott is pop-country, pure and simple, and while I don't love her voice or consider it as emotionally expressive, it works for most of the instrumentation. And yet Charles Kelly is a more expressive, emotive performer and probably belongs either folk rock or the rougher edges of country along the lines of Jason Eady. My point is that they have a unique dynamic and thus sticking both of them into songs where they aren't required to emote or show real drama - because let's be honest, the dramatic situations on this record are pretty thin - strikes me as a major misstep, because forcing their vocal styles to meet in the middle doesn't exactly make exciting or interesting pop country, I'm sorry.

And yet that's the feel I'm getting from this record, a few tentative steps away from formula that was embellished as 'pushing boundaries' before retreating to a formula that plays to neither's biggest strengths in their entirety. And this means chunks of this album can come across as pretty forgettable, especially with the de-emphasis on melody. That said, there are enough high points on this album to bump it up to a decent 6/10, and a recommendation if you're into this brand of music that effectively falls into the country-flavoured adult alternative. But otherwise, Lady Antebellum are capable of better and need to take a risk if they want to stay relevant.

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