Tuesday, October 14, 2014

album review: 'anything goes' by florida georgia line

The time has come.

I've been asked a number of times to weigh in one of the most 'iconic' duo in the short history of bro-country, the act most instantaneously recognizable by so many people as the main 'faces' of the genre. A duo that is responsible for the longest running #1 single on the country charts of all time, the instantly recognizable, mind-bogglingly stupid single 'Cruise'. And with the massive success of the remix of that song with Nelly, they managed to propel bro-country into the mainstream and have become singlehandedly responsible for how most of my generation perceives country music. Yep, the duo is Florida Georgia Line, loved by casual and bro-country fans and detested by pretty much everyone else, and as the only country critic on YouTube, my verdict IS...

Eh, they're not bad. I've made the statement in the past that bro-country in and of itself isn't a bad thing, and there are gradations of quality within the subgenre. You get acts that do it well, and acts that screw it up, and unsurprisingly for being the biggest name in the format, Florida Georgia Line fall somewhere in the middle. Believe it or not, I didn't hate 'Cruise' when it first debuted and I still don't hate it, mostly because it's too blissfully moronic to hate. You don't always need intelligence to make good pop or country music, and 'Cruise' kind of worked for what it was. See, Florida Georgia Line had two big advantages in their favour: a ton of enthusiasm, and a certain amount of authenticity. They weren't exactly polished or had a lot of dignity, but you could tell they believed what they were selling and didn't really come across as obnoxious. That's why the remix of 'Cruise' and the Luke Bryan collaboration 'This Is How We Roll' left something of a sour taste in my mouth - they stripped away the country twang and replaced it with stiff drum machines and egregious Autotune, and while the original melodic structure of the songs held up, they lost a lot of flavour. Plus, nobody wants to hear Florida Georgia Line rap - ever.

But that was last year, and you better believe I was curious to see how Florida Georgia Line would be able to translate the narrow shelf-life of bro-country into something that'd be able to last beyond the trend. And at first glimpse, it looked like the band would be able to pull it off, because the lead-off single 'Dirt' looked like it was going in a very different direction. But then I started to hear interviews from Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine and affiliated with Republic Nashville, Florida Georgia Line's label, that his comments surrounding the necessity for country to diversify was directed at everyone except Florida Georgia Line. The duo seemed to be getting a free pass to pump out more of the same, and thus I didn't know what to expect with their newest album Anything Goes - so what happened?

Well, you get pretty much exactly what you'd expect from Florida Georgia Line - a bunch of loud, brash bro-country songs that are only really distinctive from the rest I've reviewed by the fact that Florida Georgia Line have more unique personality than a Cole Swindell and aren't as obnoxious as a Thomas Rhett or Chase Rice. It's immediately obvious why Scott Borchetta was backpedaling with regards to Florida Georgia Line on this record, because with few exceptions, this is nothing you haven't heard a dozen times or more this year. That said, there are legitimately good songs on this album that don't just break the bro-country mold, but show the duo as capable of a lot more... it's just a damn shame they only wrote one of them.

So let's start with instrumentation and production, where if you don't like the traditional trademarks of Florida Georgia Line - high twangy banjos, a lot of electric guitars, a mix of drum machines and drums in the background, and cheap sounding vocal effects - a large chunk of this album will definitely not be to your taste. I'll give the duo this, they can compose some pretty damn catchy melodies that sit at the front of the mix - but that's because everything sits at the front of the mix, courtesy of producer Joey Moi, a Canadian producer who previously worked with Nickelback and fellow country act Jake Owen. And just like Jake Owen's Days Of Gold, the production is cluttered, loud, and yet somehow highlights way more texture than you'd ever expect. The unfortunate problem with this is that Florida Georgia Line use way more electronic elements than Jake Owen does, and where songs like 'Beachin', 'Ghost Town', and 'Life Of The Party' all had room to breathe, Florida Georgia Line's mixes feel overstuffed and it only highlights the jarring contrast between organic and synthetic instrumentation.

But that's not saying there aren't instrumental moments I liked. As goofy as 'Sun Daze' sounded with the whistle and steel drums, it's the sort of lightweight track that honestly could have coasted on without the drum machines, and the grit of 'Dirt' with the organ was pretty potent in its own right. And that's not counting the solid melody on 'Sippin' On Fire', the more somber quiet vibe on 'Bumpin' The Night' with bigger production, the sharp edge of bitterness of 'Like You Ain't Even Gone' that proved surprisingly potent thanks to the ghostly keyboard line and high strumming on the guitars, and the genuinely excellent rich spacious sound of 'Confession', the album highlight that proves Florida Georgia Line could easily jump into the groove-driven vibe of Dierks Bentley or Dustin Lynch and do a pretty solid job there. That all said, it's painfully obvious the handclap percussion and gang vocals Florida Georgia Line use is from a preset, especially on the closer 'Every Day', and they definitely should not be using any minor chord progressions, because it adds a layer of sleaze to their delivery that makes them significantly less likable.

Because here's the thing: Florida Georgia Line would not have been able to supersize their careers like they have if it wasn't for that likability factor. The two are broadly sketched country boys that some would say border on caricature - especially with Tyler Hubbard's heavier accent and bigger personality, which can get a little grating at points and makes me wish he gave his partner Brian Kelley more to do - but when it's coming from a sincere place, it gains a shred of populism that the duo runs with as far as they can. Now the problem with going broad is that it tends to highlight a limited range of personality - and really, considering the lyrics, it's not like they need a huge range - but on songs that demand more range like 'Confession' and 'Like You Ain't Even Gone' they do surprisingly well. That said, I'd be lying if I said that the harmonies between the two singers are anything close to interesting, and like whenever they add autotune to a more unique voice, it sounds incredibly forced when they add pitch correction to Tyler Hubbard's voice.

But here's where we come to the lyrics... and here's the thing: to say these songs have anything close to sophistication or complicated emotional dynamics or even much intelligence would be stretching the truth at best. And yeah, there are definitely moments where the lyrics get pretty damn stupid: any reference to blending hip-hop and oldschool country feels incredibly forced; saying 'you got your smell on' is perhaps the most unflattering way to describe cologne I've heard in years; and describing a girl as your 'good good' is just stupid just as describing a girl as 'your angel' is incredibly played out. Hell, even the more serious songs like 'Dirt' aren't immune to this, because as much as it is a song about heartland pride and remembering one's roots, it's still a song - quite literally - about dirt. So why aren't I as bothered by some of the awkward lyrics as I was by similar content from Chase Rice? Well, part of it is a feel of cornball innocence behind Florida Georgia Line - they're clumsy and definitely goofy at points, but I don't get the sort of leering douchebaggery or lechery that can put me off some elements of bro-country. Sure, the lyrics imply he's getting stoned or he wants to get laid, but there's nothing all that explicit about it. Hell, the lyrics seem a lot more focused on describing the scene around them rather than the girls outside of some cursory details - all the better for wish fulfillment populism - but at the same time they don't really get as sleazy and feel more populist. It makes songs like 'Bumpin' The Night' and the wistful 'Smoke' feel surprisingly genuine, and it makes a song like 'Confession' have legitimate weight as they ponders his past and reflects. But here's where we hit the big stumbling block for this album, in for as much as Florida Georgia Line can set the stage, telling stories beyond that seem to default to partying and girls, with only the darker track 'Like You Ain't Even Gone' seeming to highlight some of the emptiness of running wild without the right person. And that can mean any emotional resonance I get from the writing on these tracks is painfully thin as well.

So in the end... look, there's a limit to how hard I can be on Anything Goes by Florida Georgia Line. The production is way more synthetic than I'd prefer, but there's also a fair bit of organic texture cutting through and some pretty potent melodies. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelly are broad and corny and lack subtlety, but it lends them a certain naive charm that makes their songwriting feel sincere. And yeah, it's all as dumb as sand, but it ultimately feels harmless - but then again, I do see points where the duo could have pushed a little harder and yet they didn't, content to stick with what works. So for that, I'm giving them a strong 5/10 and an extremely tentative recommendation, mostly to their fans who'd love to see them write the same brand of songs until the end of time. And all the power to them - there's clearly a market for their brand of bro-country, and they are pretty good at it - but at the same time you need to ask the question what Florida Georgia Line are doing that sets them apart beyond being louder and twangier than their competition - because at some point in the near future, that won't just be enough.

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