Monday, October 6, 2014

album review: 'bringing back the sunshine' by blake shelton

You know, the more you think about it, the more Blake Shelton looks like one of the luckiest guys in country music - because at first or even a second look, his career should have ended years ago.

And that's not a slam against him, but as country music has evolved over the past decade, Blake Shelton has managed to ride the wave with uncanny ability. He started off the very viable 'easy listening country' mold with his debut in 2001, with the added benefit of having a few killer singles like 'Austin' to get his career going. From there, he coasted into rowdier material as the 2000s continued on, toeing the line between Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. And while he definitely racked up a fair share of hits on country radio, the mainstream didn't embrace him in the same way, and as the decade wore on, Blake Shelton seemed to fade into the background. So in a move that in all fairness should not have worked as well as it did, he signed on to be a judge on a little singing competition on NBC called The Voice.

And almost overnight, Blake Shelton rocketed back into the starlight, and it's fairly easy to see why. Tim McGraw's career on Curb Records was sputtering, country had never been as ready for his brand of slick, well-produced music that could be corny as hell but was backed with real charisma, and The Voice did a lot to enhance his profile. Coupled with a marriage to the more talented and interesting Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton seemed to have all his stars aligned.

Then came his 2013 album Based On A True Story... and that big hit single 'Boys 'Round Here', and it was the crossover smash for which Blake Shelton had been waiting. Even though that album really wasn't all that far removed from his typical midtempo material, Shelton latched onto the bro-country wagon for a monster single, and coupled with the fact he shot his mouth off on the subject more than he should, he seemingly became one of the biggest symbols of Nashville's embrace of bro-country overnight. 

But now it's 2014, the bro-country well has seemingly run dry, and while Blake Shelton was able to smoothly pivot back to his usual material, it left me curious where the hell he was going with his career. Let's face it, Blake Shelton isn't exactly a trailblazer in country, and with the country sound fragmenting even further, where did Shelton take his newest record Bringing Back The Sunshine?

Well, he took it in precisely the last direction I was hoping he would - in other words, Blake Shelton tried, with this album, to milk whatever's left of the bro-country phenomenon and drive it into the ground. And yet since he's not willing to commit fully to it, his record turns into a weirdly awkward mess, half driven by sentimental songs that fit on his narrow edge of good albeit corny, and the other half some of the most moronic songs he's ever recorded. And the frustrating fact for me is that the execution of it is less interesting than it might seem, leaving Bringing Back The Sunshine a record that's both annoying and oddly inessential. 

So let's start with Blake Shelton himself - the biggest redeeming factor of this album. Honestly, he's lucky he's as charismatic and as good of a singer as he is, because on his own, he saves many of these tracks from being charmless and bland by having a lot of energy and real sincerity, with vocal production that rarely goes for the obviously synthetic route, which is a welcome change. Now this can be a double-edged sword, because while it lends his love songs a certain degree of believability, it also means that some of his sleazier bro-country songs are a certain degree of insufferable, mostly because his brand of it can come across as aggressively smug. . Curiously, the one mode that doesn't seem to work as well with Blake Shelton is the smoother, R&B-inspired singer that you find on songs like 'Sangria', as he seems a little out of his element and loses a lot of energy as he tries to serenade the drunken girl with which he's going home. The thing is that Blake Shelton plays in much of the same brand of cornball country and broad archetypes that Brad Paisley does - which means that he's not exactly good at playing slick so much as he is sticking with authenticity.

And that contrast between authentic, thick-strummed twang and slicker sounds definitely carries over into the instrumentation. And look, over the past few months I've come to grips with the fact that while I don't like electronic elements like drum machines or synthesizers in country music, I don't deny that with certain artists and songs, it can kind of work. 'Here On Earth' by Dierks Bentley, 'To The Sky' by Dustin Lynch, 'Perfect Storm' by Brad Paisley, these songs work by blending a sweeping blend of airy synths with steel guitars and lighter drum machines to create a cohesive sound and mask the stiffness of some of the synthetic elements. Yeah, that doesn't happen with Blake Shelton here, where on every song where there's a drum machine or a rap cadence, it clashes terribly with the thick, textured twangy melodies that I would otherwise really like. It's incredibly frustrating, because there are songs where there are real drums that even take over from the drum machines, it only highlights how little that contrast works, and it detracts from some otherwise pretty solid songs. Take the title track that begins with organ before kicking into one of the better guitar melodies on the record, or the fiddle line on 'Just South Of Heaven' and 'Good Country Song' or the upbeat neotraditional party vibe of 'Just Gettin' Started' that take similar chords to 'Lettin' The Night Roll' by Justin Moore and adding some rollicking energy to make it significantly better, or even the smooth dark vibe with the drifting guitar tones on 'Sangria'. And this highlights the kind of instrumentation that works best with Blake Shelton - when it's smooth or has a bit of a rollicking kick, it can work, but when you add stiff drum machines or clunky, heavy strumming that tries to push the twang too hard, it's nowhere near as good. 

This takes us to songwriting... and here's the thing: there's a limit to how much I can criticize Blake Shelton for this, because he didn't write any songs on this album. But at the same time, Blake Shelton has the sort of clout where he could have picked better written songs than these, because there are some startling duds on this record, even purely from a technical perspective. Two of my biggest pet peeves in songwriting are repeated syllables or words to fill up space in songs, and all across this album we get songs that come across as shockingly clumsy. The lead single 'Neon Light' is a prime example with its chorus, because it only adds a song that feels jerky and clumsy even beyond finding solace from a sour breakup in the bottom of a bottle. Or take the absolute worst song on this album 'Buzzin', a rattling trainwreck of a song that features lyrics like 'Workin' on that twerking, man it still ain't working yet' or 'Picking off them floaters from the ice tub' or 'Chillin' like a villain on my redwood deck'. I've seen Train songs with better lyrics than this, because Blake Shelton apparently doesn't realize that chillin' like a villain is not a flattering comparison, nobody wants to think or imagine him twerking, and that floaters is not thought of today's day and age of floating cans of beer in a cooler but something significantly more disgusting! It also completely wastes Raelynn, a former contestant on The Voice that was eliminated three weeks in - which makes me wonder if he's looking to rope in people from The Voice, why didn't he get Cassadee Pope or Danielle Bradbery, two contestants from his team that actually won. The other guest appearance is Ashley Monroe, a member of the Pistol Annies, on the song 'Lonely Tonight', which is about hooking up with an ex for some mutual support - which only seemed to highlight why his wife and fellow Pistol Annies member Miranda Lambert was nowhere to be seen on this album! And that just baffles me - I mean, they're both A-list country stars at this point, not playing the Jay-Z/Beyonce power couple role strikes me as a waste, especially when they do actually have musical chemistry!

But overall, the songwriting on this album isn't so much aggressively bad but lacking in flavour. There are songs where he misses his wife which come across as real and are some of the better tracks on the album, a few scattered bro-country pickup tracks, and your typical song reminiscing about better country music in 'Good Country Song'. Granted, whenever Blake does go for something outside the norm, it doesn't really go well, like the recycling of relationship stereotypes on 'A Girl' that feels over done, or the track 'Anyone Else' about a jealous friend of his who can't seem to be happy if anyone besides him succeeds. And sure, I get the feelings behind the song - everyone knows that person - but it's the sort of thing where Blake's response can come across as more than a little condescending, especially given the string of luck that Blake used to revitalize his career and the fact that he is an A-list celebrity - did this really bother him so much to perform this song? It lacks a little class and tact, at least to me - but then again, this is Blake Shelton, so at least it's in character.

So in the end... eh, look, I want to like this album. Hell, I like Blake Shelton, and he's the reason that this album rises above bad or forgettable... but only barely. It's very much an album that reflects his unstable position at the intersection between the fading embers of bro-country and whatever paradigm might come after, and that pull between past and present really hurts the record's overall feel. And without any stellar standout tracks to back it up, I'm thinking a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan of Blake Shelton. Otherwise... well, he's done better.

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