Thursday, October 30, 2014

album review: 'montevallo' by sam hunt

Okay, I've gone on record as being more tolerant of pop-flavoured country music than most. I've given good reviews to Keith Urban's shift towards a more pop-flavoured direction, I didn't mind the new album from Dan + Shay, and hell, Lucy Hale's Road Between is probably going to go down as one of my favourite albums of the year.

But let me stress that there is a line for me, a tipping point when the pop seems to overtake the country so obviously and instead of just outright making pop music - which I would not have a problem with - they try to hide it with painfully thin country flourishes. You get fragments of acoustic instrumentation - none of it with any texture - hidden behind such obvious electronic effects that feel plastered together to disguise how thin and weightless the music really is.

And believe it or not, this has happened before. The sleepy pop country of the mid-80s, the Shania Twain-driven wave in the late 90s, and today, in the era of percussion over melody, EDM, and everyone trying to wedge a rap cadence into their pop song, it's happening again. Some have called it the era of the monogenre, but I'd argue it's all just pop music that's pretending to be more than it is, which to me reflects something a lot worse. As someone who likes pop, country, and most of what's in between, it gets exasperating when pop music co-opts country aesthetics to hop on a trend instead of trying to blend the sounds in a way that feels cohesive or reflects an interesting artistic vision.

And with all that, we come to Sam Hunt - and at first glance, he did show some promise, as he cowrote 'Cop Car' by Keith Urban and 'We Are Tonight' by Billy Currington, two songs I'd argue are the best of their respective albums. But early impressions of Sam Hunt from his smash single 'Leave The Night On' were not good - not because it was offensive or obnoxious, but because it screamed of the most sterile country-flavoured pop I've ever heard, complete with drum machines, a rapping cadence for the chorus, and lyrics straight out of the hook-up brand of pop-flavoured bro-country. In other words, I did not have a lot of hope for his debut album Montevallo, but when I started hearing positive remarks surrounding the album's songwriting... well, I had to take a look. What did I find?

Oh, this is something, that's for damn sure. Note I said 'something', not 'something good', because Montevallo by Sam Hunt was both more and less than I was expecting - and not in a good way. And yet it's the sort of album that upon the first listen or two might sound pretty innocuous - accessible, an easy enough listen, songs that seem to have a good cadence and rhythm and feel for imagery to them, with only the hip-hop like elements to really indicate there's anything 'off' about this album. But with every repeated listen, I found more to dislike until I realized the real ugliness underscoring this album. Folks, this is not a good album by a long shot.

So let's start with Sam Hunt himself. My original issue with the guy coming out of 'Leave The Night On' is that he lacked personality, and that's not quite true, because on some songs he does step up with a fair amount of investment and a decent tone. The larger problem is that most of that personality on these tracks is completely unlikable - self-obsessed, arrogant, and really not charismatic enough to back it up. Part of this is the abuse of vocal production - the multi-tracking is thin, the synthetic vocal production is blatant, and none of it gives his voice any amount of dramatic swell or power. And as for the portions where he tries to rap... well, he can switch up his flow between rapping and singing and outright talking pretty quickly, but every time the transition feels clunky and stilted - and I get the distressing feeling that Hunt himself hasn't picked up on that.

Granted, the instrumentation and production on this album is a total mess. I've said in the past that there are acts who have managed to blend synthetic elements with country, and they've typically done so by using a lot of steel guitar and going for a bigger, expansive mix. That does not happen here - and where Dierks Bentley and Dustin Lynch are getting it right, Sam Hunt gets it wrong. At best, he brings in some louder percussion and some gentle acoustic guitar tones to balance against the piano, in the same sort of reverb-augmented production that Keith Urban used on Fuse and probably manifests best on the hometown celebration 'Raised On It' that feels like a cross between Florida Georgia Line's 'Dirt' and Kenny Chesney's 'American Kids' but lacking the unique flavour. But on songs like 'Break Up In A Small Town' and 'Single For The Summer', the electric guitar tones are some of the most weak and gutless I've ever heard on a country record, and the fusion of heavier dubstep-inspired synths or strings sections straight out of modern R&B don't help matters. What this results in is an album that has no driving power or potent melody to define a large-sounding mix, which leads any attempts to sound grand or powerful feeling completely undercut. Hell, on songs like 'Speakers', it sounds like he was going for acoustic R&B more than anything close to country - when B.o.B. collaborated with Taylor Swift, the acoustic instrumentation has more texture than it does here! And whenever he does go for more country 'twang' like on 'House Party', it feels so thin and forced and always accompanied with the whooshing sound effect that only emphasizes how much Sam Hunt is trying - and failing - to make this fusion work.

But now we get to the songwriting, the supposed big selling point of this album - and at first glimpse, Sam Hunt seems to run the bro-country template a little more smoothly, analogous to what David Nail did with I'm A Fire earlier this year. And on songs like 'House Party', 'Raised On It', even 'Leave The Night On', they fall into very recognizable lightweight bro-country songwriting templates with some decent detail. But the second you look outside of that, it gets a fair bit uglier. The album opener 'Take Your Time' tries to go meta in describing how he's supposedly not going to do all the stuff most guys do or even try to make her fall for him, he's just going to 'take her time' - well, what kind of gutless romantic sentiment is that? At least when Mr. Big wrote a similar sentiment on 'To Be With You', it had a guitar solo and showed at least aspirations for something that could happen, even if for a short time! Or take 'Make You Miss Me', where Sam Hunt describes a flighty girl who really comes across as shockingly shallow... and yet somehow Sam Hunt is going to make her miss him. But here's the thing: the song never says how he's going to do that, only describing the girl and then her pining for him, which implies that the reason she's into him is his mind-melting charisma and I'm sorry, but no. 

It belies an real arrogance in his material that only gets emphasized on the three worst songs of this album. The first is the dubstep-flavoured 'Break Up In A Small Town', which tries to emphasize how bad it is when this girl hooks up with someone right underneath his nose and he can't away from it because he's in a small town. Hell, in the chorus, he says he needs to 'move or move on' - and then he spends the song doing neither of those two things, just smoldering about it. The closest comparison is 'Don't' by Ed Sheeran, but at least Sheeran painted a nuanced picture about he and his ex's complicated situation that framed his anger in an interesting light - Sam Hunt just comes across as pissy. It gets worse on 'Single For The Summer', where he tries to justify a string of summer one night stands complete with stuttered chorus, and yet it probably wasn't a good idea to mention in that chorus 'I know in September I'm gonna remember how much I love her'. And even putting aside the fact that this is cheating - the lyric in the second verse 'So I wanna leave and pretend I'm not a cheater and I can't help leaving' - it's still telling how he treats this one night stands with almost casual disinterest. And sure, the song tries to frame him as remorseful and self-aware, but as a performer he doesn't have the charisma or emotional range or real sense of remorse or anywhere near enough songwriting nuance to paint this song as anything more than just hollow self-justification trying to glorify behaving like a jackass. And if you want more of that, take a look at 'Ex To See', that not only completely misses the opportunity for an easy rhyme with the party drug, but also shows Sam Hunt at his worst, questioning a girl's motives for hooking up with him and then being all over him whenever her ex is in view. And yet by the end of the song, Sam Hunt decides to play along and now he wants to rub this in her ex's face - and nowhere in the song do we get any evidence that this guy really did her wrong in the first place. It's the sort of pathetic, painfully immature games I loathe that people play to get back at exes instead of getting over it, and when Sam Hunt joins in for the fun, he becomes just as aggressively unlikable, and it sours every would-be romantic moment of the album for me.

So in the end, I did not like Montevallo by Sam Hunt in any way. Yes, the guy wrote 'Cop Car', a song I really like and which shows up on this album, but the difference in production, instrumentation, and sheer charisma is palpable between their versions. As it is, this album feels like the worst combination of three different genres: the sleaze of bad R&B, the shallow trend-hopping nature of bad pop, and the sterility of bad bro-country. I'm thinking a light 4/10, and definitely not a recommendation. I get why Sam Hunt is riding the charts right now, but in a just world, his messy hodgepodge of genres won't last much longer. Skip it.

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