Tuesday, October 7, 2014

album review: 'old boots, new dirt' by jason aldean

I haven't been looking forward to doing this review.

Now some of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering, 'Wait, this is Jason Aldean, one of the biggest country stars in the industry. And not only that, he did it by not grafting himself to a major label, instead sticking with the indie label Broken Bow Records, and he's a major success for nearly a decade with massive sales!'

And all of that is completely true... and yet, Jason Aldean has never really been a country star that has interested or impressed me, even at his best. Even though he's on an independent label, he uses the same Nashville songwriting machine that many of his major label counterparts do, and with his thinner voice halfway between Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert, I wasn't really immediately gripped by him as a performer, even if I did occasionally like the rougher edges of his production. It didn't help matters that he tended to have really poor choices for singles: his biggest off of his debut was 'Why' which paired a decent melody with a self-aggrandizing message of why he treats his girlfriend like garbage. He hit a stronger side with the southern-rock tinged 'Johnny Cash', but it's on that song where my other issue with a lot of Jason Aldean's work surface - his production always seemed a little flat and colourless to me. Not his melodic compositions, those were often pretty solid, but his guitar tones and compositions always felt a little dreary, especially with Aldean's lack of a real sense of humor. It definitely did not help matters that as the 2000s ended, Aldean fell into a lot of the southern pandering with songs like 'Flyover States' that always set my teeth on edge.

And then came 2010's My Kinda Party, and the song that would redefine Aldean's career for the worse: 'Dirt Road Anthem', a slow-paced slog of a country rap song that featured Ludacris near the tail end of his commercial success and Jason Aldean rapping with no energy or passion whatsoever, and also managed to land on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2011. Yeah, his duet with Kelly Clarkson 'Don't You Wanna Stay' was good enough, but as Jason Aldean got bigger, his songs and public persona got less likable. 2012's Night Train brought in more aggressive and macho country-rap inspired tracks like the Luke Bryan and Eric Church collaboration 'The Only Way I Know' and the absolute atrocity '1994', and while songs like 'Night Train' felt sincere and catered well to Aldean's female fanbase, they didn't really stand out for me. And combined with a recent Billboard magazine cover story that only seemed to highlight his aggressive frustration for being one of the acts responsible for triggering all the elements of bro-country that piss me off: the macho posturing, the bad rapping, the inert 'rock-inspired' production, basically a country-flavoured brand of hair metal minus the cheesiness or shredding riffs... well, Jason Aldean did not put forward a good picture. 

And yet with 'Burnin' It Down', the opening single from Jason Aldean's newest album Old Boots, New Dirt, I didn't know what to expect for this new record, so while I didn't expect to like it, I figured that at least he was trying something different, right?

Well, to some extent he did, because this was the album that nearly won me over on Jason Aldean. I'm not kidding when I say that I was way more conflicted about this release than I expected to be, mostly because there's a lot about Jason Aldean to like and I definitely understand his appeal now. At the same time, my issues with Jason Aldean haven't exactly gone away, and it leaves me feeling unsure whether I should recommend this album one way or the other

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, and remember in my last review where I said I wasn't exactly against more synthetic elements creeping into country music if done right? Well, this album pushed me to the absolute limit here, because in pushing that bro-country rock vibe, it wasn't long before the drum machines, watery filtered guitars, and vocal effects began pushing all of my buttons in the worst way possible. Now to Aldean's credit, he's better at making them feel cohesive with the harder, almost blues rock inspired electric guitars and the welcome organ that crops up all over this record, and there are definitely points where he gets that more spacious, steel-guitar punctuated vibe pretty well, like on 'Tonight Looks Good On You'. And this highlights the one that I definitely can appreciate about Jason Aldean: he always picks songs with a strong melodic foundation that don't start sounding similar to each other or altogether too simple, and he's not afraid to inject pretty solid solos into his material to add it more flavour. And with songs like 'Show You Off', the distinctly country 'Too Fast', the bass and organ-heavy 'If My Truck Could Talk', or the groove-driven 'I Took It With Me', there was a pretty solid rock vibe, and with 'Don't Change Gone', Aldean nails a compelling power ballad and the easy album standout. And I'll give it to Aldean, he never entirely relies on drum machines for his songs, and you can guarantee that real drumming will always kick in - hell, halfway through this album, the drum machines and synths pretty much leave the album entirely. Honestly, it feels like the electronic elements feel tacked on to add that pop crossover, and that's one of the reasons songs like 'Burnin' It Down' feel so awkward and stilted - they don't fit with the rest of the album. At the same time, though, I wish Aldean pushed the country rock angle a little harder, or maybe more towards blues, because maybe it's an issue of the production, but it's rare that the guitar tones really have the fiery power to back up a lot of the rock star posturing on this record, always coming across as weirdly inert to me at best or painfully underweight at worst. And this either comes through in lack of potent bass lines or real explosive guitar texture, which characterized a lot of the hard rock both Jason Aldean and I loved growing up - although while I preferred Whitesnake and Van Halen, you can tell he liked a lot more Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses.

Granted, for as much as Jason Aldean draws influence from acts like Guns N' Roses, it really doesn't come across in the one element I wish it would: his vocals. Now let me stress I completely get why Aldean's big female fanbase likes him, and probably one of the most striking factors about him: he takes his work seriously, and while he does have reserve and places distance between himself and the audience, you can tell he's trying to show emotional range and invest in his material. And it's what makes his songs focused on relationships work pretty effectively, because he's capable of selling investment, even he can lack warmth in some of his delivery. But that lack of humor or levity can also be a major downside on tracks where he's trying to have a raucous party, because he doesn't sound like he's having any fun. Take 'Laid Back', a song where Jason Aldean's trying to call together a party way back, and yet it comes across as calculated and stiff, especially when mentions in the chorus to tell everyone you know, or take 'Gonna Know We Were Here', a song that goes for rock star flames and yet Aldean sings it so seriously that when you get lyrics like 'You got the gas, I got the matches / We're gonna turn this town to ashes', you start to wonder whether or not he means it literally. And yet even with that, his voice is still vintage country - it doesn't have a rock edge or bite to it, which means he tends to come off best on smoother country tracks, or even when he injects hints of a blues element, which really comes across as a good fit for him.

Now this circles back to the lyrics, which are arguably the least interesting thing about this album. I'll say this for Aldean, he at least has the dignity to avoid the sort of lyrical embarrassments that plagued Blake Shelton, but that doesn't mean that I haven't heard most of his brand of bro-country before in terms of structure or delivery. Because let's be honest, you could swap out 'Sweet Little Somethin'', 'Laid Back', 'Just Gettin' Started', 'Show You Off', and chunks of 'Tonight Looks Good On You' and 'I Took It With Me' for most other bro-country tracks I've heard thus far this year, which is definitely a problem. And for as sexy as Jason Aldean is trying to make 'Burnin' It Down' sound, it is somewhat undercut when he references listening to some old Alabama - and keep in mind this is the band that performed the obscenely religious 'Angels Among Us' complete with child choirs - not sure that's the mood you want when getting down, Jason. And I've got to be honest, I really don't like it when Aldean plays his self-aware bad boy, because the writing never quite nails that tricky balance or proper framing and can come across as self-aggrandizing. And then there's 'Too Fast', a bit of an odd track to include on an album with so much rock star posturing because it's the complete rejection of it in favour of settling down, and while it is a good song, it just feels out of place.

But I will say this in Jason Aldean's favour, he does have some nuanced songs on this album. 'Tryin' To Love Me' places him in an apologetic role as he finally is able to communicate with his girl, and there's a lot of real sincerity there. 'If My Truck Could Talk' continues the trend of vehicles talking from Kenny Chesney, but Aldean plays it straight as it's an acknowledgement of the bad things he's done and can't deny, and while he fills the chorus with statements of how he'd get rid of his truck and cover his ass, it'd be the sort of demolition that would be genuinely painful, and Aldean sells it like that. 'Old Boots, New Dirt' and 'I Took It With Me' play the journeyman musician card, mostly to get over broken relationships or to show homage to his home, and in that tradition they work pretty damn well, and 'Miss That Girl' cuts straight to the chase and isn't afraid to implicate Aldean in the reason why the relationship failed. But without a doubt, 'Don't Change Gone' is the most potent track on the album, hitting the curdled frustration and real grief that he's struggling to deal with for which he doesn't really have an answer. It's the sort of real drama that has anchored some of my favourite country songs and albums this year, and for one brief moment, Aldean really gets it.

So in the end, Old Boots, New Dirt is the sort of country record I don't so much like as I respect it. The melodies are strong, the songwriting can have nuance, and while there are definitely problems in production, I get why Aldean is a member of country's A-list. He definitely has more control on his artistic direction than most, and while the majority of his more electronic experiments fall flat for me, he definitely makes up for it on the back half of the album, and he has a certain consistency that I definitely can respect. And really, many of the issues I take with him are really my issues and preferences for country, and I can accept that. So in the end... yeah, I'm going to recommend Jason Aldean's Old Boots, New Dirt and give it a strong 6/10. If you're a fan of mainstream accessible country with some blues and rock flavours, the album is worth a listen, and is a sign that Aldean is on the road to winning me over after all.

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