Wednesday, May 20, 2015

album review: 'the first time' by kelsea ballerini

So I was planning on skipping this album.

And those of you who watch Billboard BREAKDOWN probably wouldn't have much cause to blame me here. I spoke a fair bit in that episode about the lead-off single 'Love Me Like You Mean It', and the independent country artist behind it Kelsea Ballerini. You also probably remember that I didn't really care for it that much, considering the stilted production and average at best lyrics that played on the less obnoxious side of Meghan Trainor. It did seem to show signs that mainstream country had finally slid far enough from bro-country that we might have more new female artists entering the scene, but it wasn't as though I liked the sound anymore, and it was disconcerting to see an indie label like Black River - who signed Kellie Pickler, for god's sake - try for the exact same game as mainstream Nashville.

And yet for some reason I started getting a sizeable number of requests to cover this album, and while June looks to be the much more promising month for country music with new releases - and most of them look pretty damn promising - I figured I might as well talk about Kelsea Ballerini. Who knows, Lucy Hale proved that she could rise above standard pop country with a better sound on Road Between - maybe 'Love Me Like You Mean It' wasn't representative of her whole album. So I checked out The First Time - how is it?
Well, to my pleasant surprise, the record's not bad. Maybe the benefit of lowered expectations here, but most of The First Time by Kelsea Ballerini is pretty listenable. I'm not going to oversell it - it definitely does have its fair share of problems, especially where it's trying to play to what it thinks is a cooler, more mainstream sound - but for the brand of pop country that it's targeting, it works reasonably well. Not quite enough to replace memories of Taylor Swift's country years, and Lucy Hale has nothing to worry about, but Kelsea Ballerini is at least tolerable, and I'd take her over most sanitized or overprocessed pop country in the vein of Rascal Flatts or Sam Hunt any day.

So how did this happen? Well, we should start with Ballerini herself - and while she's not really a vocal powerhouse in terms of vocal range or charisma, she does have enough emotive strength to not come across as haplessly adolescent. It helps matters that her vocal cadence and flow through the writing tends to be much faster, which pushes her towards her lower range, which is a little feistier and comes across as a little older. It's a shame her vocal production isn't better - the synthetic edges on her backing vocals don't fit well with the country instrumentation, no matter how much they try to smooth it in. Really, while some of the multi-tracking is expected - Kelsea's delivery tends to come across as more quiet or midrange, and they're trying to thicken that for heavier choruses, although most of it wouldn't be necessary if they pushed her vocals a little further forward in the mix - I'd argue her strengths come in more restrained, expressive material.

Granted, the production isn't great here across the board, more uneven than outright bad. The frustrating thing is that, when this album downplays the electronic elements like the few spacey effects or hints of reverb, or lightens the bass of the drum machines to gently supplement the songs like on the lonely melancholy title track, the gentle floating 'Peter Pan', 'Secondhand Smoke' or the murky darkness of 'Stilletos', the instrumentation tends to work a little better because the melody gains more prominence. And while the melodies do fit comfortably into pop country, most are very workable, thanks to solidly layered guitar licks with smooth prominent tones or the usage of more pianos to anchor the tracks. The problems come when those stiffer, electronic segments come to dominate the song, like on 'Love Me Like You Mean It' or 'Dibs' or the slightly better 'Yeah Boy', because the actual guitar grooves feel chopped to ribbons and the songs lose any real sense of flow, at least for me. And that's not counting production choices that just feel a little outside of Ballerini's wheelhouse: her voice is a good fit for a track like 'Sirens' with the heavier groove and the slightly less polished production, but the usage of oohing backing vocals to mimic a siren completely neutered a vibe that could have gone for something with a little more edge.

But then again, this is pop country, and we're not going to be getting much of an edge, which takes us to lyrics. Now to her credit, Ballerini does have primary writing credits across the entire album, but you can tell the label was none too subtly pointing her to capitalize on the vacated space that Taylor Swift once had in pop country. As such, we get more than our fair share of lightweight love and empowerment songs that don't exactly rise to much - not bad, but far from interesting. And I've give Ballerini credit for not really having many outright bad lyrics - at worst they skim up against the forgettable cadences of bro-country, but at least they do have flow. The worst case is probably on 'Square Pegs', a generic empowerment anthem with lines like 'Square pegs make the world go round' - cute metaphor, but the typical definition of square and the general whitebread nature of the song did add a little confusion for me. The larger problem is a lack of distinguishing details to define the stories, in order to keep them as broad as possible, which doesn't give the songs a lot of identity.

That said, when the framinng becomes a little more complex, Ballerini actually gets some lyrics with nuance in. I don't love the production on 'XO' at all, but I can sympathize with the frustration at having a partner who can't move on. 'Peter Pan' describes a flighty guy in this vein and I actually was mildly surprised how much mileage she got out of the metaphor. Similar case with 'Stilletos', this time used for putting on a tough front to face the world despite the pain. But the two songs that stuck with me the most were 'Secondhand Smoke' and the title track, the former for taking a pretty frank look at domestic fights and the trailing impact it leads into their kids. While Carrie Underwood's 'Little Toy Guns' felt a little overbroad, Ballerini goes to how she doesn't want the same attitudes her parents had rubbing onto her relationships, and that shows a level of maturity I didn't expect. And then there's the title track, the only song where Ballerini has sole writing credits, and it's one of the best on the album: where she goes to meet up with a guy who abandoned her before and hoping against hope that it'd ever work... only for him to screw her again and leave her frustrated and alone. And the moral to keep moving forward like she should have the firsts time, it works and yet still highlights the humanity in hoping things could have come together.

In other words, The First Time by Kelsea Ballerini does have some significant missteps - the production does her and her songwriting no favours, and I get the impression she's still getting accustomed to the spotlight - but it's a debut album and that's to be expected. And I'll admit seeing a lot more potential here than I was expecting going in - Ballerini's got talent as a melodic composer and songwriter with some nuance, and we need more of those in pop country outside of the Nashville songwriting machine. For me, I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation - it's not going to change your life and there's definitely room to grow, but if you're looking for something fresh before Kacey Musgraves sweeps down in a month, give this a look.

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