Monday, May 4, 2015

album review: 'suffer in peace' by tyler farr

You know, it's always a little fascinating to see what happens to certain artists after the trend they rode to stardom falters or fails completely. In many cases, the artists simply drop off the radar entirely, especially if they were transparently a product of the label looking to cash in. Sometimes they'll stick around for one more awkward, uncomfortable album trying to find footing with the same formula, only to be looked upon as has-beens. Some, especially if they jumped on the trend midway through their careers, will simply go back to what they did normally, with singles from that trendier record hastily wiped from memory and any live shows. And yet sometimes you get artists who are able to roll with the punches, start off riding a trend and yet able to transcend it and become staples of the genre.

And here's the thing: you can't assume that it's just the ones that'll be the most successful that'll end up in the last category. Let's be honest, what gets popular isn't always the material with the most quality, but with the most definitive image or flash or energy, and those seldom translate well into the long term, especially if your artistic persona is so tied to that image. As such, it's typically the artists that are a little more restrained or in control of that image that can ride their debuts to greater success - or, of course, if you actually a distinctive artistic identity, but that might be hoping for too much.

But could I be wrong here? For an example, let's consider Tyler Farr, a definitive b-lister in the bro-country scene who released Redneck Crazy in 2013 in the heat of the craze and rode the absolutely terrible titular single to nearly the top of the charts. Now I reviewed that album and I remember not being kind to it, but truth be told, I can barely remember that album at all. I remember the singles and i remember thinking that Tyler Farr had a good enough voice to do well - turns out the guy had classical training, which is uncommon to see in country music - but his material often came across leering and creepy when it wasn't boring and forgettable. Coupled with production that was all over the place, I was prepared to write Tyler Farr off... but then I heard his lead-off single 'A Guy Walks Into A Bar', and I was struck by its intensity and frustration, and the realization that gruff anger might actually be a solid fit for the guy. And considering rumors that this record was supposed to be a little rougher and heavier, I was actually interested in covering him, whereas you couldn't convince me to cover a sophomore record to other bro-country acts like Thomas Rhett or Cole Swindell. So what did we get with Suffer In Peace?

Well, I'll give Tyler Farr this: it's probably the best possible pivot record that he could have possibly made, nearly pitching the entire bro-country 'template' out the window for something that's rougher, angrier, and a fair bit more mature. I'm not going to say it's perfect or even great - the tone and writing is uneven, and the fact that Tyler Farr's still on a mainstream label means that he or his songwriters aren't allowed to go as dark as they should have - but talk about a major improvement in nearly everywhere that it counts, so much that I'd probably say Tyler Farr actually made a pretty good album here.

So what was the change here, how did he pull this off? Well, part of it is Tyler Farr himself - his voice has always reminded me of Vince Gill with an edge, and on Suffer In Peace it actually gives him more room to open up his pipes with more presence and power. He'll never be a Zac Brown or Randy Houser or Chris Young in terms of raw charisma, but he definitely works when he's in his lane, which is the second major improvement. One of the reasons Redneck Crazy didn't work is that it was playing in the generally lightweight bro-country mold, but this record proves Tyler Farr never belonged there in the first place. He works a lot better in the gruff, rough-edged anger that characterizes Jason Aldean's harsher material, which makes his appearance on the album make a ton of sense, and the two play off each other with the sort of understated badass camraderie that I'll admit does work for me - even if it does imply that Tyler Farr put his car in the ditch because he might have had a few too many before getting on the road.

And it helps the writing has improved considerably too, most notably in the shift in tone. The songs are darker, with more of a sour and bitter edge that is a much better fit for Farr's emotional intensity. And it helps the framing of these tracks is pretty solid as well, or at least complicated in the way it should be. I've already talked about 'A Guy Walks Into The Bar' by Tyler Farr, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite mainstream country songs of the year for the deft subversion of the typical 'guy walks into a bar' joke into what'd be like to be that guy with a healthy dose of reality, but there's more here. The alcohol-drenched depression of 'I Don't Even Want This Beer' takes a lyric from an I LOVE MAKONNEN song of all things and twists it into the real reason why most people drink alone on a Tuesday night, and the title track gives Farr an avenue to get away and refocus himself, but that sort of pain doesn't fade easily, and he'd prefer to take the mature step and figure it - and himself - out along the way. Hell, even more straightforward relationship and hookup tracks like 'Withdrawals' and 'Criminal' embrace their darker edges, and while neither are great tracks, they are a better fit. And if the album had stuck on this route, I'd have probably been blown away instead of just modestly impressed... but as it is, between those songs with some raw emotion we get some that are a fair bit weaker. You get your patriotic/bro-country checklist song with 'C.O.U.N.T.R.Y' - and incidentally, saying 'mothertrucking' is just lame, if you're going to go for swagger country rock, at least go all the way and say fuck - and the slightly more tasteful version in 'Why We Live Here', the salute to rougher living on 'Raised To Pray', which adds some religious iconography in a way that doesn't really feel overbearing or tasteless, and a riff on 'Uptown Girl' with 'Poor Boy'. Frustratingly, we also get 'Better In Boots', a lazy bro-country riff that could have felt like a leftover from Redneck Crazy and nobody would have noticed. It's all the more proof Tyler Farr never belonged in that lane, and this record would have been stronger if it was cut.

But now we get to the area that hasn't really improved at all since Tyler Farr's debut: instrumentation and production. And by not improved, I mean it's just as uneven as ever. As much as there is more steel guitar and chunkier riffs that show at least a commitment towards more of a country rock sound, we still get the interjection of lightweight, stuttering drum machines that don't fit nearly as well, even with the spacier elements. Take the drum machines on 'Withdrawals' - instead of the drums acting as support for the riffs, they chop them up and disrupt the overall flow of the track - and worse yet, they're so thin and underweight that it neuters the overall groove of the track. It's a little better on 'Criminal', but the introduction of thicker twang on 'Better In Boots' feels completely out of place when paired with the incredibly stiff drum machine and clap percussion. And the frustrating thing is, just like Redneck Crazy, it's inconsistent - most of this album is pretty standard country rock with organic drumming, electric guitars, and enough steel guitar and acoustic elements to make it sound country. And just like Farr's last album, it often feels like the electric guitar melody is nowhere near prominent enough in the mix to drive the track, like on 'Raised to Pray' where the opening riff just feels way too quiet to have impact. And the sad fact is that there are some good melodies here - sure, 'I Don't Even Want This Beer' has some electronic elements, but the integration is more tasteful and understated against a good somber melody, and there isn't much of an excuse beyond just lack of effort on the part of the producers why so much of the instrumentation doesn't have more to it. Because the sad fact is that the production isn't so much bad as it is underwhelming - if you gave most of these tracks to Jason Aldean, what changes?

And that's why I'm going to say something I normally don't say when it comes to reviewing mainstream country: Tyler Farr should go independent. Finish up his contract with Columbia Nashville and step towards the indie scene - hell, he's already working with Aldean, sign to Broken Bow Records, it'd at least set him up with producers and songwriters who could give his material the fire it deserves. Because overall, I do like Suffer In Peace by Tyler Farr, but it's a record that feels compromised and has a fair bit of unrealized potential because it has to play to the radio, where songs like 'A Guy Walks Into A Bar' doesn't really fit. Still, it's definitely a big improvement, which earns it a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you want to see a bro-country artist moving in the right direction. He's not quite at solid quality yet, but I've got a good feeling about Tyler Farr going forward - he'll be one to watch over the next few years.

No comments:

Post a Comment