Monday, May 11, 2015

album review: 'traveller' by chris stapleton

I've talked a little before about songwriters working as part of the Nashville machine occasionally feel the desire to strike out and find the spotlight for themselves. They churn out dozens if not hundreds of songs for other acts, perhaps giving them a certain artistic touch or just flavourless mush, but more often than not it often serves as a sort of boot camp for aspiring artists. They start off writing for more successful acts until they can have enough clout to do it on their own.

And what's startling about Chris Stapleton is that it took so damn long. For those of you who don't read the liner notes or Wikipedia, Stapleton has been a country songwriter for acts as varied as Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, and even Adele. What most people don't know is that he's also chugged away in smaller bluegrass and southern rock acts over the past few years, which were never huge commercial successes but gave him outlets to explore and refine his craft and live presence further. But now he's finally dropping a debut country record at the age of thirty-seven, and with the waves of critical acclaim coming in, this looked to be a record I had to cover, because believe it or not, he actually cowrote 'Whiskey & You', the Jason Eady cover of a Tim McGraw song I actually placed on my year end list of the best songs of 2014. And sure, there was the possibility that other, less-interesting, more mainstream approachable songs might fill this album, but if he could write something with that sort of punch, who knows what he was saving for his own material? So I dug into that debut Traveller - what did we get?

Well, even despite the half-dozen times I listened through this record... I have to admit, I'm a little underwhelmed by this. And believe me, I went in really wanting to love this album - outside of James McMurtry, I haven't yet been blown out of the water by a country record this year, and I was hoping this would be the one to do it. As it is, I really do like this album, but I don't love it, and I get the feeling that getting this review out will be the main element to determining why.

Because let's make this clear, for the most part this album does a ton right, especially in the instrumentation and production. The grooves have strong melody, each acoustic strum has superb texture, the drums are stripped back but have punch when they need to, and the steel guitar and hamonica blend together to create a distinctly neotraditional country sound. And when this album touches more on the rough edges of groove-heavy southern rock, we get some striking and damn potent compositions, like that great melodic foundation of 'Parachute', the midtempo ode to LA struggles on 'When The Stars Come Out', the rough-edged riff of 'Might As Well Get Stoned', the swampy progression of 'Was It 26', or the stalking creeping melody of 'Outlaw State Of Mind' that might be my favourite guitar tone on the entire record, especially on the solo. Hell, even the brittle, stripped back minimalism of 'Whiskey & You' works incredibly well, as you can hear every thin guitar strum. Really, if I'm going to nitpick, it'd be that this album plays very much to midtempo restraint - the cadences are measured, the grooves don't kick into high gear often, and it's rare that the songs have quite the punch that they could. Part of this is the steel guitar and harmonica - the similar tones can run together over the grooves and melodies at points, and stifle some of the crisper elements - and part of this is the production, which to my surprise was handled by Dave Cobb, the producer behind Sturgill Simpson's incredible Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. You definitely see more of his production hallmarks on the rougher tracks near the back of the album, with the aged, organic tones and borderline lo-fi sounds, but on some tracks, there are moments that could use more crunch or crispness, as the midrange just feels a little saturated. Maybe it's the mastering instead of the production itself, but man, it gets frustrating.

Now I will admit, on some level it does fit Chris Stapleton's delivery, so let's talk about his vocals for a second. I'll give him this, the guy has presence and pipes beyond a lot of behind-the-scenes songwriters that transition into mainstream, and there's a raw fire to his voice that I do like. But what he doesn't really have - and for the most part, I'll give him a pass here, because this requires time - is emotive subtlety. The guy has a voice for blazing southern rock and he often plays his emotions big - which is fine, believe me, it's better than underselling it - but it means that moments that could require a little more tact feel a little overdone, feeling like he's working on selling the emotions with work rather than letting them come naturally. The prime example is 'Whiskey & You' - and look, maybe it's with the benefit of having listened to Jason Eady's version of the song so many times, but the tired resignation of Jason Eady's cover, even with more orchestration, picks up more nuance and feels more 'real', at least for me. Stapleton, on the other hand, feels like he's pushing it, especially with the final chorus - at least it's not 'Sometimes I Cry', which he pushes to the edge with every moment, before ending it with a thank-you to a crowd who responds and makes it feel all the more staged. It doesn't help that for the most part on Traveler, he's supported by a female backing vocalist who really doesn't do much beyond an extra voice to the mix, rarely fits the context of the songs, and only contributes to the oversaturation in the mid-range.

So now let's talk about lyrics and themes - and look, as its a debut album, I'm prepared to give Stapleton a lot of credit. With the exception of two tracks - 'Tennessee Whiskey', which does feel a little clumsy to me even despite being a George Jones cover, and 'Was It 26', which is excellent - he has primary writing credits and is seeking to define who he is with respect to the rest of the scene. And for the most part, it's decidedly lodged in the traditional/outlaw/wandering musician that we've often seen in the genre - it's a popular archetype, but with the combination of the rougher edges in the instrumentation, Stapleton's vocal style, and the blunt, effective lyrics, it tends to work, even if songs like the title track can feel a little on-the-nose. But while that directness has impact, when you start digging into the subtleties there's not a lot to really dissect, especially in the relationship tracks. And that can be a problem on songs like 'Fire Away', where he's in a toxic relationship and he tells her to just let loose with her anger and frustration because he loves her and he can take it - noble, don't get me wrong, but not exactly healthy. A bigger problem comes on 'Nobody To Blame', where this girl does a fair amount of property damage to his things and Stapleton says he deserves it, but when he never mentions what it is he actually did, the entire scene feels hyperbolic. And then there are the tracks that I can see the direct lineage to stronger forebearers - take 'More Than You', which is a pretty sweet love song except that Alan Jackson wrote a similar tune with 'Remember When' with more detail that hits way harder for me. Similar case with 'The Devil Named Music' - there have been tons of songs where artists have made that comparison, but most recently I was reminded of 'Damn These Dreams' by Dierks Bentley, which had the same reference point to family and connected a little better. 'Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore' is another example, where you can point to plenty of songs where the ending punchline is the death of the titular character, and I'm left thinking that exploring more of that loss of faith would have led to a heavier question at the end rather than him not praying anymore because he's dead. But let me make this clear: when this album does hit, it hits damn well: as much as I prefer Jason Eady's version, 'Whiskey & You' is a damn great song and Stapleton does do it justice. And whenever he steps more into rough-edged outlaw mold, like for the hazy memories of  'Was It 26' or the outlaw populism of 'Outlaw State Of Mind', it really clicks. And even songs like the subtle implication from a former lover on 'Parachute' or the 'we'll make it together' of 'When The Stars Come Out' do work for me.

But as a whole... man, I'm conflicted on this one, because I do really like this album, but I don't love it. The songwriting is a little stripped back and lacking greater detail for my tastes, Dave Cobb's production is solid but not his best and doesn't always play to Stapleton's strengths, Stapleton's delivery doesn't always connect as well as it should, and the album does run long. That said, I can't deny there's not a bad song on this record - even the ones I don't really love are well-performed enough to work for what they are. And I definitely get the feeling that those who are looking for more of a straightforward, traditional country sound and brand of songwriting will like this record more. But for me... I'm going with a very strong 7/10, but definitely a recommendation. Chris Stapleton is a great talent, and many of the issues I have with Traveller will probably be ironed out in later releases, so definitely check this album out.

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