Wednesday, June 10, 2015

album review: 'summer forever' by billy currington

Let's talk a little about the whole concept of the 'summer album'. 

Believe it or not, it's a fairly new thing, along with the whole conceit of a 'song of the summer' - sure, music critics who cover the pop charts mention it, but the concept of mass culture talking about it or marketing it can be traced to the internet making the conversation easier. And sure, there has always been lightweight sunny 'summer' albums forever, but the concept of an artist purposefully releasing a record of that material specifically at that time to capitalize on that vibe is a little different. And as a critic, they're surprisingly difficult to talk about. On the one hand, the content tends to be pretty lightweight which means reviewing them doesn't tend to require a lot of digging, but on the other hand, evaluating the record becomes trickier, because the purpose of these records is to be lightweight, ephemeral, and fun in the broadest way possible. They're designed to be enjoyed for a season over pool parties and barbecues, and you can bet by the end of the year most people will forget the songs ever existed. So on some level, evaluating what's considered 'good' summer music is the stuff that persists beyond one season - and that can be hard to pinpoint if you're covering the record before the season has really kicked into gear.

As such, I had a certain amount of pause before covering the newest record from Billy Currington, a country star I've liked but never quite loved. He broke in the mid-2000s, started consistently racking up #1 hits on the country charts thanks to his hangdog, generally affable delivery and for recruiting songwriters that could consistently pump out decent songs. And yet in 2013, he jettisoned the few writing credits he had for We Are Tonight, a pivot towards bro-country that was actually pretty good but wasn't anything I was really interested in revisiting either. It was lightweight, inoffensive, and had just enough personality to stand out - in other words, if it hadn't been dropped in mid-September, it'd be the perfect summer record, the sort of smash that bro-country often seems weaponized to create. And with that in mind - and with the addition of a single writing credit from Currington himself - I figured it might not be bad for me to check out Summer Forever, which buzz was suggesting was even more in that vein. Hell, it could be fun, right?

Well, here's the thing: I gave Billy Currington for taking songs that were at least a little outside of the typical bro-country template or explored it with a little variety on his last album... this album doesn't do that. In other words, I could swap out the majority of the tracks on this record with any other hook-up focused bro-country song and littlewould sound all that different. The big redeeming factor is that where acts have embraced more rough-edged electronic or rock elements in order to add some muscle, Currington instead focuses on making the songs as breezy and easy as possible. So yeah, as an album, it's definitely easy to digest and overall mostly enjoyable, but if you forgot it in a month or two, I wouldn't be all that surprised.

So let's start with the biggest advantage this album has going for it: Billy Currington himself. He doesn't quite have the infectious charisma of a Jake Owen or the killer vocals of a Randy Houser or Chris Young - the best way I would describe his drawl and inflection is approachable. He's got energy and sincerity, and without a huge amount of grit, he comes across as having a sort of ragged charm that does work. The odd thing is that his tenor can be a bit of an odd fit for the thicker electric guitars that come in on tracks like 'Wake Me Up', but in taking a trick from recent Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley records, he fuses the lightweight electronic elements with tones that are flow well enough to keep the breezy vibe going. It helps that for most of this album he falls into Eric Paslay's mold of more sensitive, 'adult-contemporary' country, where his sincerity and greater age in comparison with most bro-country acts gives him a comfortable maturity... except when he tries to pick up more of a rapping cadence, which is flat-out embarrassing. The best cases were 'Jonesin' or 'Nowhere Town', if only because they had more of a melodic focus, but the absolute worst track is the country rap 'Soundtrack', mostly because Currington just sounds out-of-place trying to structure a flow, especially on the bridge.

And it helps that most of his instrumentation and production plays in this mid-tempo vibe. Yeah, I'm still not the biggest fan of drum machines or the clapping beats or occasional synths that flutter through the mix, but the usage of smoother guitar tones, hints of steel guitar, and even a bit of organ and piano does a lot to keep the melody closer to the forefront on the better tracks, with just enough gentle acoustic guitar and banjo to add some country texture. Take 'Don't It', the lead-off single that's anchored by that four note melodic hook that repeats itself across acoustic and electric guitars and proves pretty damn infectious, and helped by some of the thicker, punchier drums. A similar formula works even better on the slow burn of 'Good Night' with Jessie James' coos adding even more, or on the gentle melodic flow on 'Do I Make You Wanna' with the spacey bridge with a damn perfect interweaving guitar setup, probably my favourite song on the album, or in a different way on the rollicking groove of 'It Don't Hurt Like It Used To' thanks to the heavier drums and guitars Where this album stumbles is when the banjo tone gets a little thicker against obvious drum machines like on 'Give It To Me Straight' - not a bad song with the steel guitars, although the tone of that solo was a little fuzzier than it should have been and Currington trying to bring in a 'sexy' spoken word bridge was abandoned as ridiculous barely a few bars in. Unfortunately, it was brought back for the title track, which sounds like a clunky Luke Bryan import with overmixed percussion, obvious autotune, and a melancholy tone - what you'd think is the last thing you'd want for a song titled 'Summer Forever'. The hilarious thing is that it probably has one of the more striking guitar solos and some good organ behind it, it could have been better. Then we have 'Sweet Love', which feels like Currington hopping on one of the Zac Brown Band's more acoustic beach-inspired country songs - which sure, it's not bad, but the backing vocals on this album are nowhere near as impressive and they don't quite him the swell he needs. But again, the worst track by a mile is 'Soundtrack', which sounds all kinds of overmixed and clumsy with its overblown twang, squealing organ, handclap percussion, and weedy whistles against obviously synthetic drums and a guitar line that's struggling to get some presence.

But now we need to talk about lyrics - and really, if we're looking for an area where this album feels lightweight to me, it's here. Don't get me wrong, they're seldom egregiously bad, but they are pretty thin. 'Doin' It', 'Wake Me Up', 'Good Night', 'Do I Make You Wanna', these are pretty straightforward hook-up tracks, with 'Jonesin' falling into nervous anticipation and 'Sweet Love' being the attempt to set things right. And again, it's rare these songs are outright bad - 'Good Night' and 'Do I Make You Wanna' are both damn solid songs, but they are sorely lacking in distinguishing detail to tell stories or stand out. And when we do get more detail, it doesn't always pay off - I was hoping 'Drinking Town With A Football Problem' might have gone into the warped psychology that surrounds sports in a small town in a Friday Night Lights vein, but instead we get glorification of it all that borders on pandering. 'Give It To Me Straight' is a bit of a weird track - it shows Currington interrogating his lover about possibly cheating and it could easily come across as darker than it is, but he doesn't bring any intimidating presence and I guess it's supposed to ring as mature that he's not mad, but the resignation lands in an odd place, at least for me. What hits better is 'It Don't Hurt Like It Used To', which has a lot of optimistic energy for finally being over an ex who treated him badly - and yeah, it could have been handled with a little more class, but there's a place for a song like this. And then there's 'Soundtrack' and the title track, both bro-country tracks that are pretty damn shameless, especially 'Soundtrack' as Billy Currington embarrasses himself asking girls to shake their ass - dude, you're over forty, you're better than this.

But on some level, you have to wonder if he really is, because I really struggled with Summer Forever. On the one hand, the record is inoffensive, but in a way that's its own problem because the storytelling just isn't there in the same way. You could give these songs to a half-dozen different artists, and little would change. And even evaluating it as a summer record, it feels awkward, with songs that are outright endorsing staying in or playing things low-key, and the lack of real drama means it's hard for me to really get sucked in. For me, I'm thinking a 6/10 and a recommendation if you're looking for something lightweight and kind of sweet, but otherwise it's not as distinctive or creative as his previous records, and that does disappoint me. If you're curious, it's worth a listen, but as I said, don't be surprised if you forget it a day later.

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