Tuesday, August 25, 2015

album review: 'wild ones' by kip moore

So I've talked a bit before about the Nashville songwriting machine, the group of songwriters and producers that churn out songs or even entire albums for our country stars, sometimes with those stars not even having a single writing credit. For a critic, this can be pretty galling, especially in determining an artistic voice behind the music, but to be fair, it's not like pop or R&B or even rock and hip-hop are much different.

Which is why an artist like Kip Moore stands out as something of an anomaly, because his debut album Up All Night was released in 2012 and he had writing credits on every single song. And to go a step further, his material fit completely within mainstream radio, even at the genesis of bro-country - songs about girls, beer, trucks, nothing in the writing you haven't heard before. But remember how I said that bro-country can actually be good? Well, I'd add Kip Moore to the very short list of acts like Jake Owen or Billy Currington who can make this work while still maintaining a defiantly country sound with prominent melodies, grittier yet atmospheric production that reminded me a lot of a rougher Dierks Bentley, potent grooves, and a lot of raw passion from Kip Moore. The fascinating thing is that Up All Night seemed to draw more inspiration instrumentally from Americana-inspired rock like Bruce Springsteen, even as the subject matter rarely rose above bro-country standards, although thankfully delivered with enough heartfelt sincerity to rise above. And yeah, there were points that were a little too synthetic to really work, but what raised Kip Moore above the pack were the details...

And as such, it's no surprise that after a few strong singles, Kip Moore struggled to land hits on country radio - something which didn't surprise him, given his visible contempt for the songwriting by assembly line process in bro-country. Two non-album singles flopped on the radio, and I suspect part of it was just a flooded market, where if you played things with more restraint and class, you weren't going to stand out, even if your writing and production were a cut above. As such, I was a little worried when I saw the list of cowriters that Moore had brought on - he still had primary writing credits, but there were more hands in the pot and that did raise a certain amount of concern. But hey, I really liked Up All Night, and if Brett James was still handling production, maybe it'd still have that quality. Does it deliver?

Well, it depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for country music, even modern country music, it'd definitely be a stretch to say this album fits that category, even if we're sticking to the rock side of things. Frankly, if you look at the instrumental tones, it's more 80s-inspired Springsteen or maybe The War On Drugs than anything close to country music. Which is a little awkward considering most of the lyrics and actual composition, it's much more in line with modern country, which means Wild Ones is an album stuck between two worlds, not quite fitting in either and not quite great enough to transcend the genres altogether. Now that's not saying it's not good - I'd argue it's better than many will give it credit - but it isn't quite great, and the problems are fairly easy to spot.

But let's start with the obvious positives, the first being Kip Moore. Holy God, this guy is a presence behind the microphone, with a raw edge to his howl that exhibits a ton of passion and emotive range, to the point where you could easily argue his voice is less country than hard rock. And I'd definitely support that assertion, but I'm not going to complain with it here, as he easily can utilize every point of his range. And for the most part, his vocal production can support it by letting him ride the spacious, heavy grooves in the atmospheric mix... for the most part. There are songs like 'Magic' try to smooth away that timbre or songs like lead-off single 'I'm To Blame' or the surprisingly clumsy 'That's Alright With Me' that try to augment it with multitracking and filters, and in neither case is it needed or wanted - the more organic swell this album has, the better it is.

And to some extent, that also extends to the instrumentation and production, where the biggest progression since Up All Night has taken place. As I described earlier, it's definitely a step towards more atmospheric roots rock and hard rock than anything in country, taking the natural step from spacious, steel-guitar accented country into much more of a rock sound, letting high guitar flutters and melodies fill the background while relying on thick, sinuous basslines and booming percussion to drive the groove. And while I'd usually raise the point that the percussion is a little too high in the mix - because it is - I find it hard to care when it's this energetic and works for the incredible bombast that Moore brings to the table. I might not love the stripped back title track, but the momentum of songs like 'Come And Get It', the great rollick in the midrange on 'Girl Of Summer', the thick acoustic groove of 'What Ya Got On Tonight', the fantastic low simmer of 'Heart's Desire' balanced against that hazy high melody that's later echoed on the misty 'Complicated' with those huge drums leading to one of the best choruses of the album, to the stripped back piano line driving 'Comeback Kid'. And of course there's the massive crunch of that groove on 'Lipstick', which might be one of the heaviest non-metal riffs I've heard this year. So much of the credit here has to go to Brett James' in production and to Kip Moore's dogged commitment to making sure the basslines play a prominent role, because these songs have such a rock solid foundation that you almost wish he could find more to do with the mid-and-upper range, either by adding a little more guitar sizzle to go all out hard rock or throw in more steel guitars and fiddles to accentuate that country feel. Where this album can sputter is on some of the endings of various songs - in some cases, they feel way too abrupt, like on the too short lead-off single 'I'm To Blame', the title track, and the spacey 'Magic', or they stretch into extended outros that are screaming for a groove-heavy guitar solo that doesn't quite materialize, like on 'Come And Get It'.

But here's where we have to talk about the lyrics... honestly the area where I wish Kip Moore would push himself a little harder. Just like his last album, again, they aren't bad - although him saying 'girl, what's the matter with you' on 'Come And Get It' probably isn't the best way to win her over - but I find myself wishing they had more detail and texture. From the sounds of it the album he ended up scrapping between this and his debut was darker and more personal, and I kind of wish we got more of those details between the fragments we see on tracks like the lost love of 'Girl Of Summer' or the broken heart he tries to fight on 'Heart's Desire' or the real complication of impending kids that comes on 'Complicated' that throws Moore's hard living into sharp relief. But as much as I like 'Lipstick', it's a checklist song quoting cities that he sees before getting back to kiss his girl's lipstick - which really is an awkward turn of phrase - or 'What Ya Got On Tonight' where he wants the girl to send pics of what she's wearing. The odd thing is that when we do get details, they raise a lot more questions than are properly answered, like on 'That Was Us', where he talks about his group of friends raising hell just like when Brantley Gilbert used the same song title, only this time when a friend of Moore's gets beaten up by her boyfriend, we're treated to the details of Moore and his buddy getting pulled over by the cops with booze and a gun ready to go make hell for this asshole. Again, I've got questions here! But what honestly gives this album the most power lyrically is its desperation - and its palpable, especially on the closing track 'Comeback Kid'. Most of the writing and performances are so damn earnest and powerful that you can tell Kip Moore is doing everything in his power to win over an audience while maintaining his integrity, and I definitely appreciate the acknowledgement that his girl has his back even when he's ready to give up, it lends some welcome humanity to the fight.

And the sad thing is that while I really do support this album and will definitely recommend it, it'll be a hard sell to country radio, where programmers were already reticent about Brad Paisley, Dustin Lynch, and Dierks Bentley pushing the sound into spacier territory - and yet for some reason are giving Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett and Zac Brown a pass, which I'll never understand. Kip Moore would be better off pushing this straight to rock radio and ignoring country entirely, it'd probably do better, especially if songs like 'Girl Of Summer' and 'Lipstick' are upcoming singles. Because I definitely like this album, which is getting a strong 7/10 from me and a recommendation. Don't go in expecting country, and even rock fans might be a little wary, but if you can look past that, you'll get some excellently produced, powerful stuff, and I'm not about to complain about that.

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