Friday, October 23, 2015

album review: '35 mph town' by toby keith

I'm starting to think Toby Keith might have a problem.

And no, it has nothing to do with the asinine feud with the Dixie Chicks that was around a decade ago or any assumptions of political allegiance that lack basis in fact or the drunken concert incidents that would be a black mark on his career if it wasn't for the dozens of songs he's written about booze. No, this is a larger issue tied to his music: namely, its relevance.

See, as much as Toby Keith has criticized bro-country for its inability to take anything seriously or get political or real, it's hard not to look at the success Toby Keith has had in recent years and ignore the hypocrisy. As much as I might like Toby Keith - the guy has a lot of charisma, a ton of range as a performer both comedic and dramatic, and a knack for writing great hooks - it's hard for me to not look at his past few albums and see some of the laziness. This is his eighteenth album in twenty-two years, and at this point the sheer amount of filler and bad songs are starting to pile up and obscure the true gems. And look, I liked most of Drinks After Work when I reviewed it in 2013, but in retrospect outside of certain moments it was forgettable. And the frustrating fact is that I get the uncanny feeling Toby Keith knows that and just doesn't care like before. It's not like he's under any sort of pressure - he's on his own label and probably enough royalty money to easily coast, and for the life of me I have no idea what's inspiring him right now. He tried to get his daughter Krystal's career off the ground with an album he produced, but that went nowhere and I think I was one of the few people who cared enough to review it.

So maybe it's a good thing he's now working with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark on his newest album, two songwriters I actually like and respect and the latter who dropped one of the best country albums of the 2010s thus far, at least for his leadoff single. I had hopes his newest album 35 MPH Town would at least be passable - did Toby Keith pull it off?

Honestly, he didn't pull off much of anything beyond something that might satiate whatever few fans he's got left, especially if you judge by his abysmal first week sales. Barely over a half hour of music, ten tracks, generally not much that I'd brand as all that memorable or eye-catching, it doesn't even really have the stabs at other forms of country that peppered Drinks After Work. Instead, we get 35 MPH Town, which feels slapdash and sloshed, and even as a Toby Keith fan, there's not a lot I love here.

And really, a lot of what I do like is tied to Toby Keith himself. As much as he goes broad and goofy, as much as his baritone can feel slurred and off-kilter - especially on this record for more reasons than one - he still has a damn good voice and tons of charisma. He still has a knack for winking self-deprecation that can make goofy tracks like 'Every Time I Drink I Fall In Love' somewhat endearing, or 'Good Gets Here', which plays like Sam Hunt's 'Take Your Time' but with the knowing acknowledgement he's got no chance and he's playing the clown almost because he's got nothing else - in other words, markedly better than Sam Hunt.

And it does help that Toby Keith at least has a knack for solid melodies and compositions. Even if this record doesn't really venture much out of his comfort zone - bar sing-alongs, meandering yacht rock, and a few heartfelt country ballads that actually do feature a key change or two to tug the heartstrings. And to his credit, while most of the instrumentation isn't anything special - it's overly broad, the chord progressions are familiar - he does throw a few welcome curveballs, like the horns that might as well have been taken from a Mavericks record or the accordion and fiddle that show up on 'Drunk Americans'. Hell, for the most part the instrumentation and percussion on this album is decidedly country with rollicking grooves, steel guitar, and pretty decent acoustic texture - nothing spectacular, especially as the guitar layering can feel a little clumsy, but the broad strokes do connect, especially on the midtempo album closer 'Beautiful Stranger' with the strings. There are a few guitar tones that feel a little thin or sour, like 'Good Gets Here' and especially '10 Foot Pole', but I think the biggest issue I have is that the lack of thicker, more distinctive grooves doesn't help individual songs stand out beyond a few moments. This is Toby Keith playing in his comfort zone, and while he's a good enough performer to make it feel genuine, it does feel lacking in vigour and deeper passion.

Of course, if we're looking for that one element that courses through this entire album, it's alcohol - normally nothing new for a country album but it rapidly moves past social lubricant territory and into sloppiness. And sure, that worked for the goofy 'Red Solo Cup', but that song at least had some cleverness in the writing, whereas most of this album doesn't really bother to try. Sure, 'Drunk Americans' crosses all boundaries in inebriation - and presumably in the hangover next morning - but then we have 'Rum Is The Reason', a yacht rock-inspired ditty that seems to glorify alcohol's inebriation qualities by focusing on all the leaders, good and ill around the world who could have done so much more if they weren't trashed. And sure, it might have been true for Stalin and the Soviets, especially around the time when the Berlin Wall came down, but Hitler was a teetotaler and a vegetarian - he wasn't going to be having beer and weenies - and yes, that was the way Toby Keith phrased it. There are a few other drinking songs that fall more in the country vein like 'Haggard, Hank & Her', and they interweave with the other major theme of this record: Toby Keith getting dumped, which I guess are supposed to further emphasize that sad sack figure, but really none of them go deep and the sour comedic tones of '10 Foot Pole' really don't add to much. I will say there are two songs that do stick the landing - the Chris Young-esque hookup track and closer 'Beautiful Stranger', which does a lot for making a world-weary one night stand feel like more than it is, and bizarrely the Jimmy Buffett team-up 'Sailboat For Sale', playing both men as getting screwed over by a deal made drunk for a boat swap where theirs is left without a throttle. I'd call it a poignant metaphor for their careers if I was at all certain it was intentional, but I doubt it is - and really, the song has some pretty solid vocal harmonies, so I'm inclined to like it.

But on that bright note we have to talk about the absolute worst track on this album: the title track, telling the story of Toby Keith's mom locking up the door in their small town because apparently the kids are running crazy and getting high and it ain't like it used to be because there's no more bible and manners. To at least be fair here, the song admits that it's not really the kids' fault entirely, but it still rings as pretty damn hypocritical to say the younger generation is lazy and crazy and when they aren't stealing they're suing and deserve harsh discipline to get in line when a.) most Millennials would love to work if there were stable jobs available from an economy we didn't single-handedly mismanage; and b.) when Toby Keith isn't a multimillionaire who owes his success to churning out album after album with diminishing, increasingly drunken returns. 

So look, at this point many of you probably have made up your minds whether you care about Toby Keith releasing a country album or not - he's made eighteen of them, and this is far from being one of his best. It's far from gratuitously offensive or awful, but there's not a lot you're going to remember in a year or even a month after listening. And as a guy who is a Toby Keith fan, that's a problem, and unless this changes, I'm going to be out of reasons to keep covering these token releases. For me, it's a light 6/10 and even that feels generous. Recommended if you're a fan, but it's nothing you haven't heard before, and that, if anything, is the real disappointment.

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