Monday, October 5, 2015

album review: 'tangled up' by thomas rhett

There's no easy way to do this review.

See, this is the problem with being one of the few critics who covers country on YouTube and one of the only ones who covers mainstream country. I feel I've got an obligation to show off the best stuff, mostly because I want to see it get more traction, but for the bad stuff... well, who wants this review? Certainly not me because as I've said in the past, negative reviews aren't often that fun, and you guys mostly come for recommendations. I know there's a certain visceral catharsis watching someone tear into a terrible record, but there's a hollowness to it for me - if there was ill intent, I could feel righteous, but this is just taking out the trash.

Now some of you have realized this is all predicated on the album being bad, which is not an assumption you ever want to enter into when it comes to art. The big problem was that almost every factor going into this record screamed of outright disaster. I covered Thomas Rhett's debut album back in 2013 when bro-country was near its peak, and that album sucked. And it did so in perhaps one of the worst possible ways: by being so forgettably sterile and limp its production and melodies that the only things that stood out were Thomas Rhett's obnoxious voice and even more obnoxious personality. Let me put it like this: when you owe your industry career to your dad being an average-at-best songwriter and you make songs like the cheating song 'Take You Home' and 'All-American Middle Class White Boy', and frame them both as glorification rather than commentary, there's nothing I can remotely respect about it. 

So I'll give Thomas Rhett the slightest bit of credit when he announced he was taking his new album Tangled Up in a different direction, more towards a metropolitan pop country sound. The problem was putting aside that he needed over twenty additional songwriters to do this, the lead-off single was 'Crash And Burn', a slice of bad pseudo-vintage pop that outright stole from Sam Cooke's 'Chain Gang', made Thomas Rhett look and sound like a braying asshole, and was cowritten by Chris Stapleton, which just makes me feel really, really sad. The presence of LunchMoney Lewis and Jordin Sparks on the features list only made me feel worse - more talented people completely wasting their time. That said, the ballad 'Die A Happy Man' actually seemed decent, and right now, this album has nowhere to go but up - is there anything that can save it?

Folks, I admit I went in with low expectations... but I wasn't expecting this. This was Thomas Rhett's attempt at genre blending country, pop, R&B, funk, and even hints of rock and hip-hop... and it's a catastrophe. To put it another way, I didn't expect to find a record that might be comparable to the disaster that was Rae Sremmurd this year, but Thomas Rhett is coming damn close. Worse than Miley Cyrus's psychedelic disaster. Worse than Chris Brown and Tyga collaborating to horrendous results. Hell, by comparison Lana Del Rey and Mumford & Sons might as well be poet laureates - I might not have liked those albums, but at least they were more cohesive and worked better than this nightmare. And this is across the board - production, instrumentation, vocals, lyrics, this album flat out does not work and is barely saved by a single decent song. Yeah, that bad.

So where to even start with this... well, might as well start with Thomas Rhett himself. Believe it or not, I will say he's putting a lot of himself into this record, and there are points where I can buy the sincerity - he believes what he's selling. The fact that most of what he's selling is entirely unlikeable is the real issue, and that's only emphasizes all the more by his vocal tone. Nasal and grating, completely lacking in any sort of grit that you can tell the background singers - some of them recognizable like Chris Stapleton - are helping however they can. What's worse, he's trying to come off as having swagger and sexual intensity in a retro-R&B vein that's painfully weak, it has the sound of a drunk frat boy stumbling on stage at karaoke trying to get through an off-brand bro-country or N'Sync track.

And the sad fact is that I wasn't kidding about the genre karaoke comparison, especially when it comes to the instrumentation and production. Speaking as a guy who grew up with such a machine, regularly goes out to sing, and has even DJ'ed karaoke a few times, one of the biggest hang-ups I have about karaoke is that the backing tracks are often pretty slapdash and lacking the same gravitas you'd normally see - mostly because they're produced on the cheap and almost never with the original instrumentation. And thus it's telling that with the exception of the audio fidelity, the production is flimsy, astoundingly synthetic, and cheap, especially on the obvious bro-country songs like 'Anthem', 'Like It's The Last Time', 'T-Shirt', 'Single Girl', or 'Learned It From The Radio'. The electric guitars are almost universally gutless, the fake strings and horns are painfully obvious, the cymbals and drums are mixed too high and compressed into a slurry, the synth tones have no vibrancy or colour, and there's so much pitch correction slathered over the mix that you have to wonder if the producers are desperately trying to fix it in post. And that's when it's even trying to be country: I've already talked plenty of times how 'Crash And Burn' is vintage pop that outright steals from Sam Cooke's 'Chain Gang', but then there's 'Die A Happy Man', a song that I originally liked a fair bit until you realize how much it's a shameless rip-off of 'Thinking Out Loud' by Ed Sheeran. 

And that's before we get to songs like 'Tangled' that with the soundbox intro and attempt at a retro-disco rollick or the faux-R&B of 'I Feel Good' with the oily synth and admittedly decent bassline that feels like something that would have dropped in the late-90s boy band years in their more obvious R&B emulation, the latter song only saved by LunchMoney Lewis cashing a cheque for eight forgettable bars. And on the topic of guest stars, we have Jordin Sparks being totally underused on the early-2010s Carrie Underwood ripoff 'Playing With Fire' that could have actually worked if it had proper mix balance or guitar snarl or could place Sparks at the same volume as Rhett instead of placing her as a glorified background singer! And that's before we get Thomas Rhett trying to take cues from modern hip-hop and it's some of the most embarrassing nonsense I've heard all year, from the trap hi-hats on 'Anthem' to the 'please commence shaking your south side' that opens up the aggressively atrocious 'South Side' before Rhett mimicks DJ Mustard's call sign on a beat that's part creaking acoustic guitar, part fake drums, part bassline, and part kazoo. And then we have 'Vacation' that opens with a promising guitar rumble before Thomas Rhett drops into a rap cadence that jacks part of the Migos flow against neutered organ, sleigh bells, and a guitar line that sleazy enough to be gross but not enough to be fun. The one good thing I can say is there was a bit more steel guitar than I'd otherwise expect, but when the drums all sound painfully fake, there's more fake scratching than a bad late 90s live Nickelodeon pilot, and none of the instrumental melodies are remotely memorable, why should I care?

But I'll give Thomas Rhett the slightest bit of credit and say that despite being a rip-off, 'Die A Happy Man' is at least passable from a songwriting point of view. Hell, 'The Day You Stop Looking Back' is probably the best track on the album by playing to a stripped back country sound about counselling a girl to move on from a guy ruining her life - although why Rhett frames himself as a player with the usage of 'I' makes it look suspiciously like he's just trying to egg his girl to forget the past and get with him. And that's where we get to the attitudes that underscore this record and where it really starts pissing me off. Because sure, you can make the argument that there's only so much you can get mad at a dumb party record, because that's all it is, right? Well, I'd argue it runs deeper than that and it manifests most in the framing: the smug, obnoxious, and complete ignoring of any consequences. Thomas Rhett lets another love crash and burn on the titular song - so why should we as the audience care if he doesn't? We get songs like 'Anthem' and 'Learned It From The Radio' that seem to celebrate the power of bro-country songs, but it feels like throwing a party for another party that wasn't that good to begin with, in the former case trying to point out tropes in modern bro-country like Marianas Trench did for pop on 'Pop 101' - only that band realized you needed to write a decent song first. Yes, I'll admit there's no song as aggressively hateful as 'All American Middle Class White Boy', but it doesn't make this album's writing any less banal and formless, half loaded with bro-hookup cliches and half with brand names like Bud Light Lime - which Rhett admits he doesn't even like on 'I Feel Good'! What you realize with Tangled Up is that once you tear past the rotten instrumentation and production and aggressively obnoxious vocals, the lyrics are only ever memorable for being asinine, from the fangirl pandering of 'Single Girl' to leering after-sex jam of 'T-Shirt' to the country rap ass-shaking of 'South Side'. And you want to know the cruellest irony of it all? On the final track 'Learned It From The Radio', Rhett tries to salute the small-town DJs that made country music special and possible - only to never realize that thanks to the increased radio consolidation that made Thomas Rhett successful, so many of those small town stations are gone - and so many of them would never have played Thomas Rhett.

Because let's be clear here: this should not be played on country radio, because it's not country music. It's one of the most shameless grab-bag of genres that shows if the Zac Brown Band has the compositional skills to make it work, Thomas Rhett and his army of songwriters show what happens when it doesn't. This is pop country at its most flailing, incompetent, and only gaining success because country radio is so desperate to hold onto sliding ratings that they're racing towards the crossover audience without any regard for quality. But fine, is it good by pop standards? Well, no - terrible production, brainless without being charming, completely lacking in memorable instrumental melodies that aren't blatantly stolen, and a frontman who only has a career thanks to low standards in bro-country and nepotism. Folks, this is a 2/10, and there's no way in hell I can recommend this. Oh, and you want me to piss all of you off? This almost had double the sales of CHVRCHES' sophomore release during its debut week - congratulations, America, for living down to my expectations.

No comments:

Post a Comment