Friday, November 20, 2015

album review: 'i'm comin' over' by chris young

So here's a fun question for you all: you're a reasonably popular artist and you catch wind that your genre's shifting in a new direction, riding a new trend. So you hop on that trend and it goes reasonably well, but not quite as well as your earlier material, not quite resonating with your audience in the same way - what do you do?

Well, in the case of Chris Young it's arguably pretty simple: you pivot back to what you were doing originally and keep up the routine - you've arguably got the easiest transition path, especially if you take a firmer hand in the songwriting. And if you look at Chris Young's career trajectory over the past four or five years, that's exactly what he's done. Hitting it big in the latter half of the 2000s with a slew of #1 hits, he hopped onboard the bro-country trend for his 2013 album AM, hiring the best of Nashville's songwriting machine to blend his brand of neo-traditional, adult-contemporary leaning country music towards what was cresting in the mainstream. And yet even despite making what I'd deem as one of the best bro-country albums with some of my favourite country songs of 2013, it wasn't an album that produced the sorts of hits previous records like The Man I Want To Be and Neon had. And in a way that makes sense - Chris Young has always been more of a mature romantic, not the sort of guy that would play well with debauched party tracks. It definitely helped matters that he seemed like a stand-up guy, so that when rumours leaked about him being involved in Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert's divorce, Young shot them down so emphatically that I'm inclined to believe him.

So for his upcoming album, Chris Young seemed to be doing everything right: he cut his writing team down to a solid essential team, took more of a songwriting role than he had ever done in the past, and with the lead-off single and title track made it very clear he was transitioning back to modern yet neotraditional country. Hell, he even picked up Vince Gill for a duet, along with Cassadee Pope, an artist I legitimately forgot existed since I reviewed her last record two years ago. For a mainstream country release, he was doing everything right and while I didn't expect this would be better than, say, Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church, I had some hope this could turn out well. Was I right?

Well, you ever have those records that should be right up your alley and that you really want to like more than you do... and yet the more you listen through them, they seem to be missing that special spark? That's I'm Comin' Over by Chris Young. It's not a bad record by any stretch - it's pleasant, generally listenable - but when you realize that Tim McGraw somehow made the more transgressive and interesting record out of recent mainstream country releases, you're in trouble. 

So let's start with Chris Young himself - and look, the guy has a great voice that's liquid smooth, has real gravitas in his lower range, and a lot of charisma. All of that can make up for a lot - provided the production and writing can play to it. And the more I listened through it, I realized the first, huge problem: the production. James Shroud had been responsible for producing Chris Young's successful singles in the late 2000s, but for this album he swapped out for Corey Crowder and himself and I can't tell you how bad of a decision this was. See, even up to A.M. Chris Young's music had a thicker, heavier foundation supporting it, meatier guitars, richer pianos - there was body and texture to his music to compliment his voice. But across I'm Comin' Over Chris Young seems to have sanded away any hint of this body, which leaves the guitar melodies way too lightweight and any sort of bass groove feeling weedy and completely underweight. Chris Young completely overpowers any actual instrumentation... well, with the exception of the percussion, which seems to be the only element kept at the same volume - and yet bizarrely it feels muddy, only really distinctive when you can tell the obvious drum machines creep in on 'Alone Tonight' and 'Sunshine Overtime', the latter of which has choppy lack of groove you'd expect to hear on a Kelsea Ballerini track! And of course, like all bad production it's completely inconsistent, mostly evident on the choruses or whenever you're trying to focus on a prominent guitar rollick or melody, all of which is squashed into a slurry beneath Chris Young's vocals, in probably the worst example on 'Callin' My Name', which compliments generic lyrics with production that somehow feels even more blurred over.

And the frustrating thing is that it might as well be the motif of this record, because while Cassadee Pope mostly holds her own on one of the few highlights of this album on 'Think Of You' - and even with that she gets one verse and is considerably quieter than Young on the bridge or chorus - the real crime is with Vince Gill on 'Sober Saturday Night', where he plays glorified backing singer where his guitar solo is more audible than he is! Talk about squandering the potential of an otherwise pretty good song, which you can also apply to so many of the instrumentals as well. You get solid melodic riffs with steel or electric guitar that open up a lot of songs like the title track or the gentle rollick on 'Think Of You' or 'I Know A Guy' that actually has acoustic texture or the rattling scratch of the strums on 'Sober Saturday Night', but the second the chorus kicks in, so much of it feels crushed and lacking a distinctive instrumental melody or any sort of texture. Then you have tracks like 'Underdogs', which seems destined to be played on ESPN for the next decade, and yet even there the bite of the guitar riff seems oddly muffled even before the chorus. And when you also take into consideration that most of these songs not only run short but easily feature more chorus than verses or completely lack any sense of dynamics or real crescendo, a lot of this album completely runs together, with even the hints of synth or the organ that slips into the background of 'Sunshine Overtime' and 'What If I Stay' feeling all the more forgettable.

Now to give Chris Young credit, the one element that does do some heavy lifting on this record is the lyrics, in that while they're rarely great, they're never outright bad. I already mentioned that most of this album focuses on hooks and choruses - a bad sign when so many of them aren't memorable - but lyrically the writing has a good cadence and actually flows pretty well. And just like with previous records, while there are some generic love songs like 'Heartbeat' or 'Callin' My Name', there are songs like 'Think Of You' that aim a little deeper, in that case about old hangouts and friends that can lose their sparkle after a breakup. Or take 'I Know A Guy', which shows Young speaking to an ex than he still wants but framing it in the third person as he tries to show he wants to get back together - it's not groundbreaking stuff, but it's reasonably clever. Certainly better than 'You Do The Talkin', a song directed at his car radio while he wants to sweet talk the girl - it's just as ridiculous as it sounds. The problem with the lyrics on this album aren't that they are precisely bad but just forgettable - not particularly clever beyond a few structural gimmicks, and none of the subject matter steps a toe away from his comfort zone.

And you know, to most of Chris Young's older, more adult-contemporary leaning audience, that's just fine, especially compared to the series of fumbles that have been Blake Shelton's transition back into this territory. But when Chris Young went towards bro-country and probably made one of the best albums in that subgenre, I was hoping that in coming back to this brand of country he'd play things with a little more maturity or edge. Instead, it feels a bit like a regression with worse production - nowhere near as classy or reserved, a bland facsimile of material he's done better in the past. This record was a real disappointment for me, especially coming off of A.M., and it's getting a light 6/10 from me. Sure, fans will like it and give it a pass, but frankly, I'm not there - he's done better than this.

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