Thursday, December 17, 2015

album review: 'untamed' by cam

So now that we're heading into the final weeks of this year, I think I can state this definitively: it was not a banner year for country music, especially for women and especially in the mainstream. Forgetting the ugly 'tomato' controversy and focusing just on the music, not only were the crossover hits fewer than ever, you'd typically have to add some heavy qualifications to calling them country at all. And the sad thing is that if you look to the indie scene, it wasn't that the records were bad so much as they were underwhelming compared to their previous work. Lindi Ortega, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, it happened to all of them, and it's not like any of them were crossing over to compete with Maddie & Tae or Carrie Underwood or Kelsea Ballerini any time soon.

Now there were two big 'exceptions' to this rule, the first being the unprecedented success of Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush', but I'm inclined to disqualify it from the conversation because Pain Killer dropped in 2014, they're a mixed-gender band, and you'd have to put some serious qualifiers on calling that country instead of folk or maybe even pop. The second is the unexpected sleeper hit of 'Burning House' by Cam, a song that I was initially not particularly impressed by when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but in retrospect have come to appreciate a fair bit. That song - which has turned out to be the highest selling country song from a female artist in 2015 - led me to dig a little more into Cam, a singer from San Francisco who got her start as a songwriter before meeting up with producers Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, the latter who in recent years has been known to work with Kanye West, Natalia Kills, fun., Beyonce, and most recently Mark Ronson on his chart-dominating smash 'Uptown Funk'. In other words, we're looking an artist who once wrote for Miley Cyrus, seemed the furthest thing from Nashville and who ended up signed to Arista Nashville, the label of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Worse still, even despite some positive critical press the label decided to release her debut album in mid-December - otherwise known as the dumping ground for album releases that labels have zero confidence will stick, because year-end lists are getting published, the charts are slowing down, and most people just don't care in the same way for new releases during the holiday season. And yet 'Burning House' continues to rise on the charts  and I figured I might as well try to give Cam's debut a chance if nobody else would - so how did it turn out?

Well, initially I was set to sing this album's praises to the high heavens - finally, a female-fronted pop country record that would have a shot at making my year end list. And yet after repeated listens, I'd be lying if I didn't say it hasn't faded a little. Now make no mistake, there's a lot to like about Untamed across the board... but it's also uneven and has enough questionable notes and decisions that drove me to take a cautious step back, and I'm not sure how well this album holds up under sharper focus.

And the place we have to start is Cam herself... and honestly, I'm a bit torn on her as a performer. She's got a certain bubbly energy that creeps through on tracks, a lot of optimism to match a very clear vocal tone that can play melancholy reasonably well, but at the same time I've had a bit of a hard time getting a nail on what makes special or stand out among other pop country acts. She doesn't quite have the huge force of personality that labelmate Carrie Underwood has, but there is some strident charisma there that only gets further accentuated by some excellent multi-tracking and great vocal arrangements. And while I'm not entirely convinced she's got a handle on a rougher delivery to match some of her instrumentation - more on this in a bit - she's got enough personality to anchor some willful yet vulnerable pop country. There are points that can go a little broad - most notable 'Country Ain't Never Been Pretty', but really those are pretty minor gripes.

Where the issues start cropping up is in the instrumentation and production, and where I expect the majority of the backlash to come up. You could argue that Cam pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch by opening with a delicate acoustic ballad, because it's not at all representative of most of her sound, which brings in a lot of thicker textured acoustic grooves - most of which sound great - with some thick, sizzling riffs. And yet it's all being driven forward by some of the meatiest backbeats and basslines I've heard in country this year, and you can immediately tell that Jeff Bhasker is bring percussion-centric production to country music. And yet I'm going to tell you that in most cases, this actually works more often than it doesn't, and it comes down to layering and groove. Most of Bhasker's beats aren't so thick that they swamp out the mix, and they're nearly always supported by either a picked acoustic strum or a melodic accent, like piano or strings or steel guitar. And while the percussion is prominent - perhaps a little too close to the front of the mix at points, especially considering how good most of these melodies are - it never feels like the groove and momentum has been compromised, which leads to some great moments, like the choppy spark of the guitars on 'Hungover On Heartache' or the piano and acoustic accents on 'Mayday' or the punchy handclaps on 'Want It All'. And then there's the twin hits of 'My Mistake' and especially 'Runaway Train', which amps up the smoky guitar sizzle to punch up that groove - Cam has said she's inspired by Eric Church on this album, and I can definitely see it in the guitar production. And yet that's a double-edged sword: not only do you lose some instrumental subtlety that could have highlighted the melodies further, but you don't have as many moments to really let the tracks breathe naturally. And even when they do like on the smoother album closer 'Village', you could have pitched out the backbeat and the song would have been better for it.

And frustratingly, some of that lack of subtlety creeps into the writing. Now to be completely fair to Cam, she's got the personality and deft writing to make broader tracks like the messy breakup of 'Hungover On Heartache' or the collapse towards a relationship she doesn't want on 'Mayday' have dramatic impact, especially as you realize she's just using it to avoid being alone, a fear that seems to sneak through a fair few songs on this album, from the reflection back to the collapse of love on 'Burning House' to trying to replace an old friend and lover who moved out west on 'Cold In California'. And I definitely do appreciate the framing of most of these songs: Cam certainly is headstrong and it means she gets her heart broken plenty of times, but tracks like 'Want It All' and 'My Mistake' shows her willing to own her actions, be they bad relationships or one night stands. And that bluntness carries into tracks like 'Half Broke Heart', where she just wants the guy to cut through the excuses and be honest with her - hell, this is a woman who describes her rage after a guy betrays her like a runaway train, subtlety takes a bit of a backseat here. But if Eric Church managed with Mr. Misunderstood to really connect through subtler moments, it's the overly broad chunks of Untamed that stumble for me. Flip the gender of the title track and it might as well be above-average bro-country, and then there's the absolute worst song on the album 'Country Ain't Never Been Pretty', which takes plenty of potshots at country stars more concerned with city image than authenticity. And here's my issue - forgetting the asinine double standard that comes for women in mainstream country that you have to have the looks to sell albums, my issue is how sloppy it feels. I mean, saying the brand of your jeans doesn't matter because 'your man's hand is going to be covering it anyway' or saying that beer goggles are cheaper than Gucci? Look, I like Gretchen Wilson's 'Redneck Woman' as much as anyone, but her image was more practical than Cam's, which just seems to wallow in its own mess, and even despite a pretty decent country flavour still feels clumsy.

So in the end, I do like Cam's Untamed for finding a way to take percussion-driven production and give it some pop country groove, and there are some songs that really do stick with me - but again, it's an uneven record and I feel that it loses impact with each subsequent listen, a lot of initial impact that reveals itself lacking underneath. But maybe I'm being too harsh here - I can't compare everything to Lucy Hale's star-making Road Between from last year, and I do think there's promise in Cam's writing and presentation that could further define her personality. So for me, I'm thinking a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a pop country fan and looking for another woman to root for in the mainstream. The industry might not be supporting her the way they should, but so I might as well step up. 

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