Tuesday, January 19, 2016

album review: 'nothing shines like neon by randy rogers band

So as many of you probably know, last year I picked up the collaboration album between two red dirt country acts, both seasoned veterans in the industry who decided to team up and make a record about being seasoned veterans in the industry and not having quite struck it gold in the mainstream. That record was called Hold My Beer, Vol. 1 by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, and it was without a doubt one of my favourite country records of 2015, but what about the men outside of the team-up?

Well, Wade Bowen has always done things in his own way, but Randy Rogers has seen a bit more success under his titular band - and note when I say success I mean barely cracking the top 40 with singles but steadily building a cult following with their album sales around the late 2000s. And for the life of me I'm surprised that they weren't more successful - sure, they had more fiddle and steel guitar and texture than your average mainstream country act, but they were signed to a major label and were willing to cross into more rock and pop textures for their successes, to the point where there were a few songs from their 2013 record Trouble that wouldn't sound that out of place on mainstream country radio... except, of course, that Jay Joyce produced it and has all the hallmarks of his clumsy work that he'd later ruin Eric Church's The Outsiders with a few months later. But the Randy Rogers Band didn't really see radio airplay, and after playing the major label game for several years, they decided to make their return to the indie scene with their album this year, promising a more neotraditional country sound with Nothing Shines Like Neon. Now, I had every reason to expect that this album would be at the worst pretty damn good, and at best something great - was I right?

Well, yeah, it is pretty solid... but really that's the most I can probably say about it, because while this is definitely a more straightforwardly country Randy Rogers Band album that I'm sure will delight hardcore fans, I'm not quite getting the same spark that I found with Hold My Beer, Vol. 1, which is one of the rare examples of the side project eclipsing the main one. There's a few good songs, a couple duds, guest stars that you would expect for a country band eager to re-establish their indie credentials, but not much beyond that really jumped off the page to establish the album beyond a solidly enjoyable listen.

And the odd thing is trying to identify why this record doesn't do more, and the first place to start would be our vocalists. Of course Randy Rogers' approachable rasp anchors this record - and it's as agreeable and versatile as it was on Hold My Beer, which becomes essential given the increased breadth of songwriting topics - but what I found interesting was how he played in contrast with the other singers. Of course his backing band provides harmonies, but the duets that spring out more are with Jamey Johnson on 'Actin' Crazy' and Jerry Jeff Walker on 'Takin' It As They Come', although I'd say neither guest outshines Rogers mostly because Johnson sound a bit more checked out on his verse than he should and Walker is playing things a little too broad with his thicker rasp - can't say I'm exactly a fan of his voice. What I found a little more exasperating is that both Allison Krauss and Dan Tyminski show up to sing on 'Look Out Yonder', and they don't really feel mixed loud enough to provide more than support on the hook.

Granted, that might be an issue across this record, which takes us to production. Now let me stress that in terms of neotradtional country, this is far from bad - crisp, breezy drums, solid acoustic and steel guitar, some piano lines that do some subtle heavy lifting, and of course the great fiddle work from Brady Black that's all over this album and is definitely welcome. And this record does push outside of that sound more than I expected, with the swampier organ on the R&B-tinged 'Rain And The Radio' to the midtempo but agreeable 'Neon Blues' and 'Tequila Eyes' - hell, even the stripped back, very middle-aged love song of 'Old Moon New' had some real power to it thanks to a pretty solid underlying melody. But it wasn't until my fourth or fifth relisten when I noticed that songs like 'Things I Need To Quit', which would normally have a much more textured or fiery guitar line, feel a little smoothed over. And once you notice it you can't stop noticing how so many of these songs don't quite have the same acoustic bite or texture, perhaps a shade too well blended into a very smooth melodic flow that can stick in the mind but can also start to run together, especially if the lyrical hooks aren't grabbing you. More on this in a bit, but I'm thinking this might be an issue with producer Buddy Cannon, because scanning through his production credits you notice he's worked on a lot of Kenny Chesney projects - in other words, it's no surprise this album lacks an edge or the sharpness to highlight rougher instrumentation or improvisation. Granted, it's not like this album has the solos that the best moments of Hold My Beer did, but it's not like the production would do much for them if it did.

But really, even if the instrumentation can start to run together, what about the lyrics? Well, here's the thing: whether Rogers writes the songs himself or pulls from others, you can expect well-written tracks with world-weary framing, and in the case most focused on the long term. Whether they be long-standing relationships that he's trying to keep fresh on the surprisingly sweet 'Old Moon New' or the girl who is trying to block out her ex at the bar knowing too much to do better on 'Tequila Eyes' or my favourite song 'Neon Blues' - even if that is just a slightly weaker version of Eric Paslay's 'She Don't Love You' - the key enemy across most of this album is time. Long-awaited returns and homecomings on 'San Antone' and 'Look Over Yonder', ex's to be left behind from the reckless mess of 'Things I Need To Quit' or the attempt to reconnect on 'Meet Me Tonight' that probably frames itself as more romantic than it should, or even just how the crazy musician life can take its heavy toll on 'Actin' Crazy' or 'Takin' It As They Come'. Now most of this material isn't new for the Randy Rogers Band, and that can get to be a problem in making these songs seem distinctive, but the larger issue is that many of these songs seem to be a shade away from the nuance and detail that would really drive them home. 'Miss Me Tonight' is the easiest example - for as much as this ex draws his attention and he's making one desperate plea, there's never really the acknowledgement that things are long buried and that there isn't any hope here, which can come across as presumptuous. Similar case for 'Look Over Yonder' - I like how it's a third person picture to his mother when he's coming home and how much he's grown and changed - but describing himself as having a heart of gold rung as a little too self-aggrandizing for me. And the self-deprecation gets pushed a little too far on 'Pour One Out For The Poor One', a song that's a tad too short to really get to the nuance as the woman gets sick of the guy's drinking, leaves, and now we're supposed to pity him, especially considering he tried changing, failed, and isn't really taking responsibility? For as mature as the record can feel, that moment rung a little sour, and it was definitely not the note where the album should have ended, because it is better than that.

But overall, while it is nice to see the Randy Rogers Band independent and making straightforward neotraditional country, it doesn't quite have the creative spark or the songwriting to really jump to being a great record. It is damn good, very listenable and likeable and it's getting a light 7/10 because of it, but I get the impression it's a very safe record that will go down easy enough but will probably end up getting lost in the shuffle along the way. Nice to see you guys back, and this was good, but I get the feeling it could have been great.

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