Friday, January 22, 2016

album review: 'pawn shop' by brothers osborne

So I talked before about how when mainstream country hits upon a formula, they try everything in their power to replicate it to usually poor results. And when Florida Georgia Line struck it big in late 2012, label executives began looking for duos that they could slide in to replicate the success of that act, preferably under the bro country template. 

The problem was that bro-country crested and crashed relatively quickly, with 2013 being the peak before the crash and replacement with the metropolitan/R&B-leaning trend, so acts that might have been primed to be pushed in that direction had to be retooled or refocused. This seemed to be the case for Brothers Osborne, a country duo whose band name could literally be shortened and amalgamated to spell 'bros', but after single 'Let's Go There' only caught minor traction on the airplay charts, they got a welcome boost from being a favourite opening act of Eric Church. This led to a team-up with his main producer Jay Joyce for retooling of their track 'Stay a Little Longer' for release almost a year ago. And as luck would have it, it's made significantly more of an impact in recent weeks, breaking the top five on country airplay and charting real impact on the Hot 100 as we speak.

As such, given that I didn't mind 'Stay A Little Longer', I decided to check out their debut record Pawn Shop. After all, they were the primary songwriters on all of their tracks, and while Jay Joyce's presence did concern me, I'm not going to deny his work with Eric Church on Mr. Misunderstood showed measurable improvements as one of my favourite albums of 2015. So did Pawn Shop deliver?

Well, much to my surprise, it mostly did. Like Untamed by Cam, this record can feel a little lumpy and misshapen, but it's hard not to see some of that as symptomatic as a debut that's been too long in coming rather than lack of identity - although unlike Cam, I definitely see a more firmly defined personality in Brothers Osborne that comes with cultivating a rough-edged, ramshackle vibe that can follow in Eric Church's wake pretty damn well - it's no surprise why he's tapped them for touring so often. In other words, this is pretty damn enjoyable - uneven for sure but with plenty of personality that shows a duo with versatility and promise.

So how did we get all of this? Well, let's start with the brothers themselves, TJ and John, the former who handles acoustic guitar and lead vocals and the latter who handles seemingly everything else, including a variety of guitars that never seems the same twice from track to track. I'll come back to this in a bit, but what many will notice most immediately is TJ's vocals - yes, the Toby Keith comparison is immediate and obvious, but TJ is playing things a little more serious and level-headed, and he dips into his lower baritone range a lot more than you'd expect. On the one hand, it gives songs like the title track and the standout album closer 'It Ain't My Fault' a ton of unique vocal personality - but on the other hand, there are points where he can feel a little too reserved to really belt and get more expressive over his rougher, heavier instrumentation, and I'm fairly certain he's got the pipes for it. And on the topic of pipes, I definitely respect that he brought on Lee Ann Womack for 'Loving Me Back' - she might just help on the hook, but the production is balanced just well enough for her fire to come through plenty clear.

Granted, production is a massive can of worms to open with this record, so might as well tackle it now. I'm not going to say that Jay Joyce's work is as scattershot as it was on The Outsiders or Little Big Town's Pain Killer, but the record is overproduced, the mix balance alternately showing all sorts of exposed, ragged edges - including some of the dirtiest percussion I've heard in country - before smoothing everything out to feel a little too clean. And what gets a little exasperating isn't so much the production itself but the inconsistency, because the standout moments don't really feel consistent with each other. I actually really liked the smoother, reverb-touched melody and bass of '21 Summer' and even how those backing vocals were layered... but when you flip it to the oddly brighter tones on 'Heart-Shaped Locket', the higher pitch and the whistle feels out-of-place and kind of jarring, especially with the lyrical subject matter. Similarly, when this album cranks up the rough edges you can get lumbering, snarled songs like the title track with the hammond organ and a filthy groove that works incredibly well, but then you get it stripped back and ragged on the beach track 'Rum' or the ode to being broke on 'Dirt Rich' and it just doesn't fit as well. Even on points where Joyce tries to find a balance things can get weird, like that swampy filter on the pre-chorus vocals of 'Stay A Little Longer' before the two solid minutes of guitar solos - yeah, definitely don't want the radio edit of this track - or in the oddly lo-fi vocal pickup on 'American Crazy' against the bright and breezy guitar that reminded me of American Authors of all things. It almost makes me think that Jay Joyce should just get the hell out of the way and let the guys play country music, because tracks with lower country rock snarl like 'Loving Me Back', 'Down Home', and 'It Ain't My Fault' are damn potent with the gimmicks, but I'm not going to lie that the one thing Jay Joyce absolutely nails is giving this record a thick enough foundation to support the vocals while still maintaining real melody. There's weight and presence and texture to this album that might not slide neatly next to most mainstream country, but on a fundamental level it feels pretty damn cohesive.

And what's interesting is how much of that is paralleled in the lyrics. As I said before, the Brothers Osborne are the primary writers across every song, with the weakest song having two cowriters with TJ - and that says something because there is a distinctive lyrical voice here, with the sort of rough-edged detail that you rarely see in mainstream country anymore. The title track is the best possible example: it might be the place where you can buy everything, but it's framed as being believably seedy in those transactions. That sort of smart framing also comes onto '21 Summer' - he remembers the girl who took his virginity and how he'd go through the heartbreak again to be with her, but also how he hopes she's still running wild and how that's not really about to happen again. I like how 'Stay A Little Longer' shows the complicated emotions that come with an on-and-off again relationship or a friends-with-benefits situation where feelings might be there underneath, or the tribute to the crowd where he gets the real endorphin high on 'Loving Me Back', or the swaggering hard-party bravado with goddamn great lyrical cadence and flow on 'It Ain't My Fault' - because all he's guilty of is a damn good time. That said, if I were to highlight an area where this album stumbles a bit, it'd be the writing, because there are a few songs that feel a little too broad like 'American Crazy', or that push the ramshackle 'broke-but-content' vibe a little too far like 'Dirt Rich' and 'Rum'. And then there's 'Heart-Shaped Locket'... and look, I like how the song is framed, how she says she's going out with the girls but really is cheating on him, and how he's second-guessing himself but is eventually proven right - but look, this is no 'The Thunder Rolls', and the tone feels bizarrely too bright to really fit with the melancholic darkness of the subject matter. Hell, I think even Shawn Mendes got this with 'I Know What You Did Last Summer', which at least tries to infuse the song with more drama, which 'Heart Shaped Locket' seems to avoid.

But putting that aside, I enjoyed this album a fair bit more than I expected I would. Sure, it's got uneven patches, but it has a distinctive voice that's well-balanced with some very solid instrumentation - the guitar work is extremely strong here, especially - and writing that has a lot of potential. I'm not quite sure they're the modern day equivalent to Brooks & Dunn or anything like that, although with a few songs that lean towards more neotraditional sounds, they're a damn closer parallel than Florida Georgia Line are, that's for sure. So for me, it's a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. I might not have been blown out of the water by any country records just yet, but this is a solid start, so check it out.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! It's a personal 6/10 for me.

    Can you please review the new album, "In The Magic Hour" by Aoife O' Donovan? It's more of a folk/pop release than outright independent country, but I'm still interested in your thoughts.

    Whatever you decide, thank you in advance! I recently stumbled upon your reviews and am glad to see someone cover country with as much specificity as you do.