Thursday, February 18, 2016

album review: 'the driver' by charles kelley

So I have said in the past that I don't care about the Grammys - it's an industry award that's more intended to recognize popular opinion than critical consensus, and it's often just as political as the Academy Awards - see the Best Album award this year. But sometimes the Grammys manage to surprise me, and when the nominations were announced for this year, there was a song nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Furthermore, it was a song that seemingly dropped overnight, and since then has never broken the Top 40 on country radio. Not the Billboard Hot 100, which might as well have no idea this song exists, but on country radio. Think about this for a second: this is a song from two well-established artists and a third with some critical acclaim, and this song went nowhere. In other words, for me this looked more like the Grammys trying to plug a hole in the ballots with whatever might fit, especially considering it didn't win.

But is that unfair? The song, as you're all probably aware by now, is the title track from Charles Kelley's debut album - and if you don't recognize the name, he's the frontman of Lady Antebellum, a band that I've always found frustrating in that I should like them more than I do. Now of the members of Lady Antebellum I tend to like Charles Kelley more than Hillary Scott for having a voice with more unique character... but let's be honest, we're not exactly hurting for male mainstream country acts right now, especially when he doesn't even have the majority of songwriting credits on his own album. And that was presuming this record would be country at all! Lady Antebellum has always rested on the border between country and adult alternative, and considering the album included a Tom Petty cover with Stevie Nicks - because why not make the Fleetwood Mac parallel all the stronger - I honestly wasn't sure what Charles Kelley would be delivering with this. But on the other hand, it was only nine tracks and I was curious, so how did The Driver turn out?

Honestly, a little better than I expected, and it's only because this album falls into a rare category: generally pretty passable with the exception of two tracks that might as well be major contenders for my favourite songs thus far this year. And the disparity of quality between the two places me in a bit of an awkward position: judge the album better because of those songs, or more harshly because it doesn't measure up to the potential on display? It's frustrating in a peculiar sort of way, especially because outside of those two songs, I really don't have much to say about this record outside of an easy recommendation if you like the more adult alternative side of country music, which for the most part I do.

Because let's address this immediately: this album isn't that far removed from your standard Lady Antebellum release in terms of tones, textures, and delivery. You get your more neotraditional country tracks - 'The Driver', 'Leaving Nashville', 'I Wish You Were Here' with Miranda Lambert - complete with more acoustic melodies and steel guitar and strings, and since this is a mainstream country record, you get material that's got more of an R&B flavour like 'The Only One Who Gets Me' or the bass-heavy 'Dancing Around It'. And to his credit, Kelley opts for as much organic instrumentation and percussion as he can get away with and a surprising amount of bass foundation, from the heartland rock touches on 'Your Love' in the buzzed out groove to the rattling 'Round In Circles' with piano accents that reminds me way too much of 'Stay A Little Longer' by the Brothers Osborne to the point where I was actively waiting for the guitar solo that never really materialized. By far the weirdest track was 'Lonely Girl', which anchors itself in a chintzy piano line, bass melody and a rollick in the strings that I'd say reminds me of disco and yet it feels way too brittle to really hold together. And yet even while some melodies like 'The Driver' feel a tad conventional, that melody does always remain in the forefront and it keeps most of these songs surprisingly memorable. If I were to criticize the production at all, it'd come in some of the backing vocals - I get having Eric Paslay sing harmony on 'The Driver', but the odd upper timbre of most of the rest of the vocals doesn't always blend particularly well with Kelley's, I think a little bit more of a contrasting tone or harmony might have sounded a little better.

Granted, I only noticed this because for the most part, I really liked the vocals here. Of course Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley were going to pull their weight, but I was surprised how much passion and weathered fire that Kelley had - he might not have the huge pipes of a Chris Stapleton, but I reckon he's got a emotive subtlety that pulls a lot of weight, even some pretty typical relationship songs like 'The Only One Who Gets Me' or 'I Wish You Were Here'. But on the topic of that song, I was a little exasperated Miranda Lambert didn't have more of a role beyond backing support - she sounds fine, but I was hoping for a verse, at least. And then there's the cover of 'Southern Accents' by Tom Petty with Stevie Nicks... and honestly, it's a weird choice for a cover, because it's not like Kelley has a particularly strong southern drawl as it is. He sounds fine enough here, even if Nicks' voice has taken a real beating over the past decades, but it is a little distracting considering the content.

But for me to talk about the songs that really connected, we've got to get into lyrics - and the name you'll want to watch for in the liner notes is Abe Stoklasa, a veteran songwriter who easily manages to slip in the most nuance to his compositions - even to songs where Charles Kelley is coaxing the girl towards cheating like on 'Dancing Around It', because while Kelley would like it to become a real thing, he knows that for her sake, they have to keep dancing around the issue. It's a shame that sort of nuance couldn't slip into tracks like 'Lonely Girl', which unfortunately caters very much to the pick-up of a girl who has recently broken up... just comes in worst taste than this album would otherwise deliver. But really, more of the issue is that the material can feel a little formulaic in the love songs and hookup tracks... with two major exceptions. The first is - much to my surprise - 'The Driver', a song about touring on the road and being a country singer that can feel a little broadly sketched in its archetypes but is delivered with such plain-spoken and accessible pathos that it's no surprise the Grammys nominated it in the first place. But the song that hit me like a ton of bricks was 'Leaving Nashville', and I'll be blunt: while Charles Kelley didn't write this song, this might as well be the best song that he'll ever be associated with, because it's a detail-filled gutpunch of what being a songwriter in Nashville really is like. Sacrificing artistic integrity for money, ignoring collaborators and friends who haven't made it until you're in their place, six months dry without a hit, deals cut in bars that's undercut with vomit in parking lots and worries about making rent... and yet he's not leaving Nashville. He's still writing to find his dreams and some vestige of success, if only for the briefest second. It's a heartbreaking, stripped back track that Kelley sells incredibly well, and ironically shows that this album is at its best when it's about making country music. And sure, I have a fondness for these sorts of songs already, but the writing also is a cut above in terms of detail and impact, self-awareness tempered with world-weariness that never loses hope.

So yeah, if you're looking for two reasons to check out The Driver, the title track and 'Leaving Nashville' are all the reason I need. But outside of that, is this record worth your time? Honestly, I enjoyed it more than the last Lady Antebellum release, mostly because it shuns the pop trappings for something a little more downtempo and mature, and yet is kept brisk enough to never wear out its welcome - only nine tracks, and it doesn't waste time. So for me, I'd say a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation - again, the two best songs are head and shoulders above the rest, but it's still worth a listen regardless. And hell, if Charles Kelley wants to continue going solo, this is a damn solid place to start.

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