Thursday, June 23, 2016

album review: 'california sunrise' by jon pardi

You ever have one of those artists that on paper seems to check off every single box, seems to be the sort of artist you'd automatically support, who may have even come out in a time where he was a breath of fresh air and a welcome surprise to everything and everyone else around him... and you're just not a fan?

Well, for me and modern, 'mainstream' country, California artist Jon Pardi was that person - mostly because on the surface he was decidedly not mainstream! His debut album Write You A Song, released in early 2014 in the wave of interchangeable bro-country was actually very much a neotraditional country record in its composition and presentation. And yet, given that I wasn't all that won over by his voice or his songwriting, which had an odd presumptuous air to it that kind of made the romantic tracks feel a little hollow and shallow, I would only ever say the record was decent, far from the savior of the mainstream for which a few critics lauded him.

But I'll admit artists can evolve and grow over the course of a few records, and considering how much critical appraisal Pardi has received, I figured I might as well give him another chance. After all, with the increasing rise of sterile pop country, maybe getting a slice of rougher, more rustic tones would click more strongly. Who knows, I just saw a major improvement from YG from his debut two years ago that I found underwhelming, so maybe two times the charm?

Honestly, this is the sort of record I really have a hard time reviewing - because objectively, there's very little wrong with it, the sort of melodic, solidly neotraditional country record that might be a little on the rougher side but still would fit comfortably on the radio. But the more I dug through it, the less I found that would really elevate it into the category of something I'd revisit more frequently - a pleasant listen to be sure, but outside of a few isolated snippets, not a lot that really stuck with me, no matter how much I wanted it to.

And I'm struggling to figure out why that is, because let's make this clear, I do like most of the music. If you're looking for a sonic palette that has pedal steel and fiddles and yet can balance them with a solid selection of sizzling electric guitar and a bit of organ to accent it, this album will fit the bill, including a full selection of well-balanced organic percussion along the way - hell, tracks like 'She Ain't In It' would sound just great on a mid-tier Alan Jackson record. The closest we get to mainstream country instrumentation is the slightly rougher drum machine near the very back of 'Dirt On My Boots', a song fresh from the Nashville bro-country songwriting machine, and even though I'm not wild about the spiky fiddle line, the sizzling electric guitar solo does redeem it. And that's the thing: Pardi often gives his band enough space to flex out, especially with the guitar solos, which with the exception of the meandering outro on the opener 'Out Of Style' sound pretty solid. Hell, even though there are songs that you can tell are tended for a less traditional arrangement - the guitar rollick on 'Heartbreak On The Dance Floor', the borderline bro-country of 'Can't Turn You Down' - they're slightly more agreeable with warm organic textures. But the more I listened through this record, I started encountering the exact same problem I had with most of Pardi's last album: the hooks and melody lines were not standing out all that much. Sure, you had a few: the old-fashioned cadence of 'Head Over Boots', the warm rollick of the title track, the melancholy of 'She Ain't In It', but most of these compositions felt like mid-tier Jason Aldean cuts with the rougher guitar textures and slightly richer tones overall. 

And Jon Pardi's delivery doesn't always help. I've never really been wild about his voice, but this record helped me pin down why: his slightly more nasal tone can feel a little braying against the broader subject matter, especially on points where you can tell he's kind of oversinging, and particularly when the subject matter and compositions trend towards minor keys, it can ring a little sour. Now that's not saying that Pardi isn't capable of subtlety - there are real notes of sadness that ring through on 'She Ain't In It' that prove he's got more range than his material - or that his voice doesn't work for this sort of country. On the contrary, when they try to wedge in more synthetic backing vocals on 'Heartache On The Dance Floor', it's sounds painfully forced, and that gives me the suspicion that Pardi's been fighting his label for more neotraditional-sounding cuts - hell, he dropped an EP of B-sides last year that seemed proof of it.

And yet as much as I can applaud his work reviving that sound, I'm not certain his songwriting has gotten all the way there yet. And let me make it clear there is a place for broader, less complex material, the sort of straightforward earnest tracks that would work with Pardi's voice. And thank god there isn't that air of shallow presumption that rubbed me the wrong way with his last record, but here's the issue: of the twelve songs here, a good two thirds of them focus on the exact same topic of hooking up with a girl, after a hard day's work, with little differentiating detail between them. Coupled with a lack of real stand-out hooks, it makes many of these tracks start to blur together outside of little details. It doesn't help that much of the slang that pepper these tracks feel cribbed from your standard Florida Georgia Line song with only a little more taste - Pardi might not come across as leering or clumsy as they do, but there are definitely points where the meat-headed side starts to creep in, specifically on one of the few exceptions to the hook-up songs on 'Lucky', where he's hoping to get over his ex and get lucky tonight. It kind of clashes with the more traditionalist side that comes through on 'Head Over Boots' or the old-fashioned moral to 'Out Of Style', which really feels like a louder version of Joe Nichols' 'Good Ole Country Song' from 2013, or a slightly less cutting 'Standards' from Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen. The best song on the record is easily 'She Ain't In It', trying to block out the memory and image of his ex even as he comes to grips with how much her loss has impacted his life - and surprise surprise, it's one of the few songs that Jon Pardi didn't write here.

But look, I don't want to give this album that much of a hard time, because it's clear that on some level Jon Pardi's got his heart in the right place pushing for a sound that I certainly find more agreeable. The problem is that you can do that while still not really being that interesting of an artist, and that's where I fall on much of California Sunrise. It's a decent listen for sure, with 'She Ain't In It', the title track, and maybe 'Head Over Boots' as standouts, but I'm not sure I'm going to remember much of it, which means it's getting a light 6/10 from me. Again, if you like neotraditional country or are so sick of the mainstream you'll listen to anything that'll bring back the good old days, you'll probably enjoy this, but I'm not sure it's got a ton of shelf life - just saying.

1 comment:

  1. hey big shit stink jon pardi is ATLEAST a very strong 9/10 and u need to stop revieiwng south caz you dont know how to review country