Thursday, June 9, 2016

album review: 'obsessed' by dan + shay

There's a part of me that thinks I should dislike Dan + Shay a lot more than I do.

Granted, it's a very silly and petty part of me, one that considers their brand of pop country painfully cheesy and lightweight, the sort of over-polished fluff that I'd condemn if it was coming from Hunter Hayes or Rascal Flatts... and yet I don't. For as much as they're very easy to rip on and might as well represent the "boybandification" of pop country, there's a surprising amount to like about this duo that doesn't get a lot of credit. I think a major part of it was that their debut album Where It All Began was uniformly good without being great or having huge standout singles, mostly courtesy of some pretty basic melodies and songwriting, but there was a core to this group I actually quite liked. For one, they actually tried to harmonize and tried to keep their instrumentation on the organic side, and for another the duo were the sort of songwriters able to inject enough detail to keep things a shade more interesting. Most importantly, they were so sincere in writing uncool music that I was inclined to have a measure of respect for them - despite the polish, it was authentically them, and when they referenced neotraditional country artists like George Strait, I got the impression it came from an honest place.

But while their debut has held up reasonably well, I probably was a little too generous to it - in contrast to the onslaught of bro-country that reaching the dregs of quality in 2014 - to say nothing of how bad competing pop country records like Rewind by Rascal Flatts would be - anything would have been a breath of fresh air. Now that bro-country is gone and mainstream programmers are basically plugging the radio with anything that keep the ears of the youth while steadfastly ignoring promising indie acts that promise more authentic country, Dan + Shay were poised to fill in the gap. But even with that I liked their lead-off single, and from the looks of things, Dan + Shay didn't seem to be bothering with mainstream appeal - hell, they titled their record based on a hashtag that their fans were using to describe their music. Not precisely a great sign - it did kind of smack of pandering - but again, I liked the lead-off single and I had some hope for this record. Did it deliver?

Well, that would depend on how you'd define 'deliver', because what we got from Obsessed is something we don't often see: a record that is made for the fangirls and pretty much nobody else. I'll dig into this a lot more when we talk about the writing, but if Dan + Shay were less sincere, I'd swear that they were tailoring their material to precisely the right frequency to make their audience swoon uncontrollably - very much like certain boy bands, as a matter of fact. But if you're outside of that teen girl demographic and/or you're looking for more out of Dan + Shay, do you get it? Well, that's a little tougher to evaluate, but I'd hesitate to call that album more than decent, mostly because, just like Maren Morris, there's a fair amount of missed potential here.

So might as well start with that in the instrumentation and production. Now if you've heard Where It All Began, you pretty much know exactly what you're getting in terms of mood and atmosphere: very breezy and lightweight, with very gentle acoustic and electric guitars, hints of pedal steel and piano, a bit of banjo, and light enough percussion that the duo's vocals have the most prominence. In other words, a very different tone than most of what Morris was trying... but unfortunately the same attitude towards heavier percussion over melody has slipped onto Obsessed, only this time with drum machines. And I feel like I'm repeating myself given how often I've brought this up this week, when you have a record like this that relies on flow, injecting thicker, obviously fake percussion breaks apart the melody and compromises that, especially when it and the effects around it are louder than the melody itself! Now it doesn't always happen - on tracks like the repurposed Lady Antebellum track 'All-Nighter', 'How Not To', and 'Sway' the production is a lot better balanced, and that's before we get the most country tracks like 'From The Ground Up' with it's much more lush instrumentation or the more bare-bones, piano accented 'Already Ready' that I liked more when it was 'Late To The Party' by Kacey Musgraves, but I digress. The issue that I find with the more pop-country leaning songs is that while they're decent, they don't quite take the step to true greatness with a killer harmony or an instrumental digression on the hook or a killer melody would deliver, and in comparison with the sandy cracks and pop of the percussion on 'Road Trippin' and especially 'Round The Clock', I get the feeling the pop experimentation isn't doing the duo any favours. Now you do see a bit more experimentation on 'Lately' and the title track... to arguably mixed results, in the first case letting the pedal steel fill up the background and really feeling too fragmented to come together melodically. The title track is trying for something more romantic and soulful... which is why the horns feel a bit out of place. Don't get me wrong, they sound great, but I'm not quite certain they match the low-key, tightly woven vocal harmonies - it, along with a fair few songs on this record, probably could have afforded to be more low-key and they might have stuck the landing more. In fact, I'm a little baffled why Dan + Shay didn't push in this direction - given how much they have a built-in audience thanks to the fans, they could have pressed towards more country instrumentation or more experimentation and they would have got away with it.

Hell, it's not like they don't do that as singers. Now for the most part I tend to be on-board with Dan + Shay as vocalists - they convey a lot of heartfelt sincerity and earnest passion, and moments where they harmonize are easily highpoints here. But while I will say Shay Mooney can flow better than the average pop country artist and even a few hip-hop acts I know, when he moves towards that fast-paced R&B vocal style on 'Already Ready' I'm hesitant about how much it works. On a technical level in pop R&B it works, but it comes across a little too slick to me, and I'm not sure how well it flatters them. That's always been my issue when they move more towards a rap delivery - not bad, but not anything I really care for them doing.

But of course, this album isn't for me, it's for the fans, and that takes us straight to the lyrics and themes. And in the latter category, it's simple: the majority of these tracks are fairly straightforward love songs, presented in ways to show that you, the audience, is gorgeous and Dan + Shay are head-over-heels in love with you. Hell, the premise of 'Lately' is that he's been so busy to tell you he loves you that he spends the song making up for lost time. There's only two songs that even attempt to inject drama, the first being 'How Not To' where he's trying to move on from you and yet somehow winds up back at your place in the middle of the night and then hating himself in the morning. And given how brightly the song is framed, it's a weird case: if he got dumped the romantic framing is all sorts of questionable, but if he dumped her, just get back together already, there's no good reason to be apart! 'Lipstick' actually handles things better, taking a third person picture of the girl trying to move on from heartbreak with new dates, hoping to find that spark so she doesn't have to go through the motions... but placed in the context of this album, it feels an awful lot like when Ed Sheeran released 'The A-Team', and it's clearly intended for fans to project on. And this all leads to my big issue with this record, because by all accounts this record does exactly what it's designed to do... and yet it frequently feels right on the line of fangirl pandering because the language doesn't get specific, even with less country references to flesh out the scenes. Now I don't want to hold this against the duo too much - after all, it's practically most boy bands' mission statement - but what does bug me is a lack of drama. There's no stakes to any of these tracks, nothing to ground the romance in realism with the exception of 'From The Ground Up', which means it can all feel a little flimsy, especially if you're on the outside looking in. And for a final nitpick, the choice to use the word 'Obsessed' in the title track feels like it's just over the line - play the song in minor chords and go a shade darker and everything takes a very different connotation.

Look, on some level it's pointless to dissect this any deeper because, again, the record effectively does what it was designed to do and that is make fans swoon. And I can't be too cynical about it because Dan + Shay are good enough performers and bring real sincerity to all of these love songs, and they don't feel phoned in or exploitative. But at the same time between inconsistent pop country production and some flimsy songwriting, I can't see myself liking this album as much as I liked Where It All Begain, which at least grounded itself a little better and was willing to go into more melancholic territory. So for me I'm thinking a very light 6/10, but if you're a fan of Dan + Shay, I heartily recommend this. Otherwise... there is better pop country that came out recently from Jennifer Nettles, but there is also worse stuff too, so take it as you will.

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