Thursday, August 4, 2016

album review: 'american love' by jake owen

Let's talk about charisma. I think a lot of people - and I include critics in this - who downplay how much charisma contributes to an act's success and viability, but let's get real: there are people who 'have it' who can stick around and become superstars; and people who don't and have to utilize every trick in the bag to compensate. These are the artists who make it look easy like Usher and Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake and Ludacris, or the people with such prodigious stage presence where you can't help but look, like Garth Brooks or Ke$ha or - as much as I don't like to admit it - Luke Bryan. And artists who have raw charisma can often get away with a lot more than less-expressive counterparts, or somehow find a way to what would destroy so many other performers and make it something that connects.

So let's talk about Jake Owen, arguably one of the most immediately charismatic country stars to come out of the opening years of bro-country and ride the trend to reasonable success. He was also one of the few artists who understood if you're going to make stupid music, you might as well make it fun, which is one of the reasons why 'Beachin' still holds for me as one of the best hit songs of 2014. But I've always thought that if he wanted to aim higher, he could put together potent music that cut more deeply, as songs like 'Ghost Town' and 'Life Of The Party' from the far better than expected Days Of Gold proved in late 2013. Hell, pair him with solid songwriters and I had hopes that Jake Owen could deliver, especially in 2016 with bro-country a mostly distant memory and minus Joey Moi's overdone production. And while I thought the lead-off single 'American Country Love Song' was a little by-the-numbers in the writing, I was still won over by Owen's performance, so I figured what the hell and I checked out American Love - what did we get?

I want to be nicer to this record than I probably should be, because you can definitely tell that Jake Owen's heart is in the right place. It's clear from the songs he's picked and cowritten that he's looking to leave the bro-country movement for whatever sound might be in the future - and instead of picking just one, he picked about five and charged forward with reckless abandon. And the amazing thing is how often he stuck the landing, because American Love really is a mess, but it's the sort of mess that has enough gems to redeem the rougher moments, even if I don't quite think it connects as well as the best songs from Days Of Gold.

And yet the funny thing is when you consider the record as a whole, it does have a certain self-contained quality to the themes and motifs. Both the opener 'American Love' and the closer 'American Country Love Song' traffic in a lot of Americana symbolism that a little more narrative ambition could have pushed even further beyond just universal love stories. Jake Owen and his writers don't really go that far, but like with Days Of Gold he continues the tradition of the writing being more clever and more mature than it really needs to be. Sure, he's got his stupid party jams like 'VW Van' and 'Good Company', the latter which goes to the reggae well with more texture but ultimately isn't quite as catchy as 'Beachin' was, but when the stories get more complex things get interesting. There's little bits of cleverness on the invitation to hookup of 'Where I Am' that unfortunately isn't quite echoed in the girlfriend-stealing of 'If He Ain't Gonna Love You', which runs a little too sour and slick to work well with Owen's more earnest vocal tone - Chris Stapleton's backing vocals are clearly evident on the track, and honestly he might have carried the song better. Owen is a much better fit for a song like 'Everybody Dies Young', which plays to a looser party vibe as he invites folks of all ages to cut loose, but his real unsung strength is in more melancholic tracks. I'm a little more shaky than I want to be on the breakup of the piano ballad 'When You Love Someone' where he catches his significant other cheating - you can recover from these things, and yet the song doesn't have the complexity to explore deeper - and I really didn't like the triplet flow on the verses of 'You Ain't Going Nowhere', which even directly references his previous track 'Ghost Town' and really isn't better. But the real standout is 'LAX', a sendoff to an ex-girlfriend heading to LA that not only features Owen's writing, but also balances the complicated emotions of the situation extremely well and really lets Owen emote. He really is a powerhouse of a singer, and while his backing vocals don't always flatter him, he's got the charisma to elevate so much of this record on his own.

Of course, the other reason 'LAX' works is that it's easily the most 'country' song on the record, with an acoustic groove and plenty of pedal steel, which not only sounds modern but wonderfully melodic. And this can be a bit of an issue for this record, because the production is all over the place. As I said, Owen seems to be going in a half-dozen different directions on this album, and I definitely think the pure country sound works best - mostly because it's the most straightforward and compliments his vocals rather than forcing him to compete or compromising his flow. And even though Joey Moi didn't produce this record, there are still points where it feels like his exaggerated emphasis carried over, like to the noisier drums and guitars on the title track or how clunky the banjo and blasts of harmonica feel on 'VW Van', especially when they feel louder than the guitars. But on the flip side you also have songs like 'After Midnight' where the vocal hook almost seems submerged in a cloud of synth that might carry melody against the nervy bassline but doesn't really let Owen's vocals or acoustic tones come through well. And when you factor in the horns that come through on the title track or 'Good Company' - all the more evidence of the Muscle Shoals sound continuing through Nashville - and that sound a tad underweight on the former, or the sharper grooves on 'If He Ain't Gonna Love You' with the minor chord progressions or the very Dierks Bentley-esque atmospherics of 'Where I Am', I'm left feeling that Jake Owen is chasing so many different sounds instead of doubling down on his own. And what's exasperating is that he's got a formula that works: acoustic grooves, big hooks anchored in the electric guitar, real drums - most of which he does have on this album, to give him credit - sturdy bass, and pedal steel to accentuate the melody. The other pieces more often that not feel tacked on, not allowed to blend with the mix or given so much texture and squonking presence they overload the groove.

Look, I know I'm being hard on this record, but that's mostly because I'm convinced Jake Owen has it in him to make a genuine classic. He knows how to pick good, well-written songs and he's got the creativity to push his sound while still relying on a foundation that rarely feels too synthetic. For me right now, it's a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but with a little more narrative ambition and consistent production, I'm convinced Jake Owen could bring his huge charisma and strong hooks to a great country record - as it is, this should be better, but I think Owen's got it in him to pull off that next big step.

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