Saturday, August 20, 2016

album review: 'i'm not the devil' by cody jinks

I said a few days ago that women in country music really are having a great year, but let's get brutally honest here: if you look outside most of the mainstream, country as a whole really is having a great year, and there are definitely promising signs that the radio is primed for a shift. And what I find bizarre is how little it's being covered outside of certain critical outlets dedicated to country - sure, this year we've seen a few more critics here on YouTube who are dipping their toes into the genre, but go over to certain indie-leaning outlets and they always seem a tad tentative to even touch the genre. Is it a fear of not looking cool, or do they just not know where to start? Because if it's the latter... well, I definitely get that, it's hard to break into any unfamiliar genre, but here's where you're mostly in luck: if you're looking for the two hotbeds of country quality right now, it's the acts affiliated with Dave Cobb and the Texas country scene.

And while my appreciation for Dave Cobb's stellar production is starting to be well-known on this channel, it's been a while since I've given the rough-edged red dirt honky tonk sound out of Texas some appreciation, one of the few scenes where regional radio has survived and cultivated a distinctive sound. Sure, if you go back through my top records of any given year, you'll find plenty of Texas names like Jason Eady, James McMurtry, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, and Kacey Musgraves, so let's add another name to that list: Cody Jinks. He actually got his start in thrash metal before cutting towards country and broke onto the scene with the excellent Less Wise in 2010. He then followed it with the slightly more experimental and melancholic 30 in 2012, and it seem liked everything was on path. And hell, he dropped a record called Adobe Sessions in the middle of summer last year... which for some reason, I didn't cover, even despite being a pretty damn good listen - a little smoother than his last two outside of a few darker exceptions like 'Loud And Heavy', but still solid. Well, here's as good of a time as any to make up for some lost time, so on the back of some promising critical acclaim, I dug into I'm Not The Devil - how was it?

This is the sort of review that might be hard for me to keep interesting, because in a sense, it's exactly what you'd expect from Cody Jinks: a rough-edged, but generally pretty damn solid Texas country record, with everything you'd come to expect from his sound and delivery. Perhaps leaning a little more heavily towards blues in the subject matter, which translates to a bit of a rougher vibe overall, but if you're looking for some uniformly solid neotraditional country, this record will certainly fit the bill - the question comes whether or not it's a great album or just solid... and honestly, one of the big reasons that's a hard question for me to answer is why this review is later than I'd otherwise like. 

So let's start with Cody Jinks himself - honestly, he's got a great voice that's plenty capable of playing to both a lower growl and full-throated singing, and his moments where he chooses to underplay his melancholy are some of the most potent you'll hear on record this year, especially accented by some carefully chosen backing vocals, either through very careful multi-tracking or some female vocals that either add great swell to 'Give All You Can' or feel oddly sultry on the bluesy stomp of the closer 'Hand Me Down' - bit of an odd song to end the record with, by the way, it definitely fits the unsettled emotional state of the record.

And nowhere is that more apparent than the lyrics. Now if I were looking for an issue with Cody Jinks' writing, it'd be that it can feel a little clumsy, with verses stretched or elongated in ways that could flow a little better. But the more I listened through this record the more I'm convinced that's a feature rather than a flaw, because you put him against the fast-paced jaunty piano of 'Chase The Song' and he's just fine! It adds to the lumbering, unsettled feel as the record tends to speak in broad archetypes of walking on a dark path, travelling and living hard and not really seeing an easy or clean end to it all. I'm reminded a little of what Jason Eady did on Daylight & Dark in the brutally honest framing and constant moral struggle, but Cody Jinks, for lack of a better word, tends to get more 'biblical' with it. He frames his moral struggle as between heaven and hell, angels and devils on songs like 'No Guarantees' or 'Give All You Can' or 'Heavy Load' or the title track... which yeah, can ring as a little broadly sketched but Jinks is smart enough to see the nuance between the lines. 'Give All You Can' is a great example of while his rougher life might lead him to dark places, there are people in his life who have served as angels and who have given without asking for anything in return - and he knows he might well be that person for someone else. Or take the pitch blackness of 'Heavy Load', which along with 'Grey' sees him confront the inevitability of death and the depression around it and while it's a weight to bear on his psyche - and he bears it heavily - he knows the only way to go on is to pick up the pieces and find some vestige of colour. And I really do appreciate 'Vampires', a song where he rails against those who would steal dreams away - and there's just enough subtext between the lines to indicate he's aware he's his own worst enemy here. I should also mention there's a Merle Haggard cover on the record of 'The Way I Am' - Jinks does a great job with it, even if it really does feel like a cover he'd run away with regardless. Where I think the overly broad writing struggles is in the songs that lean on relationships, like the title track and the pleasant enough 'She's All Mine' - not bad songs, but it can feel a tad overwrought - and then you have cases like the opener 'The Same' which feels a little too upbeat for acknowledging a situation where he's still got feelings for an ex when they meet up again and things haven't changed. 

Granted, part of that is exacerbated by the instrumentation and production, the area where this record probably becomes the most difficult to talk about... because it's very much Texas country. Strong acoustic grooves backed up by steel and electric guitar, with hints of organ and piano around the edges - could have used a little more fiddle, but that's me nitpicking. And the acoustic guitar texture really comes through great, especially when balanced against a few of the rougher vocal pickups that gives this record an edge without compromising the warmth of the sound. And there really are some great hooks here too: 'No Guarantees' has a great rollick to it, 'No Words' has the feel of a Garth Brooks track he never cut circa-'Shameless', I dug the jaunty pianos driving 'Chase The Song' and the great solos that fill up 'Vampires', especially the slightly trashier tone that comes through on the second one. And with the soulful swell on 'Give All You Can' and the bluesy roughness with the ragged thicker grooves on 'Heavy Load' and 'Hand Me Down', this record does have its darker moments that stand out. I guess if I were to nitpick, it'd come in wishing that the composition took some more chances - the foundation is so solid, this record could have afforded to open up the solos a little more, push into darker territory, really cut loose or push away from the cleaner textures that can make parts of this album start to run together. This record definitely has an edge and could have pushed bigger, given the subject matter, and it's a little frustrating that it doesn't take that additional, more experimental step.

Granted, that's the risk you can occasionally run with this sort of Texas country: it's got a strong formula that works, so why change it? And again, this is a strong record that if you give it the time to grow on you will really have its gems. But again, it's one of those records where if it's on the cusp of greatness, it's right on the edge. So while I don't think this record will be up there with the best of the year for me, I am still going to lean on the side of the positive and give this a very light 8/10. Definitely recommended if you're a hardcore fan of neotraditional country, or you're looking for something that could eat most of mainstream radio for lunch. There are country records I enjoyed more this year, but again, this has been a strong year and looks to be getting stronger thanks to albums coming up from Lydia Loveless and Cody Johnson. And yet I'm Not The Devil's got enough of its own merits to be worth your time, so definitely make sure to check this out - you won't regret it.

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