Wednesday, February 1, 2017

album review: 'road less travelled' by lauren alaina

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but here it is: I'm starting to miss American Idol.

More specifically I'm missing the cultural phenomenon that came with American Idol and its ilk as a method to bring prospective singers into the limelight, specifically onto the Hot 100. Yeah, The Voice tried and we still have groups coming from The X Factor making an impact, but if I look back over the past decade in pop, outside of Glee arguably shifting things for the better, American Idol really did have an impact. I wouldn't say it was stellar or that there weren't some low points - I've seen From Justin To Kelly - but if we consider net impact, I'd take Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, and the few other fleeting hits we got over what Vine has done to the Hot 100 in the past few years!

And while in its waning years American Idol certainly had diminishing returns, one thing I tended to notice was that the runners up also tended to get a boost to their careers, sometimes even overtaking the winners that year in sustaining the limelight. And this takes us to Lauren Alaina, who rode her success as a runner up behind Scotty McCreery to a debut album in October 2011. And I wish I could say it remotely surprised me: if you can imagine what pop country in 2011 sounded like, living in the heyday of Taylor Swift before the bro-country onslaught, packaged on an album from an American Idol winner, you know exactly what this album sounds like - bright acoustics, a little more polished than it ever should be, more country touches than you'd hear in the next few years but entirely too precious in its writing and framing to resonate outside of a very specific target audience. And yet from there, it seemed like her career couldn't get traction - she underwent throat surgery in 2014, finished recording this album in 2015... and yet only now in January of 2017 is it getting released. Now to be fair, Mercury Nashville was probably waiting out current trends in country in the hope that she could gain a bit more airplay traction, and she did put out an EP in 2015... of which four of the five songs showed up on this album anyway. And again, it's been six years since full-length albums - granted, she's faring better than Scotty McCreery, who left Mercury Nashville two years ago and hasn't really been heard since, but still, these were not good signs going in, especially when I took a look at the production credits. But okay, how did it turn out?

Well, here's the thing: this is a pop country record that could have been released in 2017 or 2014, in that for the most part it eschews the trendier elements of the sound that are a more obvious pivot to pop radio. And the funny thing is that I'd argue it makes Road Less Travelled a surprisingly solid sophomore follow-up that I liked a lot more than I thought I would. Now it's not great - Lucy Hale's Road Between really is the gold standard for pop country in the 2010s, and I'd argue Cam's criminally underrated debut Untamed is a tad stronger overall, but Lauren Alaina managed to deliver a record that is not just a fair bit better than her debut, it's also stronger than the majority of what we're getting from mainstream country, certainly what you'd expect from that absolutely horrible album cover.

So how did this happen? Well, I'd argue there isn't any big secret across the board: better writing, better performance, and production that is on average better than what you'd expect from executive producer busbee. And I'm not going to deny that a big part of this record's strengths come from mostly avoiding bad trends right now: the mix isn't drowned in reverb, the percussion and grooves aren't normally staccato to the point of breaking up the flow, and for the most part the drums and percussion feel organic and don't compromise the melodies. Hell, what I think will surprise some people is how country this album sounds on its best songs, with plenty of mandolin, well-balanced acoustic and electric guitar, and even some pedal steel, with none of these songs succumbing to the reverb saturation that is doing a number on plenty of mainstream country hits trying to embrace a more atmospheric sound. Now before you get too excited let me say that it's far from perfect here and it's not helped by the frankly asinine decision to include the tracks from the self-titled EP from 2015 - sure, the title track is decent and 'Painting Pillows' is a pretty potent country ballad, but neither the choppy acoustic groove and minor tones of 'Next Boyfriend' that's borderline the female version of a bro-country track or the reverb-drenched main melody line on 'Holding The Other' despite a good bassline were essential to this record. I'd much prefer the mandolin and acoustic-driven 'Doin' Fine' or the slightly more spacious acoustic tones and piano on 'Three', or how 'Think Outside The Boy' balances its fluttery acoustics with pedal steel and banjo, or how 'Same Day Different Bottle' might be the darkest country song that Lauren Alaina has ever written and a pretty damn great one all the same that could go toe to toe with the best of modern country in both instrumentation and content. Hell, if the rest of this album had opted to avoid the buzzy vocal filers on the verses of 'My Kinda People', or the obvious fake choppy handclap and groove of 'Queen Of Hearts' that has a decent hook and solid melodic elements in the guitar and pedal steel, it could have worked, because I didn't mind the stab at country funk on 'Crashin' The Boys Club' with the thicker bass groove against the pedal steel, or the multi-tracked hook and bridge of 'Pretty' that leads to a key change that feels earned.

Of course, a big factor to why all of this works is Lauren Alaina herself, and I have to say, while she definitely falls into the mold of 'American Idol-singer' in her penchant for belting and playing for broader emotions, what caught me off-guard was her willingness to go for more expressive subtlety. The emotional dynamics on songs like 'Three' or 'Think Outside The Boy' or especially 'Same Day Different Bottle' are not easy to pull off convincingly, and yet I'd argue for the most part Alaina rose to the challenge. Now it definitely helps that more often than not her vocal melodies will take slightly different progressions than you would expect, but I think a larger factor is that the production also gives her both the room she needs to let loose and knows when to pull closer to intensify the intimacy. I won't say all the vocal tricks work - the melodic cadence she uses on the hook of 'Next Boyfriend' feels more capricious than it probably should, and there are points where she oversells the delivery a bit, but again, she's coming from American Idol, this is something that Carrie Underwood struggles with to this day.

But where this record caught me most off-guard was the lyrics and content, and let's get this out of the way first: I wouldn't say the writing ever feels bad on this record so much as it is can get generic. I've already talked about 'Next Boyfriend', but 'My Kinda Party' isn't far removed from that sort of style either, and while the irritation and card game metaphors of 'Queen Of Hearts' aren't bad, I'm not sure it's the best sort of song for Alaina's delivery and style as performer. Similar case for 'Holding The Other', which falls dangerously close to Rachel Platten-esque pablum with its 'we're strong together' messaging, and that's before we get the title track and 'Pretty', both of which tread into empowerment anthem territory, which thankfully the latter skirts by including more details and Alaina's delivery, where it does feel like she's singing from a sadly real place given her own struggles with eating disorders in the past. But that detail really is what elevates a lot of this material - take 'Crashin' The Boys' Club', where she wants to go hang with her boyfriend and his group instead of with her girls - it's not that she's dismissing that group, but sometimes she likes a different scene, and I can see a fair few girls I know really connecting with this song. But when this record grows a little more teeth and takes that detail deeper is when we get some really strong tracks. Take the opener 'Doin' Fine' - it doesn't shy away from acknowledging her own pain and frustration with her parents' divorce and subsequently remarrying different people, and while the pain still lingers somewhat, she's doing well-enough for now. And 'Three' takes that further - it plays like your standard 'touring is hard' song but it highlights a fascinating balance between knowing she is inspiring young kids and the fact that it's pulled her further from family and her church, and you can tell that weighs on her heavily. And on songs like 'Think Outside The Boy', she's definitely convincing in that 'older sister' mold, speaking to young girls to not lose themselves in love and give up their passions for a guy and making sure to mention her own experience - after all, if you don't care about your passions, how do you expect him to do the same? But again, 'Same Day Different Bottle' is the clear standout here: a lot of the metaphors remind me of the internal struggle on Mark Chesnutt's 'You Can't Hurt Me Anymore' from Tradition Lives, but here it's even bleaker, as she's trying to help and yet has no real inroad into how - it's a bleak song, and what's potent is how she doesn't really find that answer - it's something he'll have to come to on his own, but that makes it no less hard to watch.

So in the end, I'm convinced that if you had trimmed the EP tracks Road Less Traveled could have been slightly stronger, but it's still good all the same, with a few standout tracks and no real outright duds. It's the sort of pop country I see aging a lot better than plenty of other mainstream releases in this mold, mostly through production that tends to avoid bad trends and writing and delivery that's more nuanced than some will give credit. As such, for me this is a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you've been waiting for another pop country record that has a little more to it in the vein of a Lucy Hale or Cam. In short, I'm not sure how much traction a record like this will give Lauren Alaina, but I'm happy to have her back - good work.

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