Monday, May 8, 2017

album review: 'from a room: volume 1' by chris stapleton

I remember reviewing Chris Stapleton before he got famous.

And yeah, I know that sounds like such a music critic hipster thing to say, but there is validity to at least mentioning it, because his rise over the past few years has been meteoric and to some extent unprecedented in modern country. Here was a guy - who thanks to a performance with Justin Timberlake - got the sort of commercial boom that led to his debut record Traveler selling millions of albums, spawning commercial copycats on reality TV shows, and helped galvanize an entire indie boom... and he did it without country radio. And sure, this happens in other genres all the time, but country has been tethered to the radio for years, the fact that Stapleton got as big as quickly as he did is nothing short of miraculous, and has been heralded by so many critics as a tremendous achievement. 

And yes, the majority of this is fantastic news... but I can't be the only one who is a little amused that the whole question of Traveler's quality kind of got lost in the shuffle - because again, I reviewed the record months before that starmaking performance, and while it is a very good record, it's not a great one. Sure, there were great songs on it, but it also felt uneven, overlong, and showing some of the hesitant steps that characterize a major label debut. In retrospect, a lot of critics probably wouldn't have put together such a review if they had heard the album in the headlong rush of Stapleton's popularity - especially nowadays - but I stand by it and it led to some interesting questions going into his follow: From A Room: Vol 1, with the second part reportedly coming later this year. Now I was excited for this record - it was reportedly leaner, I liked the song 'Broken Halos' released before the album - although not the single - a lot, but I had the feeling this record was going to face a very different response than Traveler. For one, Mercury Nashville has had no idea how to handle Stapleton's insurgent popularity, so the commercial rollout of this record has been embarrassing and terrible, but for another, now that Stapleton is big, I'm curious how many indie country and mainstream fans will start to push Stapleton towards the backlash zone, even if he's working with Dave Cobb again. So where does this album take Chris Stapleton?

Honestly, this was a perplexing listen. Not a bad one by any stretch - Chris Stapleton is too solid of an artist right now to release an outright dud - but there's a part of me that does feel that From A Room: Volume 1 is a bit compromised. And while you could argue that was obvious - the fact that instead of getting a full single album release from Stapleton we're getting two that'll probably both run short as Mercury Nashville continues to mishandle the promotion and marketing, and this isn't his fault - at the end of the day they're only working with the songs that he's given them. And it's also less than we would otherwise expect: of the nine songs we get here, stretching barely over an half hour, one is a Willie Nelson cover and the other is a song he cowrote for LeAnn Rimes nearly ten years ago! No matter how you cut it, even if the promotion has been utterly wrong that's still slicing it thin.

Granted, thin would be another way I'd describe a lot of the production and instrumentation on this record. And in a way I get it, as Dave Cobb is clearing things out of the way to make room for Chris Stapleton's huge, expressive vocals and let him take center stage on the live cuts, some of which are the most bare-bones and sparse that Stapleton has ever used, from the barebones strums on lead-off single 'Either Way' to the slow bass groove and circular guitar line lurking through the album closer 'Death Row' that does a few nifty tricks with the creaking atmosphere, even if I do feel it could have ended more strongly - which is the exact same issue I have with the otherwise likable choppy melody on 'I Was Wrong', it could have used a good concluding note and it just didn't have it. Hell, the more I think about some of the compositions, even on songs I otherwise really like such as 'Broken Halos' or the southern rock muscle of 'Second One To Know', they can feel a little abortive, or in the latter case end on a fade that could have been expanded. But the real frustration is that just like on Traveler, Stapleton's production is at its best when it picks up that smolder and intensity, and yet more often than not he's playing to softer, midtempo vibes that might pick up some solid organic tone against the sparse tap of the drums, maybe with a bit of pedal steel and harmonica, but nothing that really can match the intensity as effectively. The only song with real southern rock swagger is 'Second One To Know' - yes, the melody on 'Without Your Love' gets close, but the pickup just doesn't have the bite it could. 

Now granted, this isn't the SteelDrivers, I'm not expecting Stapleton to play southern rock, and even if his voice might make him a more natural fit for blues or soul, especially on songs like 'I Was Wrong', I've got no issue with him in country - and to his credit, he's picking up more subtlety as a performer. 'Broken Halos' is a perfect example of this, and the weary burnout of 'Either Way' and the heartbreak that opens 'Without Your Love' are damn near perfect in this vein. But where things get distracting for me is the placement of the backing vocals from his wife Morgane - oh, they have chemistry and their voices blend well, but when you consider the songs being sung, at least Jason Eady and Courtney Patton know where their vocal interjections fit the content of the song, whereas with Morgane Stapleton... I don't know if it's an issue of production direction or they're just not thinking, but she should not be singing backup on 'Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning' - it's a breakup song, and unless we're looking to draw the dramatic parallel that she's going through the same issues, it doesn't fit. It works even less on 'Up To No Good Livin', where Stapleton is complaining about how he's moved on from his rough life in the past, earned her trust, and thus shouldn't be judged for it now - unless the subtext is intended to call her out as a hypocrite, it doesn't make sense that she's singing opposite him on this track. And yet bizarrely, on a song like 'Either Way', a track where the relationship is utterly spent and Stapleton doesn't care if she leaves or goes, the love isn't coming back, the song's intensity might have been improved by seeing both people's perspective... and yet she's not there. It's playing in the same territory as Jason Eady's stunning 'Where I've Been', and yet doesn't pick up the same lonely exhaustion by going alone.

Of course, that's asking to compare Jason Eady's writing to Stapleton's, which might not entirely be fair, especially as Stapleton compensates by being a much more powerful singer. But if we are going to talk lyrics and content, it's a little dispiriting that the barebones approach taken to the production can carry over to the lyrics, because just like on Traveler, there just isn't much detail to elevate or add color to these songs. 'Death Row' is the example that springs most to mind - if you've heard a blues song about death row, you'll have heard all the arc and detail of this song already - but it also comes into 'Them Stems' as well, a throwaway track about running out of weed that not only is a pale facsimile of 'Might As Well Get Stoned', but on a record that's already starved for original material, you don't have space for throwaways or filler! That said, there are bits of cleverness that sneak through, even if Stapleton's gruff intensity can render some songs a little more sour than they should be, like some of the petulance that slid in between the lines on 'Up To No Good Livin'. Yes, I get that Stapleton isn't exactly supposed to be framed sympathetically on 'I Was Wrong', but if you think you're going to get out of saying you don't love your significant other by then emphasizing how much you want to hook up now... well, good luck with that. Frankly, I'd prefer to see more songs that have the nuance of 'Broken Halos' in those who try to do good and fail, or the lingering pain and loneliness of 'Either Way' and 'Without Your Love', but sadly there aren't many of those.

But in the end... look, there's a part of me that feels for Chris Stapleton: he's got a huge voice and one of the best producers in modern country, and yet he's hamstrumg from releasing a great project because his label wants to drip-feed his music in two parts and does jack shit in proper promotion... but at the same time, you have to make the most of what you have, and while I liked this project, I don't really love it. Where Traveler had bloated moments, From A Room: Volume 1 feels stripped to the bone, and while Cobb is a great producer, he can only do so much here. And when you add up a few artistic missteps and writing that doesn't always have the weight it could, what could have been a great listen becomes a merely pretty good one. For me, it's a light 7/10 and a recommendation, and while I can see country fans supporting this - and I'd argue they should if we want to keep the indie country trend relevant - I'd still put more of my money on Jaime Wyatt, Natalie Hemby, Courtney Patton and especially Jason Eady before this. Stapleton broke through, and while he's not quite there just yet, I want to see him land on his feet.

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