Wednesday, October 25, 2017

album review: 'losing sleep' by chris young

This is not the country record I want to be covering right now. If I had my way I'd be reviewing Turnpike Troubadours and Dori Freeman, two artists I'd argue are making far more interesting and compelling country music and I'm desperately hoping that my schedule will enable me to talk about them as soon as possible. 

But before then we have to get through a record from an artist that I used to like but now have no real expectations that he's going to make interesting or particularly good music. And yes, I know that's really harsh, but going into this, did I honestly have any evidence otherwise? Chris Young may have started in a very tasteful, adult-leaning neotraditional sound, and even his bro-country pivot did far better than it had any right to with A.M. in 2013, but his choice to work with Corey Crowder on production - whom in going through his credits doesn't appear to have worked on anything all that memorable - has resulted in a sound that goes back to that same 'mature' tone but with production and writing too flimsy to support him. So on top of feeling generally tepid, it's underserving an artist who frankly needs a richer instrumental palette to match his voice. It's one of the many reasons I'm Comin' Over was a disappointing and forgettable record for me, but hey, it notched just enough singles and sold enough copies to mean Chris Young had no reason to change or vary his formula - and the lead-off single and title track seemed to support that hypothesis. So, was I right about the rest of the album?

Okay, look, I get how the beginning of this review looks - oh, there he goes, he clearly made up his mind that this wasn't going to be interesting so of course he's going to be dismissive of this project, when in reality that's the furthest thing I would have loved to be surprised by real quality anchoring a frontman who I've always liked. But that didn't happen, and if there's a record that belongs in my short form review format that I use for vacation, it's this, because Losing Sleep is the sort of album that goes in one ear and out the other, only making an impact when it gets irritating.

But before I get directly into that, let's discuss something from the Niall Horan review a few days ago, where a fair number people expressed incredulity that I liked the record as much as I did, with the general consensus being that especially on the back half it's kind of boring. Now I disagree with this - each song feels fully developed and well-structured, they all have a distinctive melodic groove that's nearly always at the forefront, and the production - while not really emphasizing an edge - does do plenty to accentuate the groove and texture we do get. It's an unassuming and subtle record, sure, but the devil is in the details here that make these songs stand out. So let's flip over to Losing Sleep by Chris Young, a record about the same length that does appear to have more energy on the surface, and Chris Young is a more immediately potent singer... so why do I find this so much more tedious and forgettable? Well, I'll get into examples in a second but it's arguably pretty simple: bland compositions and production that does nothing to flatter them. I remarked on Twitter that I was concerned I couldn't hear a bassline across most of this album, but on the back half of this record it shows up, mostly to provide flaccid foundation for verses and get utterly ignored when the electric guitars come up on the hook. If there is any emphasis on melodic groove, it's blocky and staccato, trying to compliment skittering trap-inspired hi-hats, fake handclaps and chunky drum machines that, yes, will fade towards real drums on the hook, but that only shows they're here to rope in a pop crowd that isn't listening, a cheap attempt at modernity that flatters nobody. And it's the exact same production problem as Chris Young had on I'm Comin' Over - his baritone works with instrumentation that has organic weight and texture, not flimsy electric tones, increasingly poppy backing vocals, or barebones acoustic strumming for melodies that feel distressingly conventional. Hell, 'Hangin' Out', 'She's Got A Way', 'Leave Me Wanting More', maybe throw in 'Trouble Looking' and 'Woke Up Like This', with only slight differences in tempo and tone I'm fairly certain they're all based on variants of the same damn chord progression you'll hear in dozens, if not hundreds of other modern country tracks - hell, if you factor out that stuttering guitar lead on the verses, I'd probably slot 'Losing Sleep' in the same category! And when the songs feel as short and underdeveloped as they do, that's a real problem!

Now as much as I've given Corey Crowder's production flack - because it very much deserves it - I will admit he's got a decent knack for smoother atmospheric tones and keys that can compliment the melody decently. It's nothing that Ross Copperman hasn't done better for Dierks Bentley, but he at seems willing to use pedal steel on 'Holiday' and 'Blacked Out' or more muted pianos on 'Where I Go When I Drink' that sounds pleasant enough to make up for 'Radio and the Rain', which steals its concept from 'Rain And The Radio' by the Randy Rogers Band and half its production from Shawn Mendes. But if we're going to get into lyrics here... look, the issue has never been that Chris Young and his team are bad writers, but it's hard not to feel like they've completely run out of ideas, especially without Cassadee Pope and Vince Gill around this time to add some variety. If the songs are not leaning heavy on Chris Young's baritone for sensual hookup tracks that feel increasingly interchangeable, we have songs where Young is getting blackout drunk to get over a breakup like 'Where I Go When I Drink' and 'Blacked Out'. And when you realize the compositions feel so interchangeable, it's hard not to notice the writing falling in the same category, and that's before you compare songs like 'Leave Me Wanting More' to other artists, like the earthier and far more interesting 'Do I Make You Wanna' by Billy Currington. And again, I get Chris Young's appeal to his target audience - he nearly always frames the woman as having all the power in these relationships, which I'm sure plays very well to that target audience - but surely by this point they'll notice the details are running together. At least 'Blacked Out' tries to add some lyrical color, but between the brand name dropping and the downbeat nature, it's a bizarre choice to end the record and probably not the best one.

But as a whole... folks, if you liked I'm Comin' Over, this is part two of it, and yet I can't in good conscience say that it's any more worthwhile or memorable in comparison with that record. At least I'm Comin' Over had 'Sober Saturday Night' and 'Think Of You', duets that took a little more of a chance with the writing, but with the wrong producer and somehow even less interesting character, I can't see this sticking as well as that. I hate saying this about a singer I like, but Chris Young is falling into a lane that may prove lucrative but minus any significant pivot will be forgotten all too quickly, and as such... yeah, I'm thinking a strong 4/10 and no recommendation. This record might be called Losing Sleep, but after listening to this a good four or five times, I think I'll be getting all of it back.

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