Thursday, November 16, 2017

album review: 'probably wrong' by parker mccollum

So here's a conversation that a lot of indie country fans probably don't want to have, but the sooner we have it the better off we're all going to be: we have an image problem. And when I say that, the problem is that already we have certain expectations what an indie country act is supposed to look or sound like, and as much as we're supposed to be more willing to embrace sounds that buck trends, we have trends of our own. Trust a guy who has covered plenty of it in the past few years, this genre is saturated with guys with gruff raspy baritones and grizzled beards leaning towards southern rock, or girls with alternative hair cuts and husky voices and tones touching on rockabilly or smooth jazz. And don't get me wrong, I like that image and sound and I like many of the artists that use it, but if we start using it as a barricade against acts coming into the indie country space that could definitely have a place here, that's a problem.

So take Parker McCollum, a guy who's two years younger than me and looks like he could be fronting any bro-country act... and yet dig a little deeper and you end up finding a lot more. For one, he runs his own independent label where he's been releasing projects for the past five years, and going into his first album The Limestone Kid, there's nary a drum machine or drop of Autotune in sight: just straightforward, hardscrabble Texas country with fiddle, pedal steel, rough-edged guitars, and damn good melodies to boot - you can definitely hear the Ryan Bingham and Townes Van Zant influences creeping in. Now that 2015 debut is far from flawless - the songwriting can feel a little iffy at points, and it was clear that McCollum was still growing into his voice, but there was promise there. And when I heard his sophomore project was coming out this year, bundling two EPs plus a few new songs, I was pretty excited - yes, the buzz was suggesting he maybe was adding a little more of a pop flourish with more piano, but if the sound was good and the Texas country edge remained prominent, I had high hopes for this. So, what did I find on Probably Wrong?

Well... here's the thing, this is not a bad project: it's warm, it's affable, the content is approachable but has a little more depth when you peel back the edges, it's solid stuff that I really do appreciate. But as I opened up this review saying that indie country could do well to walk back preemptive judgement on guys like Parker McCollum, it's hard to not understand where they're coming from, because while this is good, I wouldn't quite call it great just yet. 

So let's start with McCollum himself... and I honestly find his voice a little tough to describe. I'd say his thicker accent and cadence reminds me of a cross between the lead singer of Sundy Best and a more reserved cut from one of Frank Turner's quieter records - a little nasal, but generally earnest and pretty smooth when it needs to be and capable of belting. And that slightly odd blend translates to the production and instrumentation as well - and again, this is where things can get a little tricky, primarily because of McCollum's approach to composition and tone. It's definitely leaning into country - the pedal steel, the warm acoustic grooves, the firm electric melodies and well-positioned bass, but with the inclusion of more organ and piano I can see why some were hesitant to directly place him in that category, especially given how smooth so much of it feels. Yeah, the guitar tone can pick up a little more scuzziness, but what I'm reminded more of are the country-leaning acts that came through in adult-alternative in the mid-to-late 90s, especially guys like Marc Cohn. Now this isn't a bad thing: the added melodic interplay we get with the saloon-style piano on 'Misunderstood' and the swells of organ behind 'Memphis Rain' and 'Lonesome Ten Miles' are definitely welcome, and when McCollum lets his players really kick up the solos or grooves you get some pretty impressive songs, like the revving guitars of 'The Truth' and multiple minutes of interweaving solos on 'Things Are Looking Up'... but at the same time, if you're going to indie country for something with real bite or a little more texture, I can see you finding this a bit too polished or lacking in heft. And sure, I might be a sucker for some of the accordion and guitar flutters behind 'Blue Eyed Sally', but what it reminds me of a lot is the neotraditional country tones of the mid-90s - maybe not quite as spacious or polished, but a little too content with coasting at midtempo to really punch harder. And on that note, while I certainly prefer the drums not overwhelming the melodies, I do find them a little underpowered on this record, there could be a little more foundation there.

But okay, generally likable production, good melodic hooks, what about the songwriting? Well like with a lot of the compositions here it is pretty good, generally enjoyable, but a shade away from really sticking more deeply for me. It certainly starts strong: 'Memphis Blues' is a great little tune about the precarious balance between natural change and evolution and forgetting the past, and while it is kept in the subtext I'd put money on 'South Of The City Lights' being an indictment of Nashville labels wanting to coax him in in the guise of a woman - and I did appreciate for as much as McCollum rejected them, there's a part of himself on the third verse that still wanted to be considered. And hell, I was reminded of Big K.R.I.T. a bit a song later when he makes his ode to the last lonesome ten miles he drives to get home on his neverending tour - a tour that really takes the centerpiece across the rest of the record. Indeed, the majority of the rest of the songs have him caught between a girl at home and his passions to chase the music dream, which while in some cases we get the mutual collapse of 'The Truth' where he dumped her and immediately regretted it, other times you get the hope to correct things on 'Misunderstood', or the slow burnout of 'Hell Of A Year' that ends the record. And yeah, you get the traditional working class love song that is 'Blue Eyed Sally' and the hopeful road song 'Things Are Looking Up', the track that feels more like an outlier is 'Learn To Fly', where he picks apart conventional sayings and wisdom in a way that attracts and annoys people for getting under their skin. It's a nifty little concept... that I might have liked better when it was called 'Silver Linings' and was sung by Kacey Musgraves. And that leads to my problem with much of the writing here: while the theme is solid and the framing is balanced and McCollum can certainly deliver these tracks well, I do think they're lacking that little extra bit of nuance or detail to really stand out to me. He definitely has it for some tunes, especially early on, but it could stand to be a tad more consistent overall.

But as a whole, this is solid and enjoyable - but that's also because this brand of neotraditional-leaning alternative country is a tone and vibe I can appreciate when it's done well, especially if it calls back to tones that I grew up with - so yeah, there is a bit of a nostalgia factor to my natural response, I can admit that. But at the same time, these are well-composed, well-produced, often very well-performed tracks with some really damn good solos, and it goes down remarkably easy. For me, it's an easy 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if the tones I described are up your alley. Otherwise... hell, you'll probably have a good time with this, definitely check it out.

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