Tuesday, November 7, 2017

album review: 'texoma shore' by blake shelton

So here's the frustrating thing about writing this review: if you are not a Blake Shelton fan or peripherally interested in mainstream country, I have no idea what I could say to make this interesting. Let's face it, Blake Shelton is on his eleventh album, he cowrote only one of eleven songs on it, and with the lead-off single and set of cowriters he has, I had no reason to expect anything new or challenging. It wasn't like Bringing Up The Sun, where there was a very real question how he could pivot out of bro-country, or like If I'm Honest, where the only real reason I wanted to cover it was the fallout of his failed marriage to Miranda Lambert and what he was building with Gwen Stefani. 

But this time, he explicitly said he wanted this album to reflect 'where he is now, that's just happy and going with the flow'. In other words, going into Texoma Shore this felt like a record where Blake Shelton was just punching the clock - it was shorter, it looked to be heading back to his adult-contemporary style that made for pleasant and sedate but not really interesting music, it had the feel of an artist just looking to coast - hell, he's even using the same producer! So in other words, I'm probably going to end up repeating some things I said in my last two Blake Shelton reviews, but you know, even if he's not trying I might as well give this my due diligence, so what did I find on Texoma Shore?

Honestly, folks, there's not a lot to say about this one. If it's passable, it only barely gets there, and it's definitely not adding anything all that distinct to the Blake Shelton canon, but what I think I find more frustrating is that I was hoping this would be more decent than it is. Instead, we get one song that might be one of the most aggressively worthless things I've heard all year, and instead of genuinely great tracks, we get a smattering of good tunes that don't quite get all the way there above the filler. In other words, a day after you've heard this record you and I are probably going to forget it exists - like what happens with nearly every Blake Shelton song that's not overplayed to hell and back.

But again, I get why Blake Shelton is overplayed, because as a performer he does have his charms. For one he's a more naturally expressive singer and he's got enough charisma to elevate some otherwise basic material - it's one thing that elevates him over the generic smoothness of Chris Young, Shelton and his songwriters tend to add a bit more flavor melodically. And it helps that there tends to be a little more fiddle and pedal steel to fit with the electric and acoustic guitars - on this record Shelton is very much playing in his adult contemporary country zone, and he knows it. Granted, you would expect such a comfort zone to have a little more sophistication, and Shelton has a bad tendency to go broad both in his singing and in some of the production choices. Why, for instance, he thought those squealing electric tones on 'Hangover Due' and 'At The House', as well as that annoying whistle and funk elements on the latter were a good idea I have no clue, or that bassy tone that swamps out the bottom on 'Beside You Babe', or the faux country rap squonk of 'Money' that easily makes it one of the worst things Blake Shelton has ever recorded, especially as he should never have tried rapping - ever! And when you combine it all with entirely too many places where the percussion feels more synthetic, it leads to a record that is trying to sound more slick but not really supported by Blake Shelton's delivery, which is rougher and more nasal and a lot less subtle. That's not saying he can't play for restraint - 'Turnin' Me On' sticks more with minor tones and it works surprisingly well, as does the piano and acoustic interplay on 'Got The T-Shirt' or against the more restrained pedal steel on 'I Lived It' - but it's sadly not the norm and it doesn't help this record feel more mature or adult.

So yeah, about that, where Blake Shelton has been getting some praise has been that his lyrics have settled back into adult contemporary mold, that he's actually growing up with his music in comparison to his peers... and I'm a lot less convinced. For one, most of the content on this record feels awfully samey, the sort of half-intoxicated hookup and love jams that are intended to sound sensual and playful but tend to default to kind of sloppy when you look at the details. I can accept 'I'll Name The Dogs' for playing a little corny - it's basically a broad proposal song - but 'At The House' is about partying at home with your partner and losing her underwear and 'Hangover Due' shows him trying to make a pounding morning hangover with a partner sound cute! And then we get 'Money', which tries to play for 'I'm dirt-broke that we can only wipe our ass with one-ply Charmin, but since I have you in second-hand cut-offs, it's okay', and it's so over-detailed to not appear flattering or likable to anyone' - I'd probably say it's just trying way too hard, especially when we all know that Blake Shelton is one of the richest artists in Nashville right now. And incidentally, when you're trying to make a song about how people don't understand your rural background on 'I Lived It', maybe it would be a good idea to actually have a writing credit on the song! That said, outside of minor nitpicks like how anyone would sleep on a bed where half a glass of wine was spilled on it on 'When The Wine Wears Off', there is a general sense of sincerity and lived-in detail that helps these tracks at least feel grounded in something, and 'Got The T-Shirt' actually has a pretty solid metaphor at its core in those who coast through relationships just for the experience and memories, taking something they consider pretty disposable at the end but what could mean so much more to the partner. Good concept, good execution, I like it.

But here's the larger question: at this point of Blake Shelton's career, I have similar complaints to what I've said about older established acts in hip-hop like Jay-Z who chose to coast for years rather than innovate or expand artistically. Given his presence in country culture and his grounding with the radio, he conceivably could release whatever he wants and he'd get traction... and yet he chooses not to, because Texoma Shore is no 4:44. Sure, it might satisfy his base, but I can't even see many of them holding onto this for long, so it's getting a strong 5/10 from me and only a recommendation if you are a diehard fan. If you like his adult-contemporary country style, you'll get more of what you've heard before, and yet otherwise... again, you've heard it before, not an essential listen.

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