Sunday, December 3, 2017

album review: 'from a room: volume 2' by chris stapleton

I feel I have no choice but to start this review with this statement: I wish to God I loved Chris Stapleton as much as so many of his diehard fans do. And for two reviews in a row I've seen their frustration that I haven't given him the same critical acclaim as they think he deserves.

And make no mistake, I would love to be there with you. After the CMAs where Chris Stapleton picked up a few well-deserved awards, I wanted to be right there with you trumpeting his praises - but I need to be honest, it wasn't even the best Dave Cobb-produced record on that ballot. And that's the key point of frustration: for as great of a performer and as good of a writer as he is, Chris Stapleton has yet to bring it all together for me, mostly because his production has never given him enough consistent bite - which is an persistent issue with Dave Cobb's attempts at rougher sounds - and his writing has never felt as meaty as his peers. And when you factor in distinct issues like the overextended Traveller or the painfully thin and abbreviated From A Room: Vol 1, I can't put Stapleton on the same pedestal as Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson, at least not yet.

And look, I'll make things worse for myself and say I had serious reservations going into this: I've never been a big fan when artists release two part projects within the same year at different times, especially if the sound is pretty close. It's not an issue with a guy like Eric Taxxon or King Gizzard And the Lizard Wizard, because they'll drop four or five projects in a year and they'll all sound radically different, but I had this problem with BROCKHAMPTON and I had the uneasy feeling I'd have it with Chris Stapleton - because as I've said before, I'd rather have one fantastic project with all of the best material than spreading the highlights across two pretty good but not great projects. Now I could be wrong: From A Room: Vol. 2 could be the record that hits greatness, so does it get there?

Okay, here's the thing: for an indie country insider, you're probably just as if not more so exasperated with Chris Stapleton on this project, because this is a nine song project with two covers and two songs that Stapleton has either cut with the SteelDrivers or has given to other artists. That only leaves five tracks of original new material, and all the more evidence that Stapleton really should have only released one record of the best rather than split it into two lesser records. But that being said - and the acknowledgement that this might even be a more stripped back release than the last two, with no pedal steel or fiddle at all - this was the first project where I heard the writing show real greatness where only inconsistent flashes came before. In other words, of the 'full-length' studio records he's released thus far, I might actually like this the most.

And here's the thing: on the surface, this is a very similar album to From A Room Vol 1, at least in terms of tone and production. Like with that record it can be handily split into rougher, more electric-driven southern rock tunes accented with firm basslines and hints of harmonica, or songs that lean heavily on acoustic guitar, very gentle percussion, and Chris Stapleton's voice, which if anything is showing more subtlety and depth with every record. And as I said, it is overall a leaner set of arrangements than what we got from the last record - even some of the tones can feel a little more brittle, and there's even less of his wife Morgane's voice contributing to the backing tracks - but believe it or not I don't have an issue with this, and that's entirely thanks to something more subtle: composition. This is something I rarely bring up directly when talking about country, especially when there are certain progressions that occur time and time again, but if there is an edge that Stapleton brings to these songs, it's the embrace of more complex melodies and them taking a more defined role in the mix, with more minor keys to boot. And that's not inconsiderable - Stapleton's got the gruffness to play to darker material, it certainly led to some of the strongest cuts off the last two albums like 'Was It 26' - and coupled with greater subtlety it has led to some great cuts on this album. Sure, the swampy lick behind 'Hard Livin' isn't revolutionary for southern rock, but go to the more complex acoustic line on 'Scarecrow In The Garden', which is easily one of the best things Stapleton has ever written. And when you get to songs like 'Nobody's Lonely Tonight' and 'A Simple Song' and even his old cut 'Drunkard's Prayer', there is a darkness to these tunes which feels more natural for Stapleton's delivery than a slightly goofier cut like 'Tryin' To Untangle My Mind' - which is a fine song, but this is territory he's played in before.

And that's a key point to emphasize too: as much as you could argue that Stapleton's not in territory that the Turnpike Troubadours or especially Cody Jinks haven't already trod - hell, 'Hard Livin' was practically the thematic arc behind A Long Way To Your Heart - he is doing it well. He may have already written 'Drunkard's Prayer' a decade ago, but tackling guilt in the face of your inadequacies and alcoholism is powerful and dark stuff, and it's hard not to hear the verses cut pretty deeply in the decay behind 'A Simple Song', especially when similar subject matter is played much brighter on the opening cover 'Millionaire'. And the framing of these situations ring as darker too: the jailhouse blues of 'Midnight Train To Memphis' might be simple, but even the details highlight poverty that keeps Stapleton's character in jail, and 'Nobody's Lonely Tonight' doesn't even try to imply love is being found in this hookup, or anything remotely sexy about it; no strings, no feelings, both plugging their memories with images of ex-partners, it's a bleak song and it doesn't pull punches. And 'Scarecrow In The Garden' is by far one of the best tracks Stapleton has ever written, telling a frank tale of a farmer watching the land decay generation after generation in ways he can't understand. The track ends with him holding onto a Bible turned to Revelations and a pistol, and the framing is chilling, mostly because it pulls absolutely no punches. The song invites sympathy for the man in watching everything decay beneath him to the point where he's clinging to the few things on which he can rely... but the paranoia and desperation is subtext under every word, and it's clear he might just have an apocalyptic death wish. It's the sort of unflinching nuance that Stapleton rarely presses, with a deft eye for detail and ambiguity... that makes me desperately wish he did a lot more of this!

And that's what does irk me a bit about the From A Room records: you could have cut tracks from both and mashed into one genuinely excellent project that would easily stand above Traveller without needing any covers at all, hands down! So why split them in the first place... there's a part of me that is convinced it's label interference from Mercury Nashville, who between this and what they're doing with Lauren Alaina seem to be trying to milk as much as they can from artists who deserve better, but at the same time Stapleton probably has enough clout thanks to the frankly obscene number of records sold to have combined these if he wanted. But even putting that aside, I liked From A Room: Vol. 2 a lot, the first genuinely great project from Stapleton and one that with every original song indicates an artist taking the right steps going forward. For me, this is a 8/10 and easily a recommendation, and while I may have heard better country records this year, I'm thrilled to finally get onboard the bandwagon here, because you're definitely going to want to check this out.

No comments:

Post a Comment