Monday, April 23, 2018

album review: 'port saint joe' by brothers osborne

Oh, I was looking forward to this one - and for a nice change of pace, it didn't look like it was just me this time around and that's thrilling to see.

And there's really no mincing words about it: in the face of other country duos Brothers Osborne have surged to the forefront in critical acclaim and presence over the past few years ever since they released Pawn Shop in very early 2016 - and what's more exciting is that they seemed to be doing it the right way. Sure, that debut was uneven and had rough patches both in production and songwriting, but you wouldn't really know it given that Brothers Osborne had a canny eye for releasing great singles like '21 Summer' and especially 'It Ain't My Fault', which might just have one of the best music videos of the decade. It was one of those projects where the sheer talent, wit, and swagger was hard to deny, and while the larger mainstream never quite got onboard the way they should have - especially considering it wasn't like their labelmate Eric Church had many singles in circulation to compete - this upcoming record starting getting a lot of attention, to see how they'd follow up and expand their southern rock style while keeping that idiosyncratic flair and firepower. Or to put it another way, even though I've been a fan of these guys for a few years now, I was excited to see how much everyone else wanted to get on-board: so what did we get on Port Saint Joe?

Okay, this was not what I was expecting from Brothers Osborne. See, if I were to describe what I liked about this group coming out of Pawn Shop, it'd be their dramatic intensity and firepower that gave their love songs such heft and their party tracks such fervour. It certainly wasn't their laidback, chill soulful side that sounds like Chris Stapleton teaming up with Toby Keith - and I don't mean that as a pejorative at all, believe it or not! That's what makes Port Saint Joe such a perplexing listen, because doubling down on this looser, slightly hungover vibe does make for a more consistent record than Pawn Shop... but not one that seems to have the brilliant highpoints that made their debut so promising. Definitely a very good record and a stylistic detour that'll prove enjoyable to a lot of folks, but not one I feel highlights the duo's potential as well as it could.

And I want to start with the brothers themselves, specifically with T.J. on lead vocals. I've always liked the rich warmth of his vocal timbre, but what made Pawn Shop so potent is that he conveyed that natural charisma across a broader stylistic range, from a bass-heavy gruffness to his more soulful baritone to his sharper, more impressive bellow. And to put it mildly, Port Saint Joe does not nearly require the same range or volume, which means T.J. tends to default to a smoother, husky, slightly more reserved delivery that is still as deep and resonant but does not command the mix in the same way. So thus you'd expect the mix to give him the sort of space and placement to really accentuate his presence... and you'd mostly be right, but this is where we have to step into production and deal with perennially frustrating producer Jay Joyce. And look, to his credit over the past few years he's curbed a lot of the overproduction impulses that have made him so damn frustrating, and he knows enough to get out of the way of some truly excellent guitarwork from John Osborne, both acoustic and electric, as well as punch up the basslines to maintain foundation and even getting a little funky on 'Shoot Me Straight' and 'A Couple Wrongs Makin' It Alright', which has enough tonal depth to work surprisingly well. But it's hard to avoid the impression that Joyce's production choices are still pretty uneven, and let's start with the vocals: yes, when T.J. gets a bit quieter he's got ample space, but where he does belt there are songs like 'Drank Like Hank' where it sounds like he's situated a shade too deep into the mix, or back to 'A Couple Wrongs Makin' It Alright' where the vocal harmony is a shade too neat to really show off more organic richness. And that's arguably the biggest inconsistency on this record: I'm not going to deny there's a sharp crispness in the strumming and picking that cuts through, but more of that natural organic tone feels strangely absent to firm up the melody outside of swells of deeper organ and pedal steel - and even then, it can feel pretty staccato, not always the best natural cushion for the vocals or even the main guitar melody. And as such I found myself gravitating to the ballads that had a little more depth and body like 'I Don't Remember Me (Before You)' and the shimmering 'Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive)' and especially the closer 'While You Still Can' with a wonderfully positioned key change, great low-key finish.

Granted, on the flipside you get songs like 'A Little Bit Trouble' which all seems to be liquid organ and watery guitar phrases and winds up a tad limp as the result, but my issues with that track run more into content, where it's framed as the sort of slightly dangerous hookup but not really nailing any greater element of tension. And yet what's fascinating is that said tension isn't really a factor on most of the rest of these songs either, as our protagonist spends most of the album drinking and smoking himself into a finely tuned oblivion and then staggering towards some sort of melancholic realization of pathos, from the lost memories and hangover of 'I Don't Remember Me (Before You)' to the 'woman as spirits' metaphor of 'Tequila Again'. It's very clear that if 'It Ain't My Fault' was the party, this album is the morning after, and while songs like 'Drank Like Hank' and 'Shoot Me Straight' do have some of that party, there's almost a resignation beneath the latter of the blackout coming, and songs like 'Weed, Whiskey & Willie' show how much of a lifeline it can be. It's also one of the reasons the more earnest sentiment does resonate, from the unstable relationship of 'Pushing Up Daisies' that they're damn near destiny-bound to hold true to the small moments blurring by so fast on 'While You Still Can'. That said, while there is a haggard self-awareness to many of these tracks, you're not exactly getting a lot of complexity or deeper nuance, and while I'm not bothered by the name-dropping of classic country artists, I do find myself wishing for a bit more meat on these songs to really hit harder, especially if the intensity has been tamped back significantly.

But regardless of that, I still think Port Saint Joe is an interesting pivot for the group - definitely more refined and consistent, but not quite a record that grabs me as much as I was hoping, and it's hard not to feel like Brothers Osborne are struggling to slip out of the lingering shadow of their influences - they definitely grew up and got more serious here, but the lack of greater weight doesn't always pay that off. Still, for me this is a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation - hopefully good single choice will lead to these guys continuing to rack up mainstream success, because it's certainly worth your time.

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