Wednesday, August 1, 2018

album review: 'lifers' by cody jinks

I'm not going to claim to be ahead of the curve when it came to covering Cody Jinks in 2016. I was aware of his name and a few of his projects, especially his excellent Less Wise, but when I was going into I'm Not The Devil right before I took off for vacation, I was expecting a pretty damn solid Texas country record and that's effectively what I got...

And then it seemed like the floodgates burst open, and Cody Jinks' name started getting passed around a fair bit more beyond just the indie country and Texas country circuits, and I can tell you right now it didn't have much to do with me. No, if there was an unsung strength of I'm Not The Devil it was how Jinks leveraged the thickness and dramatic heft of his sound with an approach to melodic hooks that honestly reminded a bit of Garth Brooks in terms of composition. I might gravitate to the rougher textures of his earlier projects like Less Wise and 30, but I'm Not The Devil balanced that with some of his best ever hooks, and that got people to take serious notice - he moved a surprising amount of units, and given how much he's risen it's hard not to think he's on the cusp of a serious grassroots breakthrough to rival most of the indie scene right now. So you can bet I was eagerly anticipating his follow-up this year Lifers, which critical buzz did not place as his best work, but still great all the same. Okay, still cautiously optimistic, how did it turn out?

Here's the thing: like the last time I reviewed Cody Jinks I've got the feeling that there's not really much to say: Cody Jinks' lane is starting to feel well-trod, and while there's a bit more experimentation on this project when it comes to song topics and production, there are also more points where he swings and misses, hence the reviews saying it's not quite his best. But Lifers is still really damn solid, the sort of burnished, high-concept Texas country rife with Jinks' musings and introspection that makes it a very easy project to like, if not entirely love.

A big part of this is Jinks himself - he's got a rich baritone that's capable of selling big emotions, and to his credit he knows enough to either lean into his grizzled, gruffer vibe and ease back into the more subtle restraint to let the writing and melody sell the message without overplaying his hand. Sure, he'll recruit more soulful gospel backing singers for 'Holy Water', but it fits the vibe and never flies over the top. But it's here we encounter an issue that'll crop in a much bigger way later on, and that is the vocal production, namely how it can feel really inconsistent even within songs on this record. Earlier cuts start sliding towards lo-fi near the outros of the songs and then by 'Somewhere Between I Love You And I'm Leavin', there's so much reverb layered onto his vocals pushed a bit further back that it just becomes distracting, especially when you couple with much more burnished acoustic strumming and electric guitar closer to the front of the mix. And it's not just there - the unnecessary reverb slips back into '7th Floor', but while I get the sharper live vocals have a certain gritty appeal and they do mostly fit with songs like 'Desert Wind' with the seedy groove and darker guitar tones, but the blending just feels ever so slightly off in comparison with how artists like Lindi Ortega or Sturgill Simpson have done it in the past. And then you get '7th Floor', where the backing vocals are actively cleaner than his and most of the rest of the mix... again, it's distracting.

But that raises questions with the mixing as a whole, where you can tell that Cody Jinks and his producers were stepping outside of their comfort zone to accommodate a broader range of sounds... but the results are kind of inconsistent, especially when you look at the rhythm section. Right from the start of the record the snares sound compressed, the deeper percussion and kick drums sound blown out, and the bass consistently lacks definition to supplement the groove, three choices that unfortunately draw attention to the groove's timbre in the mix and consistently underwhelms, especially when that's not really territory that needed to change much coming off of I'm Not The Devil - yes, the grooves could be ragged there, but they felt natural blended into the mix. But the blending on most of the record can feel a bit off as a whole: I like the pedal steel, electric guitar and even hints of organ and saloon piano to flesh out the melody, but it's hard to ignore how they can feel a bit compressed on certain tunes, a shade too crisp to clip edges of the mix, which isn't really excusable on songs where Jinks isn't going for more distortion or edge... or songs where I'm not sure what edge he's looking to cultivate, like with the grainy pickup on '7th Floor' that doesn't match anything. Going back to 'Desert Wind' I can mostly excuse it, as with the title track which actually gives the bass more definition and can handle a rougher vibe, but it's a little less excusable for how slightly tinny the acoustics can feel on 'Can't Quit Enough'. And what's frustrating is how it's inconsistent - 'Big Last Name' fleshes out a bouncy Texas country stomper with crowd sounds and it sounds absolutely fine, as does the excellent midtempo 'Colorado', and the more gentle touches of reverb and keening pedal steel on his cover of 'Stranger' is a perfect example of that experimentation working, as are the cellos that flesh out 'Head Case', but messing with this side of production can be high-risk low-reward, especially when it may have come at the expense of the instrumental experimentation I was hoping Jinks would bring following after I'm Not The Devil.

But all of this could be redeemed by sharp songwriting... and here's the thing, I'm well aware Cody Jinks' style of writing trends towards broad, arch language - something he might have picked up from when he was in metal, but it helps make his songs 'feel' bigger than they are, especially ballads like 'Colorado'. He's a big personality, and that lends weight to the questions of faith on 'Holy Water' and 'Head Case', or the crises that come in chasing dreams that come up wanting, especially with the ravages they might inflict on songs like 'Lifers' and 'Stranger'. And to be fair that doesn't tend to lead to a lot of nuance... which can work if the song's direction is clear, but on more than a few cuts things can get oddly muddled. 'Big Last Name' is the most obvious example, telling the story of a girl looking to marry rich and yet winds up with said husband cheating on her in the end, which seems to point towards a dig at gold-diggers, but it feels like the connective tissue to conclude the song is oddly absent. And what's strange is that it keeps happening: 'Desert Wind' has our protagonist searching for lost gold only to find the truth is in that journey, in that desert wind - which, fine, but for as much as Jinks will lionize the journey, he seems selective in which are worthwhile and seems to recoil from finding the destination, which is loaded into the subtext of the road song 'Can't Quite Enough' and is a lot more prominent on '7th Floor'. But that song falls in weird territory too - it wants to demonize the industry that elevates him and he's consciously aware of how it'll eventually lead to his fall, but the hook of the song shows that it was clearly worth it to get to this destination, which thematically feels at odds with the rest of the record elevating the journey that's most rewarding. And I get that there's room for ambiguity in these conversations, but this isn't morally complex framing or added nuance so much as mixed messaging that doesn't really mesh with the scope and style of the writing, at least to me.

But beyond that - and some lyrical nitpicks of him seemingly overcompensating for I'm Not The Devil by cramming a few too many words into the meter where the last album could occasionally have too few - this is a good record. I'm not about to call it great or say it's better than his best - it's not - but Cody Jinks records always have a slow build for me and I reckon this'll fall into a similar category, albeit a bit less so given some of those production issues. Still, some really solid cuts which is why I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but a cautious one. Fans will enjoy it, but newcomers... start with I'm Not The Devil and Less Wise, then go from there if you're curious, you probably won't be disappointed.

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