Saturday, January 12, 2019

album review: 'magnolia' by randy houser

You know, it feels a little weird that this the first time I'm speaking at length about Randy Houser - but also not all that surprising if you've been aware of the mainstream country ecosystem outside of the biggest stars. And indeed, Randy Houser has been a prominent opening act for many of those stars over the past decade with a fair few hits of his own, so what is holding him back from the big leagues?

Well, in preparation for this I relistened to his entire back catalog and the first thing to note is that as a performer and presence within country, he's long been on the cusp of entering that category - hell, if you just listen to his tremendous vocal chops, you'd think he'd already be there. And like many aspiring acts, he worked behind the scenes as a songwriter in the mid-to-late 2000s... and the less said about some of his breakthrough writing credits, the better. But he accrued some solid writing credits for his second album on Toby Keith's Show Dog-Universal which translated to a pretty good album in They Call Me Cadillac... that went precisely nowhere, so he left and signed to Stoney Creek and began seeing real success in the 2013 bro-country wave. And I'll put Randy Houser in the same category as guys like Chris Young: a little older, presumably a little wiser, able to bring a shade more gravitas to otherwise pretty disposable lyrics in the trend, generally a cut above if not precisely great. But bro-country was never built to last, and while the full force of it was placed behind his 2016 album Fired Up, it only produced one hit and only exposed the larger conundrum with Houser: a great singer, sure, but if the compositions and production weren't there to provide him foundation or richer country tones, it didn't turn out well. I'll give him a few points for avoiding the forgettable pop-adjacent pablum that Chris Young started shoveling out, but I'll admit some concern about this newest project. For one, it had been pushed back from its November release date last year, and for another, while I did appreciate Houser taking a much greater role in the writing process, I was a bit concerned he was co-producing this project too, a first for him and reportedly paid for by him too so could ensure the sound he wanted. Thankfully, he had recruited his old collaborator and veteran of both mainstream and indie scenes Keith Gattis to assist - seriously, he's worked with everyone from George Strait to Randy Travis, Wade Bowen to Jon Pardi, all the Pistol Annies to Brandy Clark - so this could be the pivot that Randy Houser needs to stand out, so what did we get with Magnolia?

Well folks, this was a real experience of a listen, because it opens 2019 with a world of firsts. First album from 2019 I've reviewed, first legitimately great album of 2019, and arguably the first time that Randy Houser has an album that matches his impressive pedigree as a singer. Seriously, I opened up this review with a pretty lengthy discussion of what's been holding Randy Houser back from the bigger leagues, and from the sounds of Magnolia, he's gotten about as tired with that discourse as I did, because this is by a considerable length the best project he's ever released and deserves to place him in the exact same conversation as an Eric Church or Chris Stapleton. Yes, I'm dead serious folks - the label may have dropped this in mid-January because they have no expectations and aren't placing it against any competition, but that might have been the best possible boon to set the tone, because this is really damn solid.

And I'll freely admit my first reaction upon the first four or five listens was to look for flaws, places where Randy Houser doesn't quite fully execute the pivot into his own lane - mostly because to some extent you can trace the territory that he's targeting. I referenced Eric Church, but in truth Houser's new direction resembles his labelmates Brothers Osborne a lot more in the swampy tones, focus on groove, and an increasingly smoky vibe - and thus it shouldn't surprise anyone they show up as backing players on 'New Buzz'. And of course with the more soulful moments you can see the parallels to Chris Stapleton - although to his credit, the instrumental palette that Houser utilizes feels a lot more richly defined than Stapleton's work, especially coming out of 2017. And yet most to the point, it's hard to avoid how Randy Houser still has to pay a bit of lip service to modern Nashville songwriting and production cliches, even if you can tell he's in a hurry to dispose of them as fast as possible. Take the thin drum machine that opens up 'Running Man' - it's damn near perfunctory and it's not even halfway through the first verse that live drums come in to fill out the mix, and that's exactly the direction I'm happy he's taking. That said, if I'm going to nitpick the production it will be that the drums can maybe pick up a shade too much presence in comparison to the guitars and organ, and I do wish songs like 'Nothin' On You' had more to them than a cheap double entendre, or how songs like 'Whole Lotta Quit' and 'New Buzz are a little too reliant on swagger and cliches to completely connect. 

But that's where the majority of my criticisms end, because the approach Randy Houser takes to Magnolia manages to skirt most of the shortcomings of his peers - unlike Brothers Osborne he doesn't slip towards lethargy and manages to keep a pretty consistent sense of momentum, and while Chris Stapleton's voice might carry more grit, Randy Houser's richer, warmer tone has the sort of charisma that can elevate a good song into a great one, especially as you can tell he's throwing his absolute all into these cuts with the sort of conviction that only comes from a passion project that he might never get a chance to make again. And it's important to mention not just Randy Houser's age and increased sense of maturity - which adds a temperance to these songs without gutting their energy - but also his self-awareness. A fellow critic noted that there's an added weight that comes from songs like 'No Stone Unturned' in how ready Randy Houser acknowledges relative anonymity within country, especially amidst the tide of flashier men in Nashville, but I wouldn't say there's bitterness here - more of a weary acknowledgement and almost gratitude for the space to go off the beaten path and remain unnoticed. And when paired with the unabashed but restrained love songs like 'Our Hearts' or the absolutely excellent  closer 'Evangeline', or the post-breakup musings of 'High Time' and 'What Whiskey Does', and especially the heartbreak that permeates 'What Leaving Looks Like' and 'No Good Place To Cry', it shows the heavy balance between world-weary wisdom and genuine vulnerability that Houser conveys brilliantly; the man has always had a huge voice, but his expanded range and subtlety means that simple details can pack a wallop. And yet at the same time, when he's taking songs that demand that sort of bassy, smoldering bravado like 'New Buzz' and 'Whole Lotta Quit' and even the lo-fi sleaziness of 'Mamma Don't Know' that's taking glances at modern southern rock, he's convincing in that lane!

But let's be honest: if you were paying attention to Randy Houser's deep cuts or reading between the lines, these were strengths that were consistent across the best of his old material. No, where Magnolia really stands out comes in the production, which wrenches itself off Music Row and definitely shows more of an East Nashville touch in its embrace of richer guitars, gleaming organs, a supple commitment to soulful grooves, and nearly all without forsaking a warm country timbre that makes this album remarkably accessible! Yeah, what will probably attract the most attention is the dirty blasts of harmonica that drive 'Whole Lotta Quit' with a melody that shows its obvious but welcome debt to Brooks & Dunn, or the seedy, rattling organ-inflected country funk of 'New Buzz' or the lo-fi scuzzy muscle of 'Mamma Don't Know', but what caught more of my ear was how well the brighter acoustic touches played off the patter of the beat on 'No Stone Unturned' and later translated into gleaming melodic accents that I'm not sure have an easy parallel in country in recent years! Or go to 'Our Hearts', where the blend of sharper acoustics play off the bass and backdrop of organ so damn well you almost don't expect the swells of textured strings to drop in out of nowhere and sound incredible! Or how the restrained guitar can back the soulful arrangement of 'No Good Place To Cry' or how both 'Evangeline' and 'What Leaving Looks Like' are just striking power ballads as exercises of restraint and raw heartbreak respectively, especially in the former case with its pianos and main melody.

In short... you know, I've described this album through a lot of comparisons to other acts in country, and there are more I could make to acts like Travis Tritt, but I think I'm going to set those aside - mostly because in those comparison, Randy Houser is doing it better! Because with Magnolia, he's proven he belongs in that larger conversation with a work of considerable quality, his characteristically great voice matching solid writing with real emotive pathos and some of his best ever compositions and production. And while I get the feeling a lot of folks will sleep on this release given how early it's released in 2019, I'm definitely on board, giving this a light 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation. And as for Randy Houser himself... it's taken a long time, but I'm comfortable welcoming you to the big league conversation. You've set some mighty high expectations, and I can't wait to see how you reach them.

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