Monday, February 18, 2019

album review: 'can't say I ain't country' by florida georgia line

You know, on some level I've always thought it was a cheap thing to judge an act like Florida Georgia Line by their album titles, especially when they're a solid five years past their prime in terms of relevance and seem to be fighting tooth and nail to preserve whatever's left. Their first two albums were called Here's To The Good Times and Anything Goes, bro-country projects that reflected a shallow, tossed off vibe that didn't really invite a lot of deeper thought, and while I'd call neither album precisely good, for what they were I couldn't exactly get angry or all that annoyed with them. No, where that manifested was on their third album in 2016, Dig Your Roots, not their first attempt to say they were going back to their core but arguably their most revealing of what that core could be, the project where they wanted to settle down and get 'mature'... but did so against some of the most lifeless pop-leaning production to date. And that did feel a bit telling... because for as much as these guys have referenced the pop of their youth, this album could have indeed referenced their roots directly - they're just not really all that country.

But you can tell Florida Georgia Line has taken this as a slight, and from the lead-off single 'Simple' that sounds like a mash-up of High Valley and Edward Sharpe to the defensive album title, this looked to be a lot of posturing and maybe even some hurt feelings at being so effectively sidelined by the pop-country of Dan + Shay or the heavier smolder of Brothers Osborne. So I'll admit a little concern when I saw their newest album was described by them as a tribute to 90s country - and then stacked with features from Jason Aldean and Jason Derulo, not to mention all still produced by Joey Moi! That said, I was willing to give this project a chance, mostly because Florida Georgia Line have a weird habit of sneaking at least one single through that's pretty good - I liked 'Dirt' back in 2014, I liked 'Simple' last year, I had the hopes there'd be something more on what looked to be their longest album to date... so what did I get, can Florida Georgia Like prove that I can't say they ain't country?

You know, walking out of more than a few listens through this project... I'll be honest, I'm not angry at it, or at Florida Georgia Line specifically, because I'm starting to get the impression that the duo is chasing a defense of their sound and content that continues to contradict itself. And the frustrating thing is not that it's made with a disingenuous intent - there were a lot of cynical acts who hopped on the bro-country bandwagon five or six years ago and I will absolutely say that Florida Georgia Line believe what they are selling. But what's frustrating about Can't Say I Ain't Country is that while the duo might believe it, there's a lot of contradictory elements that if they were addressed with any kind of deeper thought or if Big Machine was willing to second-guess them, this could have been a better project. As it is... look, it's better than Dig Your Roots, but it's also more slapdash and a more frustrating listen as a whole, and I'd seriously struggle to say there's much quality.

Now at this point there's not really much to say about the duo themselves: Tyler Hubbard's got the braying, nasal tone we all recognize, Brian Kelley is getting more space and verses with a smoother but more anonymous delivery - likely because it'll play better to the pop country market - and it's also got too much damn compression and too obvious pitch correction because this is Joey Moi producing and he's never learned much restraint. But production and instrumentation has been a serious problem with branding them as country for some time now, and given the duo is trying to make that case, it's part of the conversation. Because yes, they absolutely got Paul Franklin on pedal steel and you can tell the textures overall are trying to be a bit more organic, at least in the foundational melodies. But for the duo to then say this is a bit of a throwback to the 90s neotraditional stuff they grew up on... look, I grew up in that time too, and you can't bullshit me by saying this! First off, there's no fiddle at all and even in the hyperpolished, smoothed over late 90s country courtesy of Shania that was part of the mix, but that era wasn't reliant on programmed drum machines and overmixed synth effects and let's not forget about the trap elements that found their way in too! Even 'Simple', a song I like, it doesn't really have its roots in that era of country so much as late-2000s folk, and while the title track, the pretty solid bouncy groove of 'Speed Of Love', and maybe the smoother reserve of the closing track 'Blessings' do show some parallels with that era, between them is a pile-up of tones that don't come close! For one, it's more than a little rich to make such a claim when you have Jason Derulo as a guest star on 'Women' that's more distinctive for a smoked out wheedling vocal sample and overweight percussion, or when you have 'Told You' which is such an obvious play for Chris Stapleton's brand of country soul, or when you have the rap verses on 'Small Town', and that's not even getting into the obvious snap percussion and plays for pop country that even with Brian Kelley taking more of the lead shows the duo out of the element  - they're just not as smooth as the newest crop of guys, and their attempts to be that smooth feel really clumsy.

But hey, they got that twang, it's all in their soul, and to be fair there's more pedal steel hammered against the overmixed guitar, the utter lack of solid bass, and synthetic percussion here, so I can't say they ain't country, right? Well, here's my point: even five years ago in the heights of bro-country I said there was space for this subgenre and a range of quality within it, and I'll admit this album is paradoxically more 'country' in its tones than Dig Your Roots. But here's my follow-up: even if I accept that premise, what are they even doing with it? Because in the 90s neotraditional country that I remember from Alan and Garth and Randy and George and Travis and Reba and all the rest of the artists who don't work with you guys, there was storytelling and a sense of gravitas and maturity and even attempts to tackle some more serious subject matter. What frustrates me about Florida Georgia Line is that their brand of country has none of this - it's a list of redneck cliches about the simple life in rural America, bro-country sex jams, and a weird defensiveness that they can't quite articulate... maybe because it's not exactly mirroring who they are now. And what's kind of alarming is that Florida Georgia Line only highlight this discrepancy through a series of skits that really raise more questions than they should. They're intended to be comedic, but they're a little more revealing than they should be of the attitudes that exist within Nashville marketing to rural America, with the one that really stood out being 'Catfish Nuggets', where a pastor from back home calls them as a person in the community is going to lose his eye in an accident and they need to raise funds to help with medical costs... while you open up with the album with a rumor saying that Tyler Hubbard is buying a Tesla, but he's still country, right?

And that contradiction is a big sticking point when it comes to this sort of country conversation: what Florida Georgia Line are pushing in their content probably doesn't match how they might live in Nashville or in the south - they're rich musicians pushing a Music Row image of country and rural life rather than what it is, and while the two have never aligned, in the neotraditional era it was closer than this! And the veneer gets really thin when you give these songs any sort of deeper thought or God only knows consider the album as a whole! I'll move past how the title track tries to draw the false equivalency of conspiracy theory nonsense of the world being flat or the moon landing being faked with evolution - which, just to hammer this into the ground, is a scientifically backed theory - and focus more on a song like 'Y'all Boys', which features this weird attempt to stick up for country guys over city guys to win over city girls, and it's so damn petulant. I've always hated this sort of song, but Florida Georgia Line can't even commit to larger feelings of antagonism, and that same fence-sitter attitude trying to split the difference pops up on the Jason Aldean collaboration 'Can't Hide Red', where despite all the flash and glitz, they're still country, they can't hide that! Yeah, I buy this even less coming from Aldean and the R&B push he instigated five years ago, but the larger problem is twofold: one, these guys are rich industry professionals who probably don't live that backwoods life in the same way even as they have to keep selling it; and two, if it's not backed up by more than just posturing in the content, I'm not going to buy it! Because go even a step deeper and this album is flimsy as hell - the love and hookup songs are schmaltzy or in the case of 'Swerve' flat out embarrassing, the small town songs are glorified checklists, and there's not even an attempt at greater introspection! And I know nobody is going to Florida Georgia Line for that, but as the one guy who really liked 'Confession' or even just seeing how well a song like 'H.O.L.Y' did three years ago, the lack of slower moments is a bit alarming - this might go down fast, but it doesn't leave much impact. The one attempt is 'People Are Different', the same sort of 'can't we all just get along' moment that Carrie Underwood tried with 'Love Wins' and while I don't doubt the sincerity, this song has the exact same lack of depth and it doesn't a hook on the same magnitude.

And thus... look, I don't envy Florida Georgia Line right now given their artistic position: the bro-country wave they rode got a lot more polished or brought a heaviness they can't match, and they're struggling to compete. More to the point, they clearly think they're country because that's probably how the pop acts they work with like Bebe Rexha who don't have a goddamn clue about what goes on in Nashville consider them, and thus they get annoyed when music critics or other acts call them out. And as such this album is trying to do two things that don't mesh together thematically and it really compromises the whole project, only rendered a little better than their last album because there's a few stronger hooks and can feel a bit more organic. But if you're stuck making responses to trends rather than charting your own path - and they'd probably have the leverage to go to Scott Borchetta with a distinct vision if they wanted, they've got the clout on Big Machine right now - then you're chasing your own tail, and I can see that hurting this album more than any bad production or misaligned ideas. As such... look, the album isn't bad, but it's not good either, netting a light 5/10 from me and only recommended if you're a diehard fan. Otherwise... look, country's moving past these guys - if they don't make an unique plan to catch up, it might not be bad to move along too.

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