Thursday, May 9, 2019

album review: 'hellbent' by randy rogers band

So speaking about acts that nearly got lost in the shuffle...

Yeah, this is somewhat inevitable when we look at the bands with less traction in the mainstream or even less natural groundswell outside of a strong local scene - and while I wouldn't usually want to slot the Randy Rogers Band into the latter category, it's a little hard avoiding it nowadays. Just to catch you all up, the Randy Rogers Band was a Texas country act who landed a major label deal in the mid-2000s and yet never really saw the momentum on the singles charts... mostly because the Nashville industry can't stand Texas country and they were playing a much more neotraditional stripe of it. But the band was willing to try and cross over, even working with Jay Joyce in 2013 for their album Trouble... and when that went nowhere because of the bro-country wave, the band split for their own label and returned to a sound that was more comfortable. And let me stress while I was hard on their 2016 album Nothing Shines Like Neon, it was more because of the comparison to Randy Rogers' excellent collaboration with Wade Bowen a year earlier called Hold My Beer Vol. 1, which was one of the best albums of 2015 and featured one of my favourite songs of that year in 'El Dorado'. So while the rumor mill hasn't really given me any dates surrounding when their follow-up compilation might drop - and Wade Bowen is content to make great solo albums like Solid Ground from last year - we got this project Hellbent, so how did it turn out?

So here's the tricky thing with Hellbent: this is the sort of project that would seem to go consistently in the right direction, from their choice of producer to the choice to double down on the richer organic neotraditional tones that have been the backbone of their sound for some time - hell, this could have dropped between '89 and '92 and I doubt most people could tell the difference outside of hints of organ. All of this would set this album up for easy success... but I dunno, folks, something about this project is not gripping me as deeply as I'd like, the sort of rock solid release that goes down easy but feels missing the striking highlights that could really put it over the top. Definitely good, but a few steps shy of great, and pinning down why might be trickier than I expected.

Now the first thing to point out is the change in producers, swapping out frequent Kenny Chesney collaborator for indie country veteran Dave Cobb, for whom I've sung a lot of praises, but for whom I've also had a few issues over the past couple of years. To his credit, much of what I like from him is here: the fiddle pickups are crisp and generally the best part of these songs, the mix is warm and organic, Randy Rogers' voice while a little more haggard and reminiscent of Tim McGraw has the space and texture it needs (if a little quieter than it should be), and for once Cobb has gotten out of the way of the vintage stylings that have become overexposed in the 2010s. More of the approach seems analogous to what he's given Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell in recent years: get out of the way, let good tones and songs speak for themselves... with the exception of the basslines. I don't know what it is, because for as firm as that foundation can be, it doesn't really lend the bass guitar much in the way of texture or rollick, and when combined with an odd and inconsistent muting of the drum pickup, it can make a few of these tunes feel underdeveloped in the low end - melodic as all hell, but not quite having the foundation they should. But that's a production quibble - to be honest, I can overlook that if the actual tunes have the distinctive weight and punch to stand on their own... and I'm not sure they do. Don't get me wrong, I'd struggle to say that any of these songs are outright bad or out of place from the Randy Rogers Band... but I'd also struggle to say that we're getting many outright stunners or even great individual cuts - Nothing Shines Like Neon was absolutely a less consistent project, but it had songs that could jump off the page in which on a compositional level I'm not getting from Hellbent. There's something almost workmanlike in these songs - you'd think on an indie label with the flexibility to try anything you'd get greater experimentation, but many of these songs feel safe and relatively unchallenging - even with the clumsy attempts at Spanish on 'We Never Made It To Mexico' I'm just not all that gripped. And while I'm not saying the brevity of this project is an issue, I will say I'm a little surprised the band doesn't get the room to flex their muscles more - this album clocks just over a half hour at eleven songs, it's not like there was a rush here!

So could the lyrics be the problem? Honestly, tough to say, mostly because I don't think they really move the needle one way or the other. And ironically, it feels reminiscent of the same issue I have with so much songwriting out of Nashville: good at setting the details and scene, but if you're looking to follow through for more of a story or dig for a bit more dimensionality or gravitas, it's rare that you find more. An easy example is 'Wine In A Coffee Cup', where the woman knocking it back is clearly hiding a deeper emptiness or pain with alcohol, but all we get is the description, no followthrough, and the entire song can feel weirdly voyeuristic, especially when earlier on the album on 'Drinking Money' our protagonist is clearly doing some of the same damn thing! Now to be fair the framing of this project doesn't really feel judgmental one way or the other - best shown on the exhausted post-one night stand of 'Anchors Away' where his exit is bluntly guaranteed - and I do appreciate how the album is kind of realistic on how and when the relationship ends like on 'Hell Bent On A Heartache' and 'We Never Made It To Mexico' and even 'Fire In The Hole'... but there's no way to avoid how clingy a song like 'I'll Never Get Over You' can feel, even despite that vibrant fiddle line. But on the flipside, Randy Rogers has always had a knack for more meta material and while I still think 'Anchors Away' and 'Crazy People' are the strongest songs overall, 'Good One Coming On' ends the project on a solid optimistic note.

But to end things off... honestly, while I did hope there'd be a bit more to say about this project and I have seen some fans even say that the Randy Rogers Band is past their peak, I still think this is a good album. It's not a great one - it's clearly playing it safe and the writing and compositions could afford to take more changes and add greater depth and diversity - but if you're looking for a straightforward neotraditional country project, this'll absolutely scratch that itch, which is why I'm giving this a very light 7/10 and a recommendation. Certainly wouldn't object to hearing more country like this in comparison with most of the gunk on country radio or streaming playlists, but I do hope for a little more going forward.

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