Wednesday, August 7, 2019

album review: 'country squire' by tyler childers

You know, I keep looking back on the last two years of Patreon scheduling with some degree of exasperation - nothing against you guys, a huge part of the problem was me taking on way too much without a clear way of focusing or managing it, but it also meant that I just missed covering acts that you'd think would have been on my radar. And when you build a reputation for covering a lot of indie country and for some reason you don't cover an act who is building a ton of hype and groundswell... well, I'm not sure how many cared, but I certainly felt exasperated about it.

Such was the case with Purgatory, the long-awaited sophomore album from Kentucky native Tyler Childers that was released in 2017 that caught the indie country scene by storm, thanks mostly to a defiantly country palette full of ragged fiddle and a notable production credit from Sturgill Simpson. It was loose and raw and sleazy but in the right way, rife with flavour that just felt a step away from greatness for me thanks to feeling a bit underwritten and meandering at points - good thematic cohesion and it did grow on me with repeated listens, but it probably wouldn't have made my year-end list in 2017, but also Childers was definitely someone worth keeping an eye on. And his buzz caught fire in a big way, nabbing him a major label deal on RCA on the condition he'd maintain artistic freedom - which to me was a very positive sign, all the more evidence that any courting of Nashville radio is something the indie scene just doesn't care about; hell, that album cover should make that plain enough! So okay, let's make up for some lost time here, what did Tyler Childers deliver on Country Squire?

You know, these are the reviews where I always feel like I'm a half step away from the indie country crowd at large, because I absolutely do like this Tyler Childers record... but it's hard to avoid the thinking that Country Squire is punching lower than Purgatory or indeed the subset of indie country that truly hits for me. And that's exasperating for me to call out because in terms of tones and textures I'd argue Childers is hitting the majority of the right buttons... but slide even a little deeper and we have a project that just feels a little undercooked and scattered. Still very much enjoyable and I absolutely see why it's winning folks over, but where repeated listens dragged me into the fold for Purgatory, it doesn't seem to be happening here.

But before I get to what doesn't quite click, I want to highlight the stuff that does, mostly coming in the production and instrumentation, which has the bone-deep organic richness of tone courtesy of Sturgill Simpson's production that it makes you wish he'd go more in that direction for his next album! And that warm melodic fullness makes a lot of these songs hard to dislike - the bass and percussion provide a supple foundation and enough rollick to support the pluckier guitar pickups, the electric guitar tones are allowed to linger and smolder where they need, the keyboards span from wells of organ to something closer to saloon piano, and of course that phenomenal fiddle pickup that galvanizes so many of the hooks! For a project this short, Tyler Childers needed to make as many of these songs as distinctive as possible, and while I'm not sure we get something as far out of his comfort zone as 'Universal Sound', there are plenty of little flourishes, I really appreciate, from the squonking touches of country funk beneath 'Bus Route' complete with some very recognizable backing vocals creeping through at the end of each verse to how that lead acoustic line keeps its subtle stomp driving through 'House Fire', to how the fiddles slice through 'Ever Lovin' Hand' before we get the electric guitar sidles in for the jaunty solo that definitely shows that bluegrass twinge that keeps things moving. And when you factor in a solid flow from song to song as the guitars bleed into each other with deeper traces of atmosphere, it really becomes hard to pinpoint issues, given how seamless it can feel... but in a sense, that might be where I step away from the average indie country fan, because where Childers uses these elements in transition, I'd love to hear more mix depth and experimental flourishes on the songs themselves. Sure, you get moments like the intro of 'Matthew', or the keyboard-saturated southern soul of 'All Your'n', but if you're familiar with these timbres in a certain set of indie country and Childers' more traditional compositions here, it can't help but feel a bit more safe. Maybe I'd have been won over a little more if a few of these songs expanded their runtime a little more - this album goes down fast, and considering how Childers' haggard, hangdog delivery doesn't vary much, certain moments can feel a little uniform, although the occasional bit of slightly vocal mixing doesn't help his dynamics here.

And yes, a significant part of this also comes back to the writing. Now credit where it's due, Purgatory did manage to set a more consistent scene and muster more thematic cohesion the more listens I gave it, enough that when songs felt underwritten or a shade two-dimensional I was willing to accept it given the larger whole. Country Squire, meanwhile, feels more diffuse in its themes and writing, and overall seems to be taking a slightly lighter tone to the backwoods setting that saturates the project, and by necessity that kind of lessens some of the impact. There are consistent moods that run across most of this album - longing and waiting for expectations to be fulfilled, the risk that comes when they are, but it's still often better than the stasis of having them neglected, which makes sense when you have the sort of scruffy love songs like the title track, 'All Your'n', and even to some extent 'Gemini', where he struggles with overthought boredom and consoles his girl to realize that while he wanders, there's still a part of him that's very much for her. Hell, 'House Fire' is a great example of him trying to get her to cut loose - set it all on fire, burn away the frozen weather, set the light that'll pull him home - and thus it makes a crude sort of sense that 'Ever Lovin' Hand' immediately follows as one of the more explicit masturbation songs I've seen in country in a long time! But those longing moments of thought also come through the reflections on 'Bus Route', a traditional snapshot of a teenage fling built off routine, and especially on 'Peace Of Mind' where he references an old friend on the railroads where it's his scattered family keeping him together... but even that seems tenuous and you can tell he's on the cusp of cutting loose by getting high and letting it all burn away. But the consequences are also in view: 'Creeker' shows the guy chasing that dream by heading to the city... only to find himself utterly alienated and miserable, which can't quite capture the pathos of Jason Isbell's 'Last Of My Kind', but is working in the same territory. But that highlights two issues I do have with Country Squire, the first being that I keep expecting a revelatory moment in these pictures that doesn't quite materialize - this comes as an issue on the closing track 'Matthew', a good character portrait of a veteran returning home and seemingly finding some peace of mind... but it's missing the moment to really drive it home. And that's a similar feeling I get for the album as a whole: the emotional consistency is there and I appreciate Childers showing some diversity in subject matter and making those longing pictures make sense, but when I look for that added bit of pathos to yank it all together... it doesn't quite come.

Now granted, some of this might just be me - again, differentiating myself from the average indie country fan for which the textural connections and subtext are plenty, there might be more emotive significance for which I'm not quite getting. But again, this feels more scattered and oddly safer than Purgatory, and while the tones and descriptive writing highlight a lot of quality, I'm not quite all the way there. As such, for me it's getting an extremely strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, but keep in mind if you've got more of an ear for the tones I've described, you'll probably appreciate it way more. Otherwise... look, I'm not about to call this guy the next savior of indie country or the heir to Sturgill's sound, but there's promise here - hoping to hear more soon.

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