Wednesday, October 2, 2019

album review: 'heartache medication' by jon pardi

Okay, I'll just say it: in my reviews of Jon Pardi up to this point, the majority of the problem is me.

And this is one of those utterly exasperating issues as a music critic where yes, to the mainstream Nashville listener Pardi represents a sound that is entirely up my alley and should be getting all the praise in the world in the current subset of neotraditional revivalists we're seeing, especially in his choice of production. And I can see on the surface how Jon Pardi basically answers all of my major complaints about the corporate, pop-pandering side of Nashville by delivering a rich, vintage timbre that could have been imported straight from the early 90s... and yet I've been lukewarm on him at best, right from when I covered his debut in 2014. Don't get me wrong, I like that his success is nudging Nashville in that organic, neotraditional direction, but between never quite liking his vocal timbre and songwriting that just feels a bit underwhelming - plus the wealth of indie country acts that just do this sort of sound better - I know how it makes me come across like a country music hipster not getting onboard, even though I'd argue that just because you have a neotraditional sound doesn't mean the delivery or songs hold up. And while the country music hipster part is probably true, I actually did have some hope that with his mainstream niche firmly established he'd be able to double down and not have to rely on consistently his most generic songs as singles, so I really did want to like what he was going to deliver with Heartache Medication - it really did seem like Jon Pardi was going in the right direction, so did his album deliver?

So here's the thing: I can comfortably say that Heartache Medication is exactly the sort of album you'd expect coming from Jon Pardi, will serve his diehard fans, and will inevitably move the sort of units to get a respectable number of singles on Nashville country radio. And yet while there are some pretty great individual cuts here, I'm left with the lingering feeling that Jon Pardi has not produced an album that's all that interesting or distinct from the pack - very much passable but if you're looking for him to make a neotraditional country album that takes a step beyond middle-of-the-road, this isn't really it, no matter how much Jon Pardi wants it to be. 

Hell, that might be the most jarring thing about this listen, because Pardi is self-aware enough to realize that this particular sound in country is not the norm in Nashville, and that he's placing himself in a defiantly backwards-looking group by embodying it so proudly - you don't open up the album with a cut like 'Old Hat' if you're not reading your own hype and press packet, especially when you follow it later on the album with 'Call Me Country', which rattles through traditional country cliches and says he's a 'ghost on the radio'. Which fits his defiant sentiments... but it's also not really true for two big reasons, the first being how his embrace of the neotraditional sound is giving him real commercial success - it's not like he's Mike and the Moonpies or anyone out of the indie camp produced by Dave Cobb who the radio ignores or something. And more to the point, when you dig a bit deeper into the songwriting and storytelling Jon Pardi does have, he's not singing about freight trains and outlaws and prisons either; most of his songwriters just give him a slightly old-fashioned spin on relationship songs, which on this album tend to span various degrees of intoxication. 

And that's fine, don't get me wrong, but if you're playing for an older style and trying to lean into authenticity, it's jarring when the actual text doesn't embody it - hell, I've said it before, but dig into the song structures and they really aren't that far removed from what's popular now, especially the list songs, just given a neotraditional sheen of paint. And unfortunately that does leave the album feeling a little underweight when it comes to deeper song topics, most of which fall towards drinking songs and pretty simplistic love songs, but there are a few exceptions that show a little more wisdom. 'Ain't Always The Cowboy' is a good cut, where she leaves him because the chemistry just isn't there and he takes it pretty well, and both 'Nobody Leaves A Girl Like That' and 'Love Her Like She's Leaving' are solid love songs. And the duet 'Don't Blame It On Whiskey' with Lauren Alaina - cowritten by Eric Church and Miranda Lambert and you can really tell - shows both partners struggling to confront the fractures in their failing relationship with the alcohol only masking the problem; although given how pleading the song can feel and how soused the rest of the album is - the swapping out of whiskies as the punchline on 'Me and Jack' is a prime example - it might reflect some deeper dependency that I wish was at least considered, especially considering Lauren Alaina has released songs like 'Same Day Different Bottle' before. But that's indicative of the album as a whole - you keep expecting more lyrical details to slide in and make these songs a little more developed instead of playing to a basic common denominator without a lot of unique flair in the poetry; again, not bad, but rarely elevated to greatness. And hell, that might be my biggest indictment of Jon Pardi as a singer too: he's got twang and energy and he does fit over this instrumentation, but his more nasal, braying tone doesn't show a lot of subtlety or dynamics in his timbre, which doesn't bring a lot of emotional range to really elevate conventional material.

But hey, at least we've got that neotraditional sound, right? Warm acoustics, sharp electric guitars, rounded but firm bass and percussion, plenty of pedal steel and fiddle and saloon piano, all the tones I grew up with and like, right? Well, provided you can look past the occasional programmed handclap that stiffens the groove and sticks out like a sore thumb - looking at 'Old Hat' for that - or a lo-fi filter tacked onto the vocals in a thin attempt to add some bite to the song like the honky-tonk stomper 'Me and Jack' or the clunky 'Oughta Know That', it really is the music that works the best for me on this album. From the warm midtempo fiddles and guitar interplay of the title track, the hook of 'Nobody Leaves A Girl Like That' that sticks in my head and will not leave, the aching fiddle lines anchoring 'Ain't Always The Cowboy' and 'Don't Blame It On Whiskey', to the piano foundation across 'Just Like Old Times' and the reserved warmth of 'Love Her Like She's Leaving', there's generally a pleasant vibe across a lot of this project, and I won't deny it's a sound that just naturally clicks for me. Hell, the biggest departure from that sound is probably 'Tequila Little Time'... which in blending the horns with the fiddle for the main melody sounds a little ridiculous and playing towards island territory Kenny Chesney does better, but for as flagrantly corny as it is, I've certainly heard worse in this lane. That being said, if you're looking for Jon Pardi to do more with this sound or production - especially in the face of more textured, interesting production or tunes - you might wind up thinking a lot of this album blurs together and the hooks don't quite hit as hard as they could.

But to pull this all together... man, projects like this frustrate me because if you're putting it in the context of all the country released this year, not just the mainstream, Jon Pardi doesn't do a lot wrong but also not a lot exceptional either. It probably has his highest ratio of solid to great songs of any album he's released and I am going to call it a good sign he's able to make this sound marketable in the mainstream... but ask for even a little more and I can see you feeling underwhelmed. I think my biggest issues at this point remain in the writing taking that next step to really hit home, but in the mean time... extremely solid 6/10, recommended for the fans, but if you've been keeping your ear to the ground this album won't really blow your mind. Still wanted to cover it properly to emphasize how at least one subset of mainstream Nashville is heading in the right direction - just have to keep going one step - and one drink - at a time.

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