Monday, October 21, 2019

album reviews: 'after the fire' & 'the wanting' by cody jinks

So I've gone back and forth so often on whether it's a good idea for artists to release more than one album a year, especially in relative close proximity. And normally the conclusion I've reached is, 'well, if they sound wildly different or they're aiming to do different things, then why the hell not'... but that let's be real, in today's streaming economy that is rarely the case so much as saturating the market, and even then it can be a dicey proposition.

And yeah, you can already tell that was my biggest concern going into these new albums from Cody Jinks, dropped a week apart and while had said that there were some incidental shifts in sound between the first and the second, I was still going in with the thought, 'if both discs aren't great, you probably could have just trimmed the fat and put out one of the best albums of your career'. And again, this is coming from a Cody Jinks fan who really loves Less Wise and 30 and really has come to love I'm Not The Devil as the melodic focus has only stuck with me more since 2016... but who also knew that Lifers felt more like a misstep with every listen, especially on production, and if those kinks hadn't been ironed out, throwing two albums of material could be a really big risk, especially as he's still independent and would be relying most on word-of-mouth and organic groundswell instead of label promotion. But hey, how did After The Fire and The Wanting turn out?

So here's the thing: it's easy enough to acknowledge how both of these projects are better than Lifers and have enough great songs to be worth hearing... but I'd also struggle to say that either bundled together or on their own they rise to among Jinks' best, and they also expose issues that at this point are starting to look like longer-term problems. More to the point, they reflect the issue I was worried about in this double release strategy: if the fat had been trimmed from the two into one uniquely strong and diverse project, we could have had a genuinely great country release competitive with the best... instead of two very good ones that have more filler than they should.

And there's no way to avoid this conversation so we have to start here: at this point, the production problems are getting actively distracting, and it really reflects larger questions surrounding the sort of country Cody Jinks makes across the board. Because as a singer, Jinks has the gravitas and weighty vocal texture that demands attention to emotional subtlety and complexity - he's a terrific vocalist, easily one of the biggest draws to any Cody Jinks album, and while there have been points I've wished he could ramp up the intensity - a larger issue with these projects, that trend towards midtempo - he's fully capable of subtler moments. And when you pay attention to the intricacy in the compositions - particularly his acoustic work or at any point the fiddle slides to the forefront - while the foundations remain in neotraditional country, there's a lot of great little instrumental moments, especially as Jinks is giving his band a little more room to breathe across two disks. So you'd think that a natural step would be to have production that would give all of these organic tones the texture and dynamics they need... but that's not what happens. Instead we get a focus on a jagged midrange, a firmer low-end, and very little in the highs at all, with vocals often sounding like they have a live pickup and little mix blending. This has prompted criticisms that Cody Jinks' production sounds unfinished, but the truth is that it has a blunter sort of swagger that favours rich, prominent melodic tones, jangling acoustic texture and strong grooves - in other words, if you look towards his thrash metal roots it makes a ton of sense. But it's an approach that always doesn't reflect the subtler elements in his vocals or a balanced, full-bodied mix, which means that for as often as the fiddle sounds phenomenal whenever we get it like on 'Ain't A Train', and the acoustic texture can feel rich against sharper snares and supple grooves, the cymbals often sound really muddy and you lose that crackle in the finer details. And with the percussion often pushed to the forefront to a distracting degree, the finer accents in the melodies just don't get the same prominence - not good when you want to avoid songs from running together, or when you do get a striking melodic progression like on 'Tell 'Em What It's Like' and a great solo to boot, I can tell just how similar it is to 'Colder Weather' by the Zac Brown Band.

Of course, the other problem with that is Jinks' songwriting, and was all the more clear on this project: despite the fact that his self-flagellating, borderline Job-like weariness in the face of sin and vice remains generally appealing to any guy like me, especially on his love songs, it's an arc that feels increasingly broadly sketched and that means lyrical details start running together across two albums. And keep in mind this is not unfamiliar territory for Jinks - with a song like 'Think Like You Think' rerecorded from his 2008 project Collector's Item it snaps into focus how this has been an arc that's characterized his material for over a decade - so you find yourself looking for fine details and dimensionality that would place his storytelling into sharper territory for acts who also play in this territory like Jason Eady and Ruston Kelly. And there are absolutely moments that get there: on After The Fire we get the wariness in embracing relief from pain on 'Ain't a Train' that's an early highlight, and the spare sweetness of 'William and Wanda' was really touching as the story of his grandparents finally reunited in heaven, and The Wanting has some solid curdled darkness on 'Same Kind of Crazy As Me' and especially 'Wounded Mind' where he lashes out at everyone idolizing his pain and painting it as 'cool'. Hell, if I were to highlight something I like in the writing on The Wanting it'd be how hard he drills into the hard dichotomy between good and evil and how much of a burden living in those extremes can be... but that might be ironically indicative of how little this album is willing to drill into the subtleties and shades of grey that have elevated the emotionality of his peers, and thus it can wind up feeling two-dimensional, and it doesn't help individual cuts jump off the page.

Now that's not saying there aren't distinctive moments or songs here that can make this production style or writing work, because there absolutely are. I already mentioned 'Tell 'Em What It's Like' with its phenomenal interweaving solo, but I also enjoyed 'One Good Decision' as Jinks' take on the 'Honey, I'm Good' formula that kicks up the jaunty honkytonk vibe for a welcome shot of momentum off that thick bass, which picks up even further for the instrumental closer 'Tonedeaf Boogie' - even the weirdly spongy groove on the former's solo was an awkward textural choice. And even if I'm not crazy about the vocal pickup on 'Someone To You', the blunt demystification of the glamour of his tours that allowed to appreciate his wife that much more is a nice touch. And on The Wanting, you get the increasingly dark and smoky cuts like 'Which One I Feed', or the supple heaviness of 'A Bite Of Something Sweet', or the overall, fiddle-drenched richness of 'Ramble' and 'It Don't Rain In California, even if I think the vocal echo on the latter is a bit gratuitous. Unfortunately, despite having slightly rougher and more experimental production, The Wanting also slides in some awkward choices and probably winds up more inconsistent than After The Fire, where the flaws are more just in sleepy or underwhelming cuts, like the millennial whoops behind an otherwise great fiddle line on the title track, or the weirdly wonky guitar tone across 'Whiskey', or how despite terrific fiddles 'Where Even Angels Fear To Fly' just feels lacking in punch across the board and runs long, or 'The Plea' which just feels oversold for as brittle as it is. And while I really wanted to love 'The Raven and the Dove' for the barroom stomper that it is... I dunno, the percussion feels overmixed, the key change does not feel organic whatsoever, and the entire song is weirdly stiff - definitely not how I would have ended the album, that's for sure.

But at the end of the day, these are the sorts of projects I feel could have been trimmed to the very best at eight to twelve tracks and Cody Jinks would have had a great one on his hands, instead of two that are good but not great. And it's exasperating because I find it hard to point to any outright bad elements here instead of spots that just needed refinement or a little more dimensionality, or maybe just a little more swell as a whole - The Wanting in particular feels like its crying out for a more expansive or heavy mix or for Jinks to sing with more gusto, or even just for the production to better highlight what we do have. And yet it's not even like one project stands above the other for me, which is why I'd probably give each a 7/10 and that' how this rounds out as a whole. Don't get me wrong, for Cody Jinks fans I predict a lot of enjoyment... but I also know that fanbase has been served with better before, and I'm not sure these two are what'll get him to that next level. I'd love to be proven wrong here, though, so if you're in the mood for some rough-edged Texas country, here are two albums' worth - check them out.

1 comment:

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