As a member of Big & Rich, the self proclaimed “Cowbooy Stevie Wonder” (I have no idea what that supposedly means) has performed with a midget named Two Foot Fred dancing on stage beside him while featuring (on multiple tracks) Cowboy Troy, a black country rapper whose ice-cold rhymes (often in rudimentary Spanish) would have been lame in 1992. Indeed, John Rich is Nashville’s leading attention whore, an outspoken redneck populist with an addiction to self-serving publicity stunts such as his tenure as host of the incomprehensibly pointless CMT series “Gone Country.”
These examples amount to little more than the tip of the ridiculous John Rich iceberg, it’s generally difficult to see him as more than a weird sideshow attraction. That’s because John Rich is a weird sideshow attraction. He’s also one of country music’s best songwriters—when he chooses to be.
Much of the material on Big & Rich’s debut album Horse of a Different Color has to be considered among some of the best contemporary country of the decade, and elsewhere Rich has proven himself as a deft songsmith, especially in terms of melodic construction. Aside from his work on Horse, Rich was at the helm of, and a principal contributor to, John Anderson’s splendid 2007 disc Easy Money.
Unfortunately, Rich can also be one of country’s worst songwriters, prone to pandering and laziness. Further, as Rich’s career has progressed, his ego has grown exponentially and he has become increasingly self-aware and obsessed with constructing ideologically-founded music at the expense of high achievement. With Son of a Preacher Man, Rich attempts to brand himself as purveyor of everyman themes and common sense logic, but that thematic conceit forces his lyrical creativity into an unnecessarily limited arena where clichéd ideas overwhelm any actual poignancy that exists. Son of a Preacher Man is an album that tries too hard to fit a prescribed concept, and it’s all the worse because of it.
In Rich’s quest to relate to the Joe the Plumbers of the world, he boils his song ideas down to very basic levels, and the result is an album that probably sounds very good to those who haven’t heard very many country songs, but one that treads pedestrian on the ears of those who recognize that everything Rich says here has been said before. “Trucker Man,” for example, is a song seemingly constructed as if its intended audience has never heard any other songs about truckers. Rich capably describes a driver who works as hard as he can to get home as quickly as possible; it’s a well-detailed but prototypical song that serves as a prime example of exactly why Son of a Preacher Manfalls flat.
The album contains no depth of thought. There is no color or character underlining these stories, and as a result the material here comes across as overly simplistic, especially when Rich slips into politico mode (on current hit “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” and “The Good Lord And The Man”), taking on a far-fetched blue-collar persona that feels strangely condescending. In both songs, the basis for Rich’s anger or frustration stems from comments he’s witnessed while watching the evening news, as if such topical sources as two minute news segments are the driving factor behind his audience’s world view. (Never mind that later on the album, on “Everybody Wants To Be Me,” Rich espouses his riches, declaring himself a country rock star and referring to his bling–which would seem to contradict the whole “regular guy” persona.)
Both “Detroit” and “Good Lord” dispense with any loyalty to fact or logic–particularly the latter song, which declares that if it wasn’t for the good lord and the man, “We’d all be speaking German, living under the flag of Japan,” which is simply a regurgitation of an ages-old soundbyte that ignores its own context. Certainly, had various events within WWII seen different outcomes, the global political landscape could look very different today. But the idea that “We’d all be speaking German, living under the flag of Japan” is problematic on so many levels that it’s hard to believe any artist–especially one as smart as Rich–would embrace it.
The rest of Son of a Preacher Man meanders between boring and rudimentary, never truly bad but seldom remarkable. Here Rich embraces a solidly country aesthetic that suits his voice well, and his singing is actually improved over previous efforts; there is considerably more color and soul shining through here then we’re used to hearing from him. Particularly, on “Why Does Somebody Always Have To Die” (an immeasurably atrocious lyric about…well, people dying—including Jesus), Rich shows off some surprisingly engaging chops.
As a whole, however, Son of a Preacher Man reads like a failed, unfocused concept album. Rich is capable of better than this, but only when his writing is unencumbered by the pretense and prescription that dominates this record.
Album Review: Yelle – Safari Disco Club
When Yelle arrived on the scene in 2006, it was with “Je Veux Te Voir,” an attitude-packed and hilariously vulgar diss track directed toward rapper Cuizinier for his misogynistic views. The 2007 debut album, Pop Up, spawned two more minor hits with “A Cause des Garçons” and “Ce Jeu.” The French trio, led by singer Julie Budet, established themselves as purveyors of summery electropop. Then, they all but disappeared.
To a certain extent, Yelle have kept busy since their first album, remixing Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and appearing on the Kennedy track “John and Yoko,” as well as covering “Who’s That Girl?” by Robyn. However, in such a fast-paced music environment, no one can afford to take four years between albums unless the result is something that could universally be considered a masterpiece. Yelle’s sophomore release, Safari Disco Club, is a good effort that falls short of legendary status.
They’ve grown out of the youthful spirit of Pop Up, though “C’est Pas Une Vie” packs a bright punch, while “Que Veux-Tu” and “Unillusion” make good use of ’80s pop references. Songs like “Chimie Physique” and “La Musique” are much more mature in tone than anything Yelle have released before. There’s also more actual singing from Budet, rather than the sing-rapping previously employed. Safari Disco Club showcases a more developed act, but it doesn’t sound like four years’ worth of growth. The more subdued approach makes sense, but the songs aren’t as engaging as established fans might expect.
The dance scene has changed drastically since Yelle’s debut. This isn’t to say that producers GrandMarnier and Tepr should have gone for a dubstep approach—it wouldn’t suit Budet’s voice, though “S’Eteint le Soleil” has hints of grimey bass—but in an environment where the fresh-faced Londoner Katy B is poised for a takeover, it’s difficult to see where Yelle’s role is now.
The album sounds solid, with plenty of agile synths to spare, but it’s difficult to see what role it plays; it’s not exactly more of the same, but it may as well be. Safari Disco Club is worth a listen, but it fails to assert itself as something that demands listeners’ attention.
Album Review: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
In the five years since Canadian chamber-rock band Broken Social Scene released its last album, lead Scenester Kevin Drew has ably stepped into indie-stardom, nurturing mass-anticipation for the collective’s upcoming opus.
Enter Forgiveness Rock Record. With the Toronto outfit choosing to explore every bit of the space that their physical largesse affords, the wait has been worth it—even if the album requires a bit of stamina in order to fully grasp the triumph.
Perhaps the group—composed of a fluid membership that often numbers well into double digits—is finally becoming exactly what it is they were likely always going to be: a dramatic, sweeping and engrossing baroque-rock troupe. Besides, it’s not often that a group that has featured a melodica in the past acts as though it’s a power-pop trio, which many of their earlier songs have suggested.
While a lack of sonic cohesion does make itself evident, as the result of a mixed bag of styles that can often distract rather than attract, the significant and unifying thread of Kevin Drew’s Jeff Tweedy-esque, achy vocals equip the entire proceedings with immense heart. Some sort of binding agent is necessary, however, due to the divergent styles showcased. By showing off their skills in Post-rock (“Meet Me in the Basement”), bombastic, arena-anthems (“World Sick”), playful prog (“Chase Scene”) and effective melody making (“Texico Bitches”), it’s quite clear that this is a group that is more comfortable stretching their musical legs than the average listener will likely be sinking their teeth into this album.
Given the amount of time between records, not only is Forgiveness Rock Record an example of good things coming to those who wait, but also, to those who also don’t mind putting forth a little effort to gain great reward.
EP Review: Dan Fisk — Bruises from the Backseat
When an album’s liner notes list multiple banjo players on the same song, you know it’s going to be an enjoyable listen. Dan Fisk has two banjo pickers on“Life and Limb,” from his new solo EP, but that’s not the only thing he’s got going for him on Bruises from the Backseat (out 6/28).
Fisk (an upstate New Yorker who’s spent the past decade in Virginia), has a radio-ready, slightly raspy voice and solid songwriting skills. Album opener “A Thousand Love Songs” is the highlight of the disc, and had it been released fifteen years ago when Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20 were flying up the charts, Fisk would probably be blowing his nose with $20 bills right now.
The EP’s sole cover is a version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine,” which features fellow area singer-songwriter Ted Garber on harmonica. It feels a little out of place among the more mellow tracks on the record, but it’s definitely a fun listen.
Bruises from the Backseat is a promising solo release from Fisk. Let’s hope a full-length record is next.
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