Prior to this writing and after giving approximately a half dozen listens to Need You Now, the sophomore release from Nashville country-pop trio Lady Antebellum, I was prepared to deliver a rating of six out of ten. Other than the title track, which is a knockout, most of the rest of the album felt merely adequate, with really only one stinker ("Our Kind Of Love") in the bunch. Upon further consideration, however, and going through a careful song-by-song review, a middling score like that does a disservice to the album's merits.
Interestingly, "adequate" (or perhaps, more accurately, it was "serviceable") was one of the adjectives that both my friend and I used to describe their performance when we saw them open for Keith Urban back in October, which was my first exposure to the group. I remember saying to her that based on what I had seen from them I probably wasn't going to rush out to pick up their album. Shortly after, I came across a (*ahem*) less than legal download link for it and decided to give them another shot. I'm glad I did. Their self-titled debut is far from great, but it showed definite promise, with four of the eleven tracks more than strong enough to warrant regular iTunes rotation amongst a crowded field of other new music sitting on my Mac. The arc of success for the 2008 release has been a most unconventional one - a few weeks back it achieved its best sales week ever (45,000 copies sold) after an incredible 83 weeks on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Total sales now sit at just south of 1.5 million, a highly impressive number in an ailing music business and also for a brand new country act.
The late surge in its predecessor's commercial success can be directly attributed to the massive success of Need You Now's title track, which was released as a single way back in August, a full four and a half months before the album dropped, which is virtually unheard of in the music industry. I couldn't find any mention online of album delays, so I'm assuming this was just their music label's twisted marketing strategy. Capitol Nashville must have had a pretty strong idea of the crossover appeal of "Need You Now", which topped the iTunes downloads charts (for all music genres) in November and achieved the extremely rare feat of a country act cracking the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (which, again, is for all genres). Aside from increasing further interest in their debut it also built up huge buzz and anticipation for the new release, which debuted last week at number one with almost 500,000 copies sold. That number makes it the biggest country debut since Taylor Swift's 2008 Fearless juggernaut and the biggest January release of any kind since 2005.
"Lady A", as their fans refer to them, is made up of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelly on lead vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood. Their sound is a slick, polished blend of pop harmonies, commercial rock, and country influences. Although the band is commonly labeled as a country act, really, they're more closely aligned to the pop genre, with country elements such as fiddle, banjo, and mandolin occasionally making their way in to the mix. Only one of the eleven tracks on Need You Now (the catchy "Something 'Bout A Woman") feels like a true country song and even that one has a foot firmly planted in the 70's light rock sound of The Eagles. The album is carefully constructed to give Scott and Kelley an equal amount of singing time: four tracks see them trading off on the lead vocal lines, Scott takes lead on three tracks, and Kelley assumes lead on four songs, with each regularly providing well-delivered harmony vocals (that are a little lower in the sound mix) when it's the other's turn in the vocal spotlight. Kelly's smooth baritone is a superior instrument to Scott's occasionally thin and generic voice, but the two undoubtedly compliment each other, especially on that standout title track. The co-ed dynamic enhances the effectiveness of the lyrics, adding an element of back and forth dialogue between the two that elevates the song about drunken early morning pinings for an ex lover to a higher emotional level. Musically, its strength lies in the track's almost blatant simplicity, especially making great use of a simple four note piano line.
Nothing else on the album comes even close to matching that song's quality, but then one also gets the impression "Need You Now" is a once-in-a-career type of song, both in terms of songwriting and musical execution. Getting back to me revising my opinion about the rest of the album, most of the other songs reveal their charms with repeat listens, particularly the ballads "When You Got A Good Thing" and "Hello World", as well as second single "American Honey". Initially, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around the latter, tripped up by it's awkward lyrics that employ the use of, well, American honey as a nostalgic metaphor for youthful innocence. Even after a few more listens I still don't think the words work very well, especially when the metaphor takes an even further strange turn by attaching itself to a gender ("Gone for so long now/I gotta get back to her somehow/To American honey"), but the musical arrangement is very well done. "Stars Tonight" is the most rock-oriented song, using a basic structure involving two guitar chords with the distortion on the guitars set to about as palatable a level as possible, while still being able to qualify as a rock tune. The track was clearly written with the stage in mind, what with its party-themed lyrics, "hey!" shouts, and a chorus that's been tailor made for audience participation ("Everybody screaming out 'yeah, yeah, yeah'/And everybody singing out 'yeah, yeah, yeah'/Get on your feet if it feels good, it feels right/Cuz we're all stars tonight").
One doesn't foresee Lady Antebellum being a group that will take a lot of artistic risks in their career. Let's face it, they're highly commercial and about as edgy as a dull butter knife. But this type of music obviously has its place and Lady A have quickly established themselves as one of the finer acts doing it. "Need You Now" is likely as good a pop-country song as you'll ever hear.
Not unlike the "American Honey" lyrics, their name does bother me, though. It's certainly not catchy and, as far as I can tell, it doesn't really make sense. "Antebellum" means "before the war", specifically referring to the U.S. Civil War. Although there's a female member in the group, the "Lady" part still just doesn't compute. It could be worse, I suppose...at least they didn't decide on something completely ridiculous like "Rascal Flatts".