Friday, April 19, 2013
Released April 9th
After a couple of years of being a newly converted Brad Paisley fan, I still find myself rather surprised that the West Virginia native's brand of country rock has managed to pull me in. Paisley traffics in some of the more traditional country music elements that I've never cared for - the twang in his singing voice, a lot of rural/"rednecky" references in his work (like pickup trucks, fishin', and NASCAR), the ubiquitous cowboy hat. Most unlikeable, however, is his propensity for injecting winking humour into his songwriting, regularly to the point where those types of songs smack of a Barenaked Ladies-style novelty, which is something I've always hated when it comes to the music I listen to (case in point, his 2003 song "Celebrity"). I don't mind a bit of a sense of humour in an artist's music videos or occasionally when they're onstage (the Foo Fighters come to mind here), but there's just something about it in their actual music that has never agreed with me. On Wheelhouse, Paisley's newly released ninth studio album, he hasn't strayed far from the blueprint of his previous work, although he does take some notable lyrical risks on the much-talked-about "Accidental Racist", as well as on the eyebrow-raising "Those Crazy Christians".
Wheelhouse's good: first single "Southern Comfort Zone", unusually released a whopping six-and-a-half months before Wheelhouse came out, is Paisley at his best, with an expertly crafted upbeat composition that doesn't skimp on the guitar flash and takes on grander proportions with added vocals from a Baptist church choir. And while Paisley may be a good 'ol boy who praises his love of the American South in the song's lyrics, he also balances that with an open-minded attitude towards other cultures and exploring the rest of the world as well. It's a measure of how well-written the song is that the acoustic version on Wheelhouse's deluxe version, with just an acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a mandolin backing Paisley's vocals, is almost equal to the full band version (and check out the terrific video for the song below...regardless of what you think of the track, you've got to admit that Paisley's use of a tractor engine as his percussion at the beginning and end is absolutely brilliant). Second single "Beat This Summer" is a quintessential "summer love" song with a chilled-out feel and an extended guitar solo over the outro. "Pressing On A Bruise" finds Paisley in agreeable mid-tempo mode with a catchy number that features the musician singing about a guy who can't stop torturing himself over an ex, although the rapped verse from Nashville singer-songwriter Mat Kearney feels a little out of place. "Tin Can On A String" covers somewhat similar "relationship regret" lyrical terrain, albeit here with a protagonist who pines after a woman who falls more into the category of the one who got away. Paisley's clever metaphor of the wound-licking character feeling like the beat-up tin can on a string that's barely hanging onto the bumper of his lost love's wedding limo is sad and powerful, as is the ballad's tasteful instrumental component. The also subdued "I Can't Change The World" stands out as one of Wheelhouse's best tracks, along with album closer "Officially Alive", the frantic "Runaway Train", love song "The Mona Lisa", and "Those Crazy Christians". Told from the perspective of a non-believer (Paisley himself is a churchgoer), that last one ultimately takes an admirable, if quizzical, viewpoint towards Christians and the sacrifices some of them make to help others ("You know it's funny, much as I'm baffled by it all/If I ever really needed help, you know who I'd call is those crazy Christians"), but not before getting there with a surprisingly condescending narrative. Even when you're made aware of what Paisley intended with the facetious nature of his words, lines like "Every untimely passing, every dear departed soul/Is just another good excuse to bake a casserole" and "No they ain't the late night party kind/They curse the devil's whiskey while they drink the saviour's wine" are still fairly jarring coming out of the mouth of a country singer. I'm sure the American Southern religious right, a group clearly well-known for their fine sense of humour, will be thrilled with it.
Wheelhouse's average: "Karate" is a peppy track that covers some well-worn territory from the country genre with the domestic abuse revenge fantasy. Here, the abused wife takes up martial arts, working towards getting "that belt to match her eye" and eventually kicking her hubby's ass (Charlie Daniels contributes the play-by-play for that moment). "Harvey Bodine" contains cornball storytelling, plucky guitar, whistling, and some jovial tuba, so it leans a little too much to Paisley's whimsical side to stand up to many repeat listens for me. The schizophrenic "Death Of A Single Man" is more interesting than good (it's decent, though), with most of the song cruising along at a laid back pace before ratcheting up the tempo during the guitar solo section. Throughout, Paisley does his best Les Paul imitation impressively, with jazzy guitar licks showing off his virtuosic skills.
Wheelhouse's bad: "Outstanding In Our Field" is a perfect example of the jokester material from Paisley that holds no appeal for me. With vocal contributions from Dierks Bentley and guitar work from young Nashville instrumental wunderkind Hunter Hayes, the keg party song that features lyrics about drawing a Sharpie moustache on a passed-out partygoer and the awfully unpunny "But if you wanna throw a party in the middle of nowhere, we're outstanding in our field" line gets an emphatic "Next!" from me. The track also just sounds like most of the generic male-sung current country that I'm not a fan of, either. "Death Of A Married Man" is mercifully short at just 48 seconds and features Eric Idle delivering a very Monty Python-esque short skit. I like Idle and Monty Python well enough, I'm just not looking for their specific skill set when it comes to my music listening. Another interlude number is the short instrumental "幽女" (translated as "Onryo", which means "quiet female"). It's a skippable lead-in to the song "Karate" and confuses with its Indian and Asian melodies, and "Hyuh!" cheerleader chants (which, conversely, oddly work nicely when they reappear on "Karate") set around Paisley's otherwise fine country guitar shred. The polarizing "Accidental Racist" is a song that brings the expression "hot mess" to mind. In many ways, it's actually one of the best songs on the album with a restrained vibe, highly appealing melody, and a marvelous vocal performance by Paisley. However, the song's uncomfortable and sometimes misguided attempts at making sense of racial tension greatly undermine the track's strengths. Paisley's objective was to broach the delicate topic of black-white race relations by showing the viewpoints of each side. His perspective talks of Southern white guilt and unintentionally offending a black Starbucks employee with his Confederate flag-featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, while guest LL Cool J raps about the struggles of his people and being misunderstood because of his saggy pants and bling. Full disclosure: I loathe rap, and LL's performance here has done absolutely nothing to sway me on that stance. It doesn't help that he comes up with some positively atrocious and cringeworthy lines. For example: "If you don't judge my do-rag...I won't judge your red flag", "If you don't judge my gold chains...I'll forget the iron chains" (what?!), "The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'", and "R.I.P. Robert E. Lee, but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me...know what I mean?". Paisley's attempt at creating a dialogue about a difficult subject almost never dealt with in country music is certainly admirable, but the lyrical ideas are clumsily executed, unfortunately. A noble failure.
A newcomer to Paisley's music will initially likely find his albums either unfocussed or just musically diverse. I know that my earliest impression of his second-last release and the first Paisley album I heard, 2011's This Is Country Music, was of the former variety until I let it sink in for a bit and got a bit more of an understanding of the musician's career. I may not be a fan of everything Paisley creates, but his positives far outweigh his negatives - there's his monstrous guitar playing talent, his knack for penning both great romantic and breakup songs, his keen melodic sense, and his exceptionally humble personality, which I got more familiar with after borrowing his engaging 2012 Diary Of A Player semi-memoir from a friend. It's not a coincidence that those are all the same traits that turned me into a huge Keith Urban fan about four years ago. Wheelhouse, while not quite as strong as its predecessor, holds up as a very good collection of songs that occasionally isn't afraid to challenge the boundaries of Paisley's fan's comfort zones.