Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Album Review: Brad Paisley - This Is Country Music

I am not going to attempt to sugar-coat this.  Brad Paisley's recently-released ninth studio album This Is Country Music is an uninteresting, unfocused, scattershot affair in which missteps are numerous, and genuine highlights are very few.

Brad Paisley is not an artist who is known for reinventing himself a great deal.  He often falls into a repetitive pattern of self-impressed novelty ditties and generic love ballads.  The repetition continues with This Is Country Music, a record that could easily have been named This Is Everything That Ben Foster Dislikes About Brad Paisley's Music.  Okay, maybe that title is a bit too long, but fitting nonetheless.

The album opens with the two forgettable singles "This Is Country Music" and "Old Alabama."  The former is a misguided attempt to convey the special qualities of the country music genre, but instead ends up backhandedly exemplifying the stale lyrical formulas that have made modern country radio a complete and total yawn.  Country artists are not singing about Jesus, Mama, and cancer as a way of breaking boundaries and making statements - They're doing it because they know that's what radio wants.  They're not displaying artistic ingenuity - They're doing the exact opposite.  Things don't improve with "Old Alabama," which masquerades as a tribute to the band Alabama, but is merely a lazy rehash of "Mountain Music," with an appearance by the Alabama boys themselves. 

And now... bring on the ditties.  "Camouflage" is exactly what it sounds like - a song about camo.  It could stand some added cleverness, but where it really falls apart is in the chorus, which is composed of Brad and his singalong chorus shouting the word "camouflage" back and forth at one another.  Of course, the project would never be complete without the requisite Paisley summer party anthems.  This time, they come under the names "Workin' On a Tan" and "Don't Drink the Water."  The first is just an all-out cheesy ode to a well-endowed female body.  The second, a duet with Blake Shelton (one of the many duet cohorts joining Paisley on the album), exists only to make the joke "Nobody goes to Mexico to drink the water anyway."  Hint-hint.

Even the better songs on the album carry a bit of a stain.  "Remind Me," a duet with Carrie Underwood, is a good song about rekindling the spark of passion that a couple once had in their younger days.  Sadly, the performance is subpar.  Both vocalists (even the typically stellar Underwood) give a delivery that sounds forced rather than genuinely engaged, with the overwrought power ballad production doing neither of them any favors.  Songs like "Love Her Like She's Leavin'" (featuring Don Henley) and "One of Those Lives" earn points for well-crafted title hooks that carry meaning beyond that of the words themselves.  The problem is that both are tainted by unfortunate association with common pandering formulas - "old man's advice" songs and cancer songs respectively.

One keeper is "Toothbrush," which uses everyday objects as symbols representing different stages in a budding relationship.  The song settles into a pleasant neotraditional vibe, making it one of the album's most enjoyable moments.  This track highlights the fact that Brad can produce some interesting tunes when he keeps things simple without making forced attempts at cleverness.  Things are kept deadly serious on "A Man Don't Have to Die," in which Brad addresses a fire-and-brimstone preacher, describing the many hardships that everyday people face, and concluding that "A man don't have to die to go to hell."  The verses of "A Man Don't Have to Die" seem to lean on the list-format crutch, but they build up to a strong hook, making for an overall solid composition.

The album closes with a performance of the traditional hymn "Life's Railway to Heaven," featuring the vocals of Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, and Carl Jackson.  The bluegrassy arrangement makes one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album, but then as the song ends, Brad sours it with an unnecessary reprise of the insipid title track.
To make matters worse, Brad's voice is marred by shoddy auto-tuning work throughout the album, which makes for a jarring listening experience.  But the main issue is an excess of poor song material, most of it written by Brad himself with all the usual suspects (Gorley, DuBois, Turnbull, etc.).  This novelty act wore thin a long time ago, and by now it sounds entirely business-as-usual.  Brad is just doing what he always does, and people buy it, so there would seem to be little reason to shake things up.  But if Brad wants to build a lasting artistic legacy, lackluster disappointments like This Is Country Music make for an awfully shaky foundation.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)