01 May 2011

2010: Jamey Johnson, Janelle Monae

Jamey Johnson
The Guitar Song

Released September 14, 2010 (Mercury Nashville)

Short Notes: "Outlaw" country in the 70s vein gets a post-millennial update.

Lin: B+

Of all the country albums we've reviewed and (presumably) will review, this is the most capital-C Country of them: there's no "alt" or "pop" here, just grounded in the early 70's outlaw scene of Waylon, Merle, and George and brought through the years by the likes of Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam. The easiest thing to say is that, if you like those guys, this is a must-get. I like modern pop country more than I'm usually willing to admit and more than, I imagine, most music geeks, so I'm probably more willing to overlook the steps closer to the CMT end of the country spectrum. Indeed, my favorite track here is probably "Cover Your Eyes" which reminds of (and I cringe a bit when I say this) Garth Brooks.

For an album as long as it is (105 minutes) it's surprisingly consistent: a few unexciting tracks here and there, but nothing terrible and not more than two in a row. That said, like nearly every double album ever made, it'd make a better normal length LP. There are a bunch of really great songs to choose from: "Can't Cash My Checks," "Heartache," "Even the Skies Are Blue," "Macon," ... and especially "My Way to You" and "California Riots."

I'm often on the look out for albums that I think most people would like. In particular, my family and I have widely divergent music tastes (they like the pop-country stuff and I like, well, see this blog) and finding things I think we could agree on is really quite difficult. But I do think this one will appeal to fans of any post-1960s subgenre of country. That the album was nominated (but didn't win) for a 'Best Country' album should explain a lot: traditional enough to appeal to the purists, contemporary enough to appeal to Grammy voters, but not horrible enough to actually win.

Brandon: B

Jamey Johnson is making more of an effort to replicate what people my age raised on country music (as an aside, I most definitely was not raised on country--I came to it in high school via the Chicago alt-country scene, Social Distortion’s post-1987 output, and Steve Earle) think of as “classic” country--Lin’s Alan Jackson reference is right on, Waylon is obvious, and I’d also throw in Gary Stewart. But what’s most interesting about him is what you (mostly) don’t hear on this 25 song paean to the outlaw country sound--his separate career as a Nashville Row hack, cranking out rather more standard pop country fare (most notably, the execrable “Honky Tonk Badondadonk” for Trace Adkins). This makes him, in some sense, more authentic, rather than less--more rugged, quirky performers like Willie Nelson started in precisely the same way, and Nashville has always been home to hitmakers like Bob McDill, writers who cranked out pulp songs for the latest fads right alongside material that has rightly become classic.

It’s this characteristic that makes a double album seem like a natural step for Jamey Johnson--he’s clearly prolific and capable of writing for a variety of voices. And it goes without saying that, for a mainstream country record, this is a ridiculously diverse outing--veering from Ernest Tubb-baiting (“Set ‘Em Up Joe”) and a duet with old timer and Opry legend Bill Anderson (“The Guitar Song”) to nondescript topical songs (“Playing the Part,” which is one of the album’s stronger songs and its lead single, which doesn’t mean it’s not actually middle of the road, readable as a conservative or liberal track, and the fairly reactionary “California Riots”), clever wordplay songs in the general vein of Jerry Reed (“Macon”) and, ultimately, nostalgic, maudlin Nashville schmaltz (“By the Seat of Your Pants,” “I Remember You”). And lest you think I’m being too critical, nearly everyone he’s patterning himself after released some schmaltz. That’s just how you do in Nashville.

Aside from the obvious (it’s too long, too uneven), there are a couple things that I don’t love here. One is that the otherwise pleasant assimilation of the Allman Brothers/Skynyrd southern rock sound a lot of “rebel” country goes for these days leads to a number of otherwise tight songs wrapping up with 2:30 of riffing at the end. The other is that the arrangements aren’t always ideal for the songs--a lot of “Nashville Cats” super-clean playing here on songs that are supposed to be gritty. That said, this is a worthwhile record for folks not afraid of the twang. Jamey Johnson isn’t the revelation he’s being treated as in Nashville--Uncle Tupelo were covering “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” back in the early 1990s--but he’s not terrible, either.

Janelle Monae
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)

Released May 18, 2010 (Bad Boy)

Short Notes: Big Boi protege. Signed by Diddy. Releases genre-hopping Afrofuturist debut LP. It's like Ma$e meets Sun Ra.

Brandon: A-

The first half of this record is a flawless slice of modern (post-Prince) R&B, with Afrofuturist images, a little bit of warm disco ("Locked Inside"), and a lot of brassy, 60s-style soul over some great Stankonia-style production. But the second half is almost entirely devoted to the musical interludes and drawn-out, sonic experiments of the sort than begins the album ("Overture II," "BaBobBaYa," "Say You'll Go"), or simply less effective (if not unpleasant) mid-tempo weirdness ("Wondaland"). It's still a remarkable, singular record--an unmistakable statement of purpose for a debut LP (there was an earlier, conceptually linked EP). But in adding some sonic variation, some of the manic propulsion of the earlier, standout tracks is lost. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

I agree with Brandon's breakdown of the album, though I don't like either half near as much. The second half -- Suite III -- doesn't offer much for me on repeated listens, with only "Wondaland" standing out at all. As it is, nearly the entirety of Suite II is better than III and makes for an above-average 40-minute listen. It helps having a such a solid center around which to base the rest: the singles "Cold War" and "Tightrope" are a couple of brilliant neo-soul/dance tracks that almost make my leaden feet want to take a spin on the dance floor. "Come Alive (The War of the Roses)" is the other standout track here, starting off with a big band-like jazz like feel and adding in equal portions of madness and menace. This is an album, though, and should probably be listened to it as such; it makes more sense as a whole.

1 comment:

Lin said...

I love "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." I don't care what everyone else thinks.