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It’s not uncommon for artists to say how their new album “is the most personal thing they’ve ever done” or “their best work yet,” but in the independent scene, it’s at least a (somewhat more) understandable expression, especially for Bri Bagwell. Ever since she appeared on CMT’s Next Superstar in 2011, Bagwell has done what few women seem to be able to do in the Texas Country scene, which is … actually have a career (the sexism problem is somehow worse than mainstream country music’s).
While she’s known for her energetic live shows, it’s been three years since Bagwell released new music. Thus, when she announced the arrival of her new album, In My Defense as her best work yet, the idea wasn’t entirely far-fetched. Considering it featured a co-write with Courtney Patton on here alongside Bagwell’s natural talent, In My Defense was set to deliver on its promise.
For the most part, In My Defense is a solid album that shows Bagwell enhancing her songwriting skills while also picking melodically strong, accessible songs that should be what mainstream country music sounds like in 2018.
The title track tests the “personal” tag of the album by telling a firsthand story of Bagwell’s first experience in the big city of Austin (where she now resides) through a humorous story. Despite the dark, uneasy opening, the song is actually a fun, lighthearted track that gets the ball rolling with the album.
Bagwell’s the type of singer who has both pure, raw power and the ability to use it well, which is why the most vulnerable tracks here are the highlights. Despite being a confusing track lyrically, “Cheat On Me” combines a nice bass line with atmospheric production and lighter drums to craft a melancholy tune. It nails everything just right in this department. With that said though, lyrically the song doesn’t fully connect. If there’s no reason to leave your significant other, then what exactly is so wrong with the relationship that you feel the need to (vehemently) end it?
It’s a missing puzzle piece such as that which also haunts “No Time To Say Goodbye,” another track that nails the production excellently while also not quite fitting together. Here, we have another situation where the narrator is in a hurry to leave the relationship, but again, the question of “why,” is never answered, thus making it harder for the listener to be invested in everything going on. Still, the fast, energetic sound combined with Bagwell’s more aggressive take on the song make it a highlight, however the questions remain and leave the writing a little underdeveloped.
Of course, no track hits a bigger lyrical misfire than “If You Were A Cowboy,” an out of place throwaway track that presents the “city versus country” theme in an extremely shallow way. It’s the only song Bagwell didn’t have a hand in writing and it shows.
Despite that however, the lyrical content is arguably one of the best parts of this album. “As Soon As You” is her testament to do things at her own pace, and “Ring A Bell” is a complex relationship song told from the “other woman’s” perspective. It’s an interesting take that’s rarely done in country music (think Sugarland’s “Stay”), but again, Bagwell’s more intimate vocal performance really helps to sell the emotion of the simultaneous shame and guilt she feels from being that other woman in the first place.
“Graffiti” lies in a similar vein, showcasing what is probably her best vocal performance by matching her against smokier acoustics and blues touches to craft an excellent heartbreak song.
It’s the closing track, “Empty Chairs,” however that really bolsters the album and presents a challenge for “song of the year.” Like “Ring A Bell,” it’s a bit more complex than the other tracks, focusing on Bagwell’s simultaneous joy and frustration that comes with trying to make it in the music business. It’s honest and raw, showing the yin and yang struggles that people fight with when trying to hold on. Some of the lines really make the listener stop and think too, like how she says her worth is based on many tickets she can sell. That’s a sentiment many artists have likely experienced before. Despite the negative thoughts however, she continues to lean on God and, in a sense, let things ride. As someone else sang this year, sometimes all you can do in troubled times is build a better boat.
In My Defense can feel a little inconsistent in its sequencing, moving from something lighter and breezier to something much more moody constantly, thus breaking up the flow a bit. Despite this, the production mix of steel, acoustic and electric guitar alongside organ and piano creates a nice, suitable modern country mix. Bagwell is a natural talent who deserves far more attention, and while it’s a little scattershot in certain places, In My Defense is a solid listen overall.
- Favorite tracks: “Empty Chairs,” “Ring A Bell,” “Graffiti,” “Cheat On Me,” “No Time To Say Goodbye”
- Least favorite track: “If You Were A Cowboy”