The short version: While ‘Hard Times Are Relative’ feels largely uninspired, there a few downright excellent songs.
The long version: It’s not surprising to hear Jason Boland and the Stragglers go back to their roots on their newest album.
Squelch was an excellent effort, but its ultimate message flew over too many heads to hold up as one of the band’s best works objectively. Now, three years later, the band who has been kicking around the Red Dirt scene for nearly two decades has released one of their most straightforward albums to date.
On one hand, Hard Times Are Relative is a fine listen with a few excellent standouts, but it also feels a tad safe by the band’s standards. It’s a fast-paced album, but almost a little too fast. The writing is mostly scattershot with a few exceptions, and the production, while warm and crisp, also feels a bit seedy and low-key. What this means is that while this album houses some incredible songs that will go down as the band’s best, it also feels a tad uninspired as a whole.
This is rarely a bad thing though. The duet with Sunny Sweeney, “I Don’t Deserve You” isn’t clichéd necessarily, but the overall theme is rather uninteresting. It’s bolstered by an upbeat mix of steel guitar and electric guitars along with punchy drums. They could have afforded to have given Sweeney a more prominent role with a verse of her own, but it’s a rather fun, catchy opener all the same.
This is largely what you can say about a good chunk of this album – it’s fun to listen in the moment, but it’s not really something you’ll remember later on down the road. “Right Where I Began” has an interesting fiddle melody, but it also feels a tad gimmicky in its execution, especially when the song glosses over a one-night stand as if it’s nothing. “Searching For You” earns points for its slight doo-wop feel, but its also kind of pointless and contradicted by lyricism that reads more as somber than fun on paper.
Hard Times Are Relative can also feel a little aimless at times. It’s one thing to protest the modern country music scene and a decaying city in general on “Do You Remember When,” but when it’s immediately followed up by a tribute to Dee Dee Ramone on “Dee Dee Od’d,” it’s hard to tell what exactly the band is going for.
Of course, speaking of scattershot messages, “Tattoo Of A Bruise” starts off as a highlight by discussing generational gaps and how the myth of how everything was better “back in the day” is often stained by rose-colored glasses. That’s of course before Boland throws his hands up in the air and essentially says, “oh well,” effectively saying we can’t do anything about it anyway. It’s a solid song that unfortunately meanders.
On a more unfortunate note, “Going, Going, Gone” is rather shallow at best. It’s essentially a plot to tell off a lover for reasons largely not given or hidden behind very vague reasoning. It’s a repetitive bore of a track that is the album’s only pure misstep.
As noted before though, when Hard Times Are Relative is great, it’s great. The title track is wrapped in rural Americana storytelling, telling the story of two siblings trying to make it through (presumably) the Depression era without their parents. It’s a coming-of-age story that starts with a brother taking care of his little sister before the balance sways to a proper order by its end, proving how both of them need each other equally. It’s a mind-blowingly good six-minute odyssey and easily one of the band’s best works.
“Predestined” and “Grandfather’s Theme” cover the historical aspect of this album in a much better sense than either “Do You Remember When” or “Tattoo Of A Bruise” do. The former track is bolstered by warm acoustics and a steady beat, giving it a calming atmosphere overall. Its message is also quite good, with the song stating to not let fear guide our actions or the way we live our lives. The comparison between a rabbit and a wolverine in the one line is brilliant.
“Grandfather’s Theme” though is the one moment that truly doesn’t play anything safe. It’s a warped, psychedelic country-meets-rock hybrid with no element overshadowing another one. It’s hazy, smokey, and mysterious, with Boland once again addressing the generational gap and how each generation comes with its own set of problems and ways to address said problems. The second and third verses seem to come from different perspectives, yet between this and the instrumental mix, it somehow never feels jarring and is able to make a cohesive point overall. We can’t dictate what’s best for future generations because they have different knowledge than us along with different problems.
On a technical level, Hard Times Are Relative is fairly good. The songs themselves are just mostly uninteresting or scattershot in their execution. Still, between the title track, “Predestined,” and “Grandfather’s Theme,” Boland and his band have crafted a few of their best works.
- Favorite tracks: “Hard Times Are Relative,” “Grandfather’s Theme,” “Predestined”
- Least favorite track: “Going, Going, Gone”