The short version: ‘Magnolia’ is a fine return to form for Randy Houser.
- Favorite tracks: “What Leaving Looks Like,” “Evangeline,” “Running Man,” “No Stone Unturned,” “What Whiskey Does (feat. Hillary Lindsey)”
- Least favorite track: “Mamma Don’t Know”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: It’s very rare you’ll see artists reflect on the music they made just a few years ago.
In Randy Houser’s case, his blend of traditional, bluesy elements with a more modern touch on 2013’s How Country Feels actually worked quite well. 2016’s Fired Up was another story entirely. Not to dwell too much on the past, but that album was a rare case where radio didn’t reward mediocrity. Instead, Houser’s last single from that album didn’t even chart, and when you play the game and still don’t win, you might as well go back to what you do best.
In that sense, Magnolia is a good return to form for Randy Houser. It’s by no means a perfect album and does have its flaws, but for the most part, Magnolia is the kind of album that longtime Houser fans will be glad he’s making again.
I don’t make comparisons to past albums to be mean either. Reflection and redemption are actually running themes on Magnolia, with “No Stone Unturned” and “Running Man” acting as reflections from an artist who’s been around the block and still doesn’t know it all.
Thankfully, Houser plays to his strengths in both the production and vocal department. Unlike the cluttered, overblown mess of Fired Up, Magnolia is more organic, with warmer textures and bluesier tones seeping their way across this album. “No Stone Unturned” plays out nicely with lighter drums and organ supplementing an overall optimistic look at the future. Sure, the lyricism is a bit vague, but it’s the sentiment that resonates here. Beyond that, some of the imagery is actually quite strong.
“Our Hearts” is one of those tracks you keep expecting to heat up at some point, and while the violin solo could have been extended a tad further, it’s nonetheless a sensual track that plays to Houser’s strengths well. The only downside to that track is that Lucie Silvas’ role is essentially wasted.
Of course, while Houser does play well to his strengths mostly, certain moments can feel weaker or just out of place entirely. The working man blues of “Whole Lotta Quit” actually fits quite well sonically, but Houser’s braggadocious yelling into the microphone is both obnoxious and unneeded. He’s too loud in the mix, which is a shame considering the sludgier harmonica really does wonders for the track. Between him screaming in your ear and making 4/20 jokes, this track is a misfire.
That track also goes to show though that Houser’s strengths don’t just come through in his vocal ability, but also when he uses it to sell a stellar track. That’s why “No Good Place To Cry,” a track that exists solely for the vocal performance, leaves me cold while “What Leaving Looks Like” may be one of his finest moments on record. Houser plays the role of a man just now putting the pieces of the puzzle together perfectly, and it makes his pain and frustration come through with a ton of raw firepower. Meanwhile, he also perfectly sells the role of a desperate man who just doesn’t care anymore on “What Whiskey Does,” a smoothly executed track.
That’s not to say Houser can’t have some devilish fun and make it work though. “New Buzz” is admittedly fairly silly and well … stupid lyrically, but it’s hard to deny the killer groove it carries.
But that’s when the track owns its silliness and makes it work by strengthening the other elements. “Nothin’ On You” is the one track on here I’d describe as uneventful. The checklist style of the lyricism ultimately makes for a song that says nothing despite its good hook.
If there’s one track here though that’s evident of Houser at his worst though, it’s “Mamma Don’t Know,” the kind of meat-headed track that played itself out long ago. Why does a grown man need to consult with his date’s mother before taking her out? Unfortunately, Houser plays the role of a man looking to break those rules way too well, and when you have lines where he’s gleefully breaking the rules of no “kissy-kiss or 2nd base,” it makes for an uncomfortable listen.
Despite my criticismsfor Magnolia though, the album ends strongly with two of its best songs. I’m not a fan of the more synthetic production that opens “Running Man,” but it’s executed perfectly. Houser’s letter to his past self to keep the passion alive and chase after what really matters in this cruel business is the type of reflection we all wish we could tell our younger selves. But it also captures the spirit of a dreamer who just wants to play his music and have it heard. It’s a wonderfully layered track.
I’ve never really said this about a song, but “Evangeline” just sounds southern. It’s like Houser is singing this on his front porch with a glass of sweet tea in his hand on a summer day in Georgia (or something like that). It’s incredibly smooth and easy-going, featuring nice, soft piano to bolster the warmer melody. The electric guitar adds some nice smolder to the song while the violin and gospel choir during the bridge really push it over the top. If you can get past the opening line of “baby let’s get a little two-lane crazy tonight,” you’ll find what will likely be one of the best sounding songs of the year.
I’m going to ultimately lean on the positive and call Magnolia a good record and a very solid return to form for Houser. The production and instrumental tones match his vocals incredibly well, and for the first time in a long time, Houser is using his voice to sing songs that matter. While there are a few more obnoxious moments that throw off its consistency, Magnolia is ultimately a winner for Houser.