The short version: While enjoyable, ‘Hellbent’ finds the Randy Rogers Band playing things too safe.
- Favorite tracks: “Fire In The Hole,” “Crazy People,” “Drinking Money,” “Wine In A Coffee Cup,” “I’ll Never Get Over You”
- Least favorite track: “Good One Coming On”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: At what point will fans just forgive the Randy Rogers Band for their foray into mainstream country music?
Granted, this tale is nothing new for a Texas-country band (or individual act) trying to notch a few mainstream radio hits, but it always brings out the worst of both sides of the argument. To mainstream country fans, this type of material was never cool to begin with, so morphing it into something else certainly won’t work. For Texas-country fans who find anyone associated with that scene repulsive (even when it comes to, say, Eric Church or Ashley McBryde), sometimes the damage can’t be undone.
In terms of artistic quality, the Randy Rogers Band have more than made up for any asinine misgivings, whether it be from front man Randy Rogers’s side project with Wade Bowen, Hold My Beer, or the band’s shift back toward their signature sound.
Of course, that also came with the criticism that 2016’s Nothing Shines Like Neon played things too safe in order to recapture audience interest, a criticism I understood, but never fully agreed with, admittedly. Even leading up to their newest album, Hellbent, the band gave a nod to Guy Clark with the title of the album, and considering Dave Cobb was behind the production wheel, this was bound to be something great.
Sadly, with every listen I give to Hellbent, the more I find myself understanding the aforementioned criticism of Nothing Shines Like Neon. Hellbent is a mostly enjoyable, neo-traditional country listen, but it’s little more than that. If anything, the album finds the band once again playing things safe in order to recapture any lost interest and, as a result, fails to stick out much in the mind.
Perhaps the most disappointing part is that, for the most part, you’d be hard pressed to detect Cobb’s influence anywhere on this record. With the limp electric guitar lines, this album sounds more like another Buddy Cannon-produced effort than one where Cobb exerted his magical touch.
The production is far from bad – crisp, breezy drums, solid acoustic and steel guitar, and piano lines for some extra heavy lifting are all more than welcome. But it’s upon repeated listens that tracks like “Drinking Money” or “You, Me, And A Bottle” feel like their guitar lines are smoothed over instead of coming through with an extra crunch. The best part of the production is easily Brady Black’s fiddle work, particularly how he uses the instrument to sound like a lead guitar. That similarity is noticeable on the former track. If anything, it’s disappointing that they opted more for the watered-down guitar lead to open the record rather than the great fiddle line that anchors the song later anyway.
Moreover, many of these songs don’t quite have the same acoustic bite to them, perhaps blended too well into the smooth melodic flow that, yes, sticks in the mind, but also runs together very quickly. This isn’t helped by the fact that most of the material falls into a predictable, comfortable mid-tempo groove. One of the few moments that actually does stick out in a good way is “Fire In The Hole,” which opts for a more fast-paced, sinister western flavor with its fiddle work.
On the note of versatility, however, there’s front man Rogers himself. His raspy, gritty tone is usually a welcome fit for his material, but he sounds mostly out of his element on this album. His stab at the higher notes of “Anchors Away” and “We Never Made It To Mexico” aren’t particularly appealing, but even his delivery isn’t quite up to his usual caliber. The closing track, “Good One Coming On,” is the most disappointing example, as while Rogers ends the album in an interesting way discussing the concept of mortality, his cadence is so incredibly rushed and monotone that it’s hard to feel invested in the song at all. He has his moments, however, particularly on the lighter tracks like the good-natured honky tonk-esque “Comal County Line” or “I’ll Never Get Over You.”
The lyrical content is another mixed bag for the band, but ironically enough, the album’s weakness in this department is also a strength sometimes. The album has a tendency to rush its story songs a bit quickly, or, in the case of “Anchors Away,” never go further by exploring an underlying interesting story. “Good One Coming On” is probably the best example of this, and if it weren’t for the rollicking, good-humored delivery of it all, “I’ll Never Get Over You” would be a good example too.
On the other hand, that rush can work on “Comal County Line,” especially when the entire focus is centered on how much a musician’s town, family and friends have all changed while he was out chasing his dream. Despite the loaded implications, it’s never meant to be a particularly deep track, meaning it can eek out a serviceable story while still maintaining a fun quality behind it. That, in a nutshell, is why “Crazy People” works so well too, aside from its infectious melody. It’s a simple look at the hypocrisy that comes with criticizing future generations while forgetting what factored into our own upbringing, and again, it’s all in good fun.
Of course, it’s always good when the band hammers out more details as well, like how everything comes full circle in an unexpected way on “We Never Made It To Mexico.” “Wine In A Coffee Cup” particularly stands out for shifting the focus to an outside character, a female corporate worker reliant on alcohol to fuel her anxieties in the workplace. Again, like with “Crazy People,” there’s deeper implications here, only the smokier textures give the somber bite the track deserves.
Elsewhere, while the aforementioned nod to Clark in the title track is appreciated, it’s certainly not one of Clark’s stronger songs. And “You, Me and a Bottle” is pure escapism wrapped in the same safe package that ruins the production and presentation of the album at points.
It’s good to hear the band staying rooted in their neo-traditional sound, but at its core, Hellbent is a very safe effort meant almost solely to please die-hard fans of the band. Even with Cobb’s help, the album can’t help but lack the same punch as previous records, and while the increased addition of story songs helps give the album a little extra flavor, Rogers isn’t quite the same interpreter as before. Again, the album mostly sounds fine, and it’s worth a few listens for sure. But I don’t see this holding up as one of 2019’s best albums, let alone the band’s best effort.