The short version: It’s still debatable as to whether or not Old Dominion belong in country music, but they show measurable improvement on their self-titled release.
- Favorite tracks: “My Heart Is A Bar,” “Make It Sweet,” “I’ll Roll,” “Never Be Sorry,” “Paint The Grass Green”
- Least favorite track: “American Style”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: In a weird way, Old Dominion have grown both better and staler over time.
On one hand, the band’s subject material, while growing increasingly more mature, is still a bit lightweight and repetitive, but on the other hand, they’ve grown as technical performers and songwriters. Their Meat & Candy album is still one of the worst to ever grace country music’s presence, but even speaking as one of their harshest critics, this band has moved beyond those meat-headed tunes for something slightly more mature and enjoyable.
Still, this is a band known for producing catchy, hook-driven singles, and, as Country Perspective recently argued, maybe certain acts should focus solely on either singles or albums. But on their newest, self-titled release, while I’m still not sure this is a band that belongs in country music, Old Dominion show even more overall growth, enough to where, if they’re going to stick around, at least they’ll be enjoyable.
One of the biggest hindrances to Old Dominion’s output thus far is placid production and instrumentation, but this album takes on a slightly more organic tone. Lead single “Make It Sweet” showed the first example of this last year, with a mix that blends its acoustic and electric elements for something organic; the jumpier, brighter groove only served to compliment that. And considering the band knows how to write a hook, when they go in a more organic direction, the results are surprisingly effective. “Smooth Sailing” may not have the same catchy groove as “Make It Sweet,” but the electric guitars are well-blended to convey the sunnier atmosphere they’re going for, and even if “Paint The Grass Green” starts off bad with those stuffy electronic clap-beats, eventually it works for the same reasons as those other tracks.
Perhaps the two most surprising tracks are “My Heart Is A Bar,” where the piano sounds sweeping and melodic enough to carry the entire track while the guitars linger in the background (a nice change of pace, honestly), and “I’ll Roll,” which blends a nice, subdued acoustic groove and drum combination for something a shade darker, but nonetheless well-executed. Even when the band sneaks in synthetic, pop-driven elements like on “Never Be Sorry,” I may wish the piano blended in a little better, but again, the band’s knack for melody and groove makes this work much better than I initially anticipated.
That’s not to say, however, that the band doesn’t show traces of past blemishes. For as much as the electronic elements, murkier reverb and snap track are, admittedly, subdued on “One Man Band,” for a track opting for warmer intimacy, lyrically, it’s an odd, stuffy mix that doesn’t work well. And while this is a note on vocals and lyrics, the band still can’t handle sex jams well, either, hence why the bass groove driving “Midnight Mess Around” feels lethargic and underweight. And with the choppy, glossy electric guitar completely hindering the groove on “American Made,” if there’s any track that’s most reminiscent of Old Dominion’s worst elements, it’s this track.
Front man Matthew Ramsey has also improved as a vocalist, though “serviceable” is still the most appropriate description for him. He often lacks the sort of magnetism to back up his sentiments, and considering he also lacks warmth and charisma, it can make certain moments fall flat. For as much as I want to like “Some People Do,” considering the piano is buried in the mix to give the spotlight to Ramsey, he’s not convincing in his upper range, or his falsetto for that matter. And while the band manages to stretch the titular metaphor further than expected on “One Man Band,” considering Old Dominion is one of the few actual bands in mainstream country music right now, it seems like an odd turn of phrase where the focus only points back to Ramsey, and again, this is another example of how he often sounds empty and lackluster. And his attempt at singing in his upper range or oozing sexual charm goes more wrong on “Midnight Mess Around” and “Do It With Me” than it does on “Some People Do.”
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say Ramsey always lacks charm or charisma. For as goofy as the sentiments of “Make It Sweet” or “Paint The Grass Green” are, he manages to sell them with earnest deliveries. On a technical level, too, his flow is usually impressive, like on the faster pace of “Never Be Sorry.” And when he’s got the great melodic foundation on “My Heart Is A Bar” to support him, he sounds just fine.
As for the lyrical content, though, again, nothing here is necessarily profound. The sentiments are often aiming to be cute or uplifting, but considering the band members are clever wordsmiths, it’s often forgivable. “Make It Sweet” and “Paint The Grass Green” mostly excel off their brighter, bouncier grooves, but there’s also a grounded maturity to “Some People Do” that shows the band in a new light. In the past, Old Dominion either tried to act like cool “players” (which, honestly, they still do to a small extent on some tracks here) or played into meat-headed bro-country sentiments to sound utterly unbearable. Here, I wouldn’t say there’s a thematic arc to this album, but the characters here mostly find themselves caught up in situations relevant to people living life on the road. There’s the more direct “One Man Band,” for example, but there’s also “My Heart Is A Bar,” which, for as bitter as its message is, finds the character content with being that wandering journeyman traveling alone. And on “I’ll Roll,” he outright begs this gypsy woman to let him tag along for the ride, and surprisingly, the intent scans more as him needing to clear his head on a journey of self-reflection rather than let himself get caught up in anything serious.
Of course, sometimes the songs feel a bit too empty. I was fine with the sentiment of “Smooth Sailing,” where the focus is on hoping for better times on ahead, at least until the line about the character’s “woman crying herself to sleep,” which made the focus on only his problems feel a tad self-serving. “American Style” is also another awful, pandering track that recalls the band’s worst material.
Overall, though, whereas Old Dominion once seemed incapable of maturing, their newest self-titled release is an improvement in just about every way. The hooks and grooves are solid, the songwriting is often more clever than it has any right to be, and even if those past blemishes do creep up here and there, they feel like exceptions, rather than the general rule. As far as chart success goes, Old Dominion aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it feels good to know they just might be winning me over after all.