Carly Pearce’s self-titled album has its highlights, but it’s an overall bloated, safe release.
The more I study Carly Pearce’s career thus far, the more I’m not sure what to make of it.
Sure, she’s a female country artist with inconsistent chart success; that’s nothing new for the genre. But what exasperates me is where the anomalies actually show themselves. Her debut single – and biggest hit to date – is “Every Little Thing,” a slow piano ballad bolstered mainly by dobro that, yes, benefited from the asinine “On The Verge” program, but still managed to become a legitimate hit anyway. For 2017 country radio standards, especially with how vapid stupidity usually won (and still wins) over quality, it was a surprising hit.
Sadly, her followup singles have had diminishing returns. I’d blame it on the sloppy production, but we’re judging country airplay standards – not critical ones. And now she’s on the verge of regaining her momentum with “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a midtempo song that tilts toward the more atmospheric (and, for my money), better side of pop-country.
If anything, it’s frustrating to hear the inconsistencies in her sound thus far, with her background in bluegrass and claims of wanting to be a purist often clashing with production choices that don’t fit her natural style. And that’s ultimately the feeling I get from her self-titled album, a decent listen with its fair share of highlights, but also one that’s overlong and not without its share of blemishes.
Unfortunately, those blemishes mostly reside in the production, and if you’re aware of the background surrounding that, well … I’ll admit I’m in a weird place of not knowing how to approach this subject while still respecting the late producer Michael James Ryan (known professionally as busbee). I’ll say this, for Pearce, there’s no need to add lo-fi filters, reverb and increasingly thin multi-tracking to her material, furthered by swells of melody that might approach a groove every now and then, but don’t disguise how clunky some of the percussion lines are. On the plus side, it never feels like Pearce is fighting against the production: “Closer To You” trades in the drum machines for real drums on the chorus, and there’s some nice enough atmospheric effects to lend itself a decent groove, even if it’s fairly bland otherwise; For “Dashboard Jesus,” the same comment mostly applies, only it manages to get it right all the way with those skittering acoustics and hints of piano and dobro for added melody.
And that’s another plus for Pearce, specifically – there is a lot of naturally organic country flavor here. Even if there’s some disagreeable elements here and there, this album might feature the most dobro solos I’ve heard on a country album in a long time, mainstream or otherwise. And considering she’ll often rely on minor compositions, the blend can really work at times, especially for “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Halfway Home” and “It Won’t Always Be Like This.” The fake percussion and chintzy backing vocals get a bit distracting on “Greener Grass,” but that melody is entrancing enough to win me over anyway.
But aside from issues with production, considering this is an album meant to explore all aspects of love, the content isn’t so much bad at times as it is unexciting and bland. There are some genuinely excellent moments, like the dual perspective of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and how both parties are crumbling in their own ways; and “Halfway Home,” which finds Pearce blaming herself for a loveless relationship and finding the strength to admit it’s over, and for as vague as it sounds, it does happen. And “Greener Grass” might play to the same territory as both of those tracks, but it’s a moment where Pearce’s charisma shines most, showing true regret at ending a relationship she views with fondness in hindsight. But on the other hand, there’s the opening songs, “Closer To You” and “Call Me,” both of which feel like inessential bro-country tracks from the female perspective, the latter not helped by its insistence that a “good time” will help this guy move on from a breakup over, you know, time, space and actual communication (plus, the slicker production courtesy of the infamous snap track doesn’t help).
And it’s a tossup which is worse, “Call Me,” or “Finish Your Sentences” with husband Michael Ray, where the switch-up between the two vocalists to compliment the theme, while unique, is cringe-inducing for an actual listening experience. And it only starts its main theme starting in the second verse, as the first one has him answering complete questions from her, not finishing her sentences!
In between that, though, most of the remaining material can get a little exasperating, not helped by the generic empowerment anthem in “Woman Down” or the clichéd nature of the love songs, moments where the songwriting doesn’t try as hard as “Halfway Home” or “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and just feels flighty. And that’s ultimately the conclusion I’d come to with Pearce’s self-titled album: it’s a decent listen with some genuinely great material, but also gets bogged down by strange production choices and unimpressive writing. Still, Pearce seems to have a better handle on a unique presence than most artists in mainstream country music right now, so the next step is to push more in the direction of, say, “Halfway Home” or “It Won’t Always Be Like This” rather than generic filler like “Call Me” or “You Kissed Me First.” Until then, I’m still glad to see Pearce regain some traction, so let’s hope it sticks.
(Light to decent 6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Greener Grass,” “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Halfway Home,” “Dashboard Jesus”
- Least favorite track: “Call Me”