Quick Draw Album Reviews: Piano Poppers And Honky-Tonkers

In the eleventh edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I cover new projects from Brett Eldredge, Joshua Ray Walker, Margo Price and Jimmie Allen.

Brett Eldredge, Sunday Drive

  • Favorite tracks: “Sunday Drive,” “Paris, Illinois,” “Magnolia,” “Then You Do,” “Good Day”
  • Least favorite track: “Gabrielle”
  • Rating: 8/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Joshua Ray Walker, Glad You Made It

  • Favorite tracks: “Voices,” “Play You A Song,” “Bronco Billy’s,” “D.B. Cooper”
  • Least favorite track: “Loving County”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started

  • Favorite tracks: “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” “Gone To Stay,” “Prisoner Of The Highway”
  • Least favorite track: “I’d Die For You”
  • Rating: 5/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Jimmie Allen, Bettie James

  • Favorite track: “Drunk & I Miss You” (feat. Mickey Guyton)
  • Least favorite track: “Freedom Was A Highway” (feat. Brad Paisley)
  • Rating: 5/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Brett eldredge Sunday Drive

Brett Eldredge, Sunday Drive

I find it strange that Brett Eldredge somehow survived – and really, gained prominence in – the bro-country era, yet hasn’t been able to maintain his momentum in the boyfriend country era … considering most of his material fits the latter trend anyway. Not to say he hasn’t maintained some relevance with singles like “Love Someone” or “The Long Way,” but they suffered slow journeys up the chart and left no real lasting impact; his last album was from 2017, after all.

And if I’m trying to pinpoint the source of where things shifted … well, it may just be Eldredge himself. He’s embraced his quirkier side over the years, both in music through goofier singles like “Something I’m Good At” and through his own personal life, where’s he essentially disconnected from the world. And that reflection and time to let him search for himself is what colors his newest album, Sunday Drive, where lead single “Gabrielle” shows a pivot toward Charlie Rich-esque ‘70s piano pop that, to no one’s surprise, hasn’t exactly caught on at country radio yet.

Of course, my philosophy toward music enjoyment differs from a radio programmer, but I’ll say it outright – it was the wrong choice for a lead single and is easily the weakest link on this album, because Sunday Drive is a surprisingly well-crafted pop-country album that shows Eldredge maturing with his music, and where his sights weren’t set on radio airplay anyway. Sure, it’s a bit sleepy at points and can be a tad thematically repetitive, but I love how self-aware Eldredge and his team were of the lightweight nature of this project. It’s an album that sounds cheery and carefree without forcing it, with plenty of warm piano melodies anchoring these tracks and hints of pedal steel, strings, and a fantastic mandolin inclusion on “Magnolia” adding a bright energy. On one hand, I’m not surprised; both Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian are responsible for crafting Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour and Little Big Town’s Nightfall, two projects I love for their atmospheric lushness that colors the entire production. And you can tell that was the original plan here, only there’s something even more pleasantly subdued about this project.

Part of it is due to Eldredge himself, who finally gets to show off his vocal chops better than he ever has before, but also gets to exercise his emotional range, too. Granted, most of it is lightweight, sunny material that doesn’t aim to accomplish much, but I’m a little surprised at how good he is at effectively underplaying tracks like “Good Day” and “Then You Do.” I’ll admit some of it feels a little too carefree and oversold – namely “When I Die,” “The One You Need” and “Gabrielle,” if not for the sentiment than for a lack of detail in the writing – but what this album sounds like, ultimately, is Eldredge reconnecting with himself. I wish he pushed the theme a little harder, even, given that the title track may be one of his best songs yet – an observation on how a simple Sunday drive is really about making moments and memories with loved ones while it counts, which hits home in the last verse when Eldredge’s parents are older and he’s the one taking them on that drive – focusing on isolating that moment in time, but also aware of how important that memory will be later on. And I love the eye for detail in the title track, especially when it ends with a Randy Newman/Glen Campbell-esque old-school horn section that leads the album out in the best way possible.

If I’m circling back to nitpicks and criticisms, though, I do think there could have been a greater variety in tempo and instrumentation. It’s a tricky balance; part of this album’s appeal is its low-key warmth, after all. But “Magnolia” is a nice moment to spice up the energy without detracting from the overall vibe of the album, and I wish there were a few more moments like it. And even if the opener “Where The Heart Is” feels too overlong and repetitive overall, it also reminds me of what makes this album work as a whole – an earnest sense of passion and heart, where even if the content can feel a bit slight at points, you believe that Eldredge is invested in the material. As such, I’m not quite sure if this is actually a great album or just an artistic pivot I really like, but I also know I inch a bit closer toward the positive every time I go back to listen to it. (Very light 8/10)

Joshua ray walker glad you made it

Joshua Ray Walker, Glad You Made It

Honestly, the quick turnaround between Joshua Ray Walker’s debut album and his newest one doesn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. I said in my review for Wish You Were Here that there was an ambitiousness to the execution that painted Walker as an idiosyncratic writer with a real eye for detail, even if the overall project felt spotty at points.

And like I predicted in that review, most of the overall issues have been smoothed out on his sophomore release: The album’s production plays overall better to Walker’s strengths, Walker himself is improving at tempering his own performances, and the writing is as sharp as it was then.

But even if it is an overall step in the right direction, I wouldn’t quite call it great yet, and there’s one criticism that carried over from my aforementioned review that still mostly holds true here: tone and execution. The album’s most daring moment is “Voices,” which, beyond being a bold opener, is the sort of lonesome country song that goes as dark as you’d expect, with Walker’s self-deprecating, bleak perspective in the writing providing what will likely be my favorite line of the year: “might put this truck in neutral, let it roll into the lake, but first I’ll finish off this bottle so it looks like a mistake.” And his yodeling, which I wish we heard more of on this album, is another high point in capturing the dreariness of the content.

But it’s also somewhat of an isolated moment on the project. Granted, I’m not asking for an album quite that dark and depressing, but most of the other tracks are going for the same sentiment, albeit in a much cutesier, humorous fashion, and it doesn’t land with the same impact. Part of that is because the album mainly focuses on casting Walker as the sort of sordid character not worth a damn – just ask him – but when the album chooses to frame it with an upbeat, honky-tonk asthetic, it can get a bit repetitive and feel a bit oversold at points, without much in the actual details beyond it to differentiate it from the pack. He’s going to “use again” on “User,” but beyond that … there’s not much there, and the blast of horns driving it really feels like the wrong fit for that song. He’s down and out on “One Trick Pony,” but … well, there’s really no redemption there – just another observation on his character that, eight tracks in, feels like it’s operating more for shock value at points.

But there’s also moments in that vein I really enjoy. The murkier, scuzzier electric guitar driving “Cupboard” gives that track a darker presence more fitting for the downward spiral of depression brought up there, and there’s a self-aware humor to “Bronco Billy’s” that makes it one of the sharper tracks here. And even if “Play You A Song” is just an instrumental showcase, given the choice for the hook, it works. But I’d also say the album feels a bit formless as far as cementing Walker’s sound goes. For as much as I enjoy whatever the closer “D.B. Cooper” is supposed to be with the shredding guitar breakdowns, it’s an odd way to close the album. In other words, it’s all one step closer to greatness, but I’m not sure it’s there yet. (Strong 7/10)

Margo price

Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started

Well, this is quite the change for Margo Price: a change in record labels from Third Man Records to Loma Vista Recordings, a change in venue by recording in Los Angeles, and an added production credit from Sturgill Simpson. Safe to say, based on lead singles and the other factors, Price was looking to slightly pivot away from country on That’s How Rumors Get Started, and that’s about what it is – a shift toward ‘70s piano pop … and a weird bent toward ‘80s synth-rock, because it’s Simpson and he apparently didn’t get this out of his system with Sound & Fury.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. Truth be told, this may be Price’s best-produced album ever – which was always an issue before – with the heavier reliance on piano doing wonders for her melodic presentation, especially on the title track and “Stone Me.” But three albums in, I’m still wondering why she sounds so thin across the microphone. I’ve seen her live, and she’s a great vocalist in that setting, but I’m not really sure where to pinpoint the blame on her records. Granted, that hushed tone can work well, especially on the subtler title track where she’s doing her best not to let her frustrations overtake her as an ex-lover spreads false lies about their relationship to people they know. But the moments that tilt toward rock really drown her out badly, namely “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Heartless Mind,” and there’s no heft to the tracks whatsoever.

Of course, that also speaks to issues with production, where on those tracks, the guitars have the same sort of overcompressed, warped, unflattering textures they had on Simpson’s own Sound & Fury. It’s relegated mostly to those two aforementioned tracks, but they’re bad enough to point out. Otherwise, for as hard as I’ve been on him for his own project and for that Lucette project from last year, he mostly does a better job of adding the same retro flourishes from Price’s Third Man Records albums without the same audio issues that bogged them down.

As for the writing, though, I’m not getting much out of this project. Price’s writing often scans as too one-dimensional in the framing, where the lack of details and list-like writing makes it all about the basic theme, rather than letting the grittier details surround it. She asks on one track, “What Happened To Our Love?,” but as far as finding an answer or any sense of closure, there’s not much to it. “Stone Me” seems to be a fairly basic tune about her standing up to her critics (ironic, I know), but then there’s the line, “you can pick a side, but both are wrong,” and then I’m questioning a deeper message in the subtext that the actual text never supports. Which, really, speaks to how Price’s social commentary has never been particularly interesting or insightful. There’s plenty of vague allusions on “I’d Die For You,” but it all comes across as hokey and overblown.

As far as highlights go, again, the title track may just be her best ever song, and I enjoy the blunt honesty in her decision to leave her significant other to chase her dream out on the road making music, a decision echoed by the following track with an incredibly soulful hook in “Prisoner of the Highway” – a nice touch, too. But there’s only slight improvements made on this project compared to past Price projects, and I’m still not all that won over. (Strong 5/10)

Jimmie allen

Jimmie Allen, Bettie James

I’m pleasantly surprised Jimmie Allen is garnering attention in the country music industry. He’s got a great voice and plenty of earnest passion and charisma, enough to where his debut single (“Best Shot”) was an impressive start, both critically and commercially … which is why it’s a shame he’s since then resorted to making the sort of interchangeable pop-country that you haven’t heard plenty of times already. It’s all wasted talent and potential, sadly.

But I liked the concept behind his newest project – an EP with the dual purpose of serving as a tribute to his late grandmother and father while also being a fun collaborative project with some musical icons. And again, I like the heart behind it all. No matter what, this is a small step in the right direction toward more thoughtful material with an interesting concept behind it.

It’s just pretty lacking overall, sadly. The production is still often clunky and focusing on heavier percussion over actual melody and groove. None of it’s bad, per se – though the clunky fusion of banjo and drum machines on “Good Times Roll” stilts any chance of that track’s summer anthem potential – but none of it’s all that interesting. It’s mostly heavier piano ballads, which, to be fair, often have enough spacious atmosphere to let Allen shine at the front.

But thoughtful as it is, the writing on this project is fairly basic, scratching the surface with heavier topics and not going as far with them as they could. Allen, Darius Rucker and Charley Pride team up to discuss “Why Things Happen” – and make no mistake, it’s an iconic collaboration, given as how they’re the only three black men to have any sort of success within mainstream country music – but “things” is about the gist of it. There’s a mention of why there’s a roadside cross with someone’s brother’s name on it, but that’s about it.

Then there’s “Made For These,” a duet with Tim McGraw where the basic concept is to show how the hard times will lead to the good times, but like with what Dolly Parton and Brantley Gilbert tried to do with similar singles earlier this year, it’s just way too preachy and a bit too optimistic in its actual framing, especially for now. It’s the nonspecific nature of the writing that ultimately weighs down this project, really. The worst example, though, may just be the Brad Paisley collaboration of “Freedom Was A Highway,” basically a bro-country track where Allen and Paisley reminiscence over their younger days, and where the age difference between them to sing this is completely unbelievable.

Now, the Mickey Guyton collaboration of “Drunk & I Miss You” is good, if a little basic. Guyton completely outshines just about anyone, vocally – even Allen, hard as he tries. But it’s a late night hookup track where the passion from both artists does most of the heavy lifting. I just wish all the good intentions of the other tracks led to more of an overall impact. (5/10)

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