Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
This is the second review roundup for today, and features thoughts on new releases from Triston Marez, Dallas Moore, and Canaan Smith. Onward!
Triston Marez, Triston Marez
This is one of those debut albums that feels like it’s been a long time coming, and indeed, for an underground talent like Triston Marez with a strong grassroots following, it has. Certain critics have already speculated a Cody Johnson or Aaron Watson-esque rise that similar contemporaries like Randall King and Parker McCollum haven’t quite yet achieved, and I hear why in the stylistic parallels that are somewhere between contemporary and neotraditional. I also really enjoyed “Where the Neon Lies” ahead of this release, so I was looking forward to this album. With that said, it’s also that careful balance in dictating what could potentially come next that both informs and hinders this project. It’s not a bad one, mind you. The overall sound is agreeable and better-produced than a good chunk of what’s on mainstream country radio right now, but there’s also something about this project that’s oddly … safe, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a disappointment.
On a positive note, while this album doesn’t start with its better tracks, by the time we reach “Where the Neon Lies” the sound is really well-produced and fleshed-out. To echo what I already said about that song, I love the smokier touches of piano riding off the supple touches of bass and pedal steel that provide atmosphere and warmth to this heartache, and when Marez is joined by the Squeezebox Bandits and Jessica Roadcap for the pleasantly laid-back, Spanish-flavored “Texas Swing,” it’s another moment that shows real distinctive character here. And while certain tracks do echo familiar melodies and chord progressions from the ‘90s, when “Cold, Cold Night” sounds like a never-recorded Mark Chesnutt song and the wistful acoustics and softer percussion anchor the excellent “She’s Had Enough Of Texas,” I find it hard to complain. Of course, if an obvious nod to the ‘90s informs the album’s second half, there’s also moments that are a bit slicker and more informed by the 2000s, which isn’t so much bad as it is lacking in overall flavor at points. I mean, “Reasons to Stay” features a melody that’s damn-near similar to Kenny Chesney’s “I Go Back,” and tracks like “Hits a Little Different” and “Drink About Me” can feel a bit overstuffed and overmixed as a whole.
There’s also Marez himself, who is a good singer but can sound a little stiff at points, which is more of a mark of an artist still figuring himself out artistically and vocally. So he doesn’t really loosen up on “Day Drinking” or sound comfortable on “Drink About Me,” but against Ronnie Dunn on “Where the Neon Lies” he sounds great. Granted, there’s also the content to address, which is probably the weakest element of this album. There’s never any bad framing or posturing informing these songs, but tracks like “Whole Lotta You,” “Two Beers on the Bar,” “If You Don’t Know By Now” and “Hits a Little Different” are checklist-written odes to clichéd tropes that don’t actually describe Marez that well, try as they may on “If You Don’t Know By Now,” even if the story told through stock images on “Two Beers on the Bar” is a little closer to what’s going on as a whole. “Where the Neon Lies” and “Texas Swing” are a bit conventional as well, to be sure, but against the right backdrops they’re definitely highlights, and I like that “She’s Had Enough of Texas” explores Marez’s own culpability in a fading relationship. Of course, that also leads to “Drink About Me,” which is the sort of self-assuming song caught in the aftermath of a breakup where one party is a bit condescending toward their ex-significant other’s actions afterwards, and it’s the sort of petty, “I’m so not over you so I’m going to guilt trip you” sentiment that never sits well with me. As it is, it’s a fine album, but I was hoping for more. Light 6/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Where the Neon Lies” (w/ Ronnie Dunn), “Texas Swing” (w/ the Squeezebox Bandits and Jessica Roadcap),” “She’s Had Enough of Texas,” “Cold, Cold Night”
- Least favorite track: “Drink About Me”
Dallas Moore, The Rain
I already noted in my review of “The Rain” the usual cluster of names that gets thrown around when making comparisons to Dallas Moore’s sound and approach. It’s outlaw-styled country music that’s right up my alley and seems to be in critics’ cross-hairs as of late, for some reason. Now, I will say Moore’s past projects have felt a bit rushed and lacking, so I was happy to see this new project be fleshed-out a little more with a fuller track-listing. What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly modern album in its content and presentation set to a familiar sound. Now, unlike those similar contemporaries like, say, Ward Davis or Cody Jinks, Moore’s voice is much more haggard and reliant on hangdog charisma to sell these sentiments, so he’s perfect for a jaunty honky-tonk number like “Every Night I Burn Another Honky-Tonk Down.”
And that’s the thing – Moore is the sort of road-dog warrior that’s excelled at raucous fun over anything that deep or complex on past projects, and when I say this is a modern project in presentation, I mean that the pandemic informs it. Which, of course, means one can’t be a road-dog warrior when they’re “Locked Down and Loaded.” For as burned-out as I am on these sentiments, for one, it’s really only relegated to maybe three tracks – the aforementioned “Locked Down and Loaded” and “Better Days,” for instance – but it’s never overly preachy, even if “Blue Jean Jesus” frames itself around an overreaching metaphor of what it all means that doesn’t really work. But I do like the same general theme of starting over and finding personal clarity through it, like in the opening title track that’s similar to Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” but is a little looser and adventitious. Or take “Ride Down by the River,” which finds escapism through peaceful surroundings and music and is likely far more relatable for how people pushed on through this thing. And like Ward Davis, Moore knows how to implement some really beautiful piano tones to carry his melodies and grooves, like the frequently extended solos of “Ride Down the River” and the rollicking “California Highway” and “On Through the Night.” I wouldn’t say it does anything drastically different one hasn’t heard before for this brand of country music, outside of the specific thematic arc, but there’s a fantastic production balance that knows how to emphasize its well-mixed instrumentals, like the blast of harmonica on “Ain’t No Place in the Sun” or the chugging acoustics that add a delicacy to “California Highway.” I’m not as wild about “My Last Days” as a closer, if only because it can feel a little campy and overwrought knowing the time period in which it was written, but this is a really solid project. Decent 7/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Ride Down By the River,” “California Highway,” “The Rain,” “On Through the Night,” “Every Night I Burn Another Honky-Tonk Down”
- Least favorite track: “Blue Jean Jesus”
Canaan Smith, High Country Sound
Oh, this one I had to hear for myself. For those who don’t know, Canaan Smith was originally signed to Mercury Nashville and broke through in the bro-country era with “Love You Like That,” a song written like a Mad Libs game that was utterly terrible and reached the top of the charts despite generating no buzz for him. And that’s before mentioning his failed rebounds with “Like You That Way” – which featured a verse about Miranda Lambert that shall not be repeated – and “This Night Back” before being dropped in 2018. He had one good song – this one – and that was it. He was a trend-hopping artist in the vein of, say, Dustin Lynch that simply never managed to take off, and considering that a return-to-roots style is the new “in” thing, I walked in to this newest project expecting a train wreck.
To my surprise, I didn’t get that, and considering Smith himself as touted this as a “starting over” point for him, I think this is the first time I’ve heard a genuine effort from him. Now, it’s not a great project and only barely a good one – the percussion is way too clunky and overmixed and Smith is a very lackluster vocalist – but it’s a surprisingly fun listen that managed to prove me wrong, and I can admit that. Now, this isn’t a hard-country sound in the vein of, say, Dallas Moore up above there. This is more of a folk-pop take on a rootsier sound that reminded me oddly of High Valley at points, especially “Mason Jars & Fireflies,” which is way more joyous and fun than it has any right to be. I mean, it’s not Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca, but the acoustic melodies are warm and sit at the forefront and the pedal steel and fiddle both receive a very prominent spotlight, especially on the album highlight, “Like I Ain’t Missin’ You.” With that said, the songwriting won’t blow anyone’s mind, and if I had to cite this album’s weakest element, it’s that. Even then, for as much as Smith lacks in the vocal department and delivers a really choppy flow on the title track and “Highway Blues,” there is a likable earnestness that never paints the country pride anthems with the same sense of pandering or posturing that often plagues these tracks. Sure, “American Dream” is as corny as its title implies, but there’s an effort at sincerity here that I didn’t hear before from Smith, and it counts for something. But there are moments that come close to crossing the line for me, like the recycled bro-country checklist items of “Still” and the ode to authenticity that doesn’t feel yet earned on “Grounded.” And I really wish “Colder Than You” had the firepower in the delivery to work. Still, the Brent Cobb collaboration of “Catch Me If You Can” is a lot of fun with its faster flow and raucous fiddle work, and I did appreciate when the details were a bit more specific to his own lived-in experience on “Sweet Virginia.” There’s room for improvement, to be sure, but considering I never thought I’d give Smith the time of day again, this managed to surprise me. Decent 6/10 – it’s honestly worth a listen.
- Favorite tracks: “Like I Ain’t Missin’ You,” “Mason Jars & Fireflies,” “Catch Me If You Can” (w/ Brent Cobb), “Sweet Virginia”
- Least favorite track: “Still”