Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
I won’t beat around the bush, folks – this particular batch of album reviews is overall negative and will likely get contentious. For a change, then, in addition to discussing the albums themselves, I want to discuss a common theme surrounding their releases and thematic arcs. Call it a mixture of a review and some of the ramblings you’ll find through my Melting Pot feature, if you will.
Anyway, if you follow mainstream country music at all, you are likely aware of this increasing trend for artists to want to get “back to their roots” or be “country again.” We’ll discuss a particularly on-the-nose example soon, but between the latest chatter from Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris as well as other out-of-nowhere artists like Canaan Smith going from washed-up bros to down-home country artists (for lack of a better term, heh), it appears that it’s cool to be “country again.”
Now, I’m left baffled by it, really. If it was just artists like Smith promoting this sound, I’d call it a case of trend-hopping, just as we saw with bro-country and literally every other trend throughout country music history. But Rhett, while perhaps past his commercial peak of the “Die a Happy Man” days, still isn’t in danger of irrelevancy, and if anything, Morris has only maintained a consistent staying power over time. And even despite her solo work, I buy it most from her, given her work with the Highwomen collective. Plus, we also have an artist like Carly Pearce putting in the actual work to craft her artistic vision. Of course, it’s not a widespread phenomenon yet to the point of needing to coin a full-blown neo-neotraditionalist movement, but there is something going on here that needs a closer examination.
Now … counterpoints: For one, it could be nothing. Remember, between the successes of acts like William Michael Morgan, Maddie & Tae, Mo Pitney, and Jon Pardi, among others, around late 2016, some predicted mainstream country music would return to its roots then, and outside of Pardi, that never really happened – certainly not with that particular batch of artists. Even Sam Hunt’s promise to veer more traditional turned out to just be a way to badly incorporate a Webb Pierce sample into an atrocious song. Plus, there are also a plethora of acts from Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price, among others – note the peculiar independent connection – that started in country but veered away over time.
It’s a strange dichotomy, but I think what baffles me more is trying to pinpoint its origin. I mean, acts like Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs – both of whom had massive success at the end of the 2010s and continue to garner acclaim – often get marketed as “authentic” and “real,” but you can’t really call either act “traditional country,” in that sense. And again, this is all based on talk and chatter. If you look at the country charts right now, you’ll find some solid “countrier” stuff than you maybe would’ve heard in, say, 2015, but the genre is still in a very weird holding place right now – not quite defined by, well, anything. A friend of mine noted that it could be a response to the pandemic, and how while normally mainstream artists craft their music to fit the arena setting, without that to rely on for right now, they’ve been looking to craft something more intimate and “artistic.” I’m not sure how much I buy it, but it’s another point worth considering.
What’s more important, though, is determining the quality of the music itself – not what it sounds like. So, with that all said, let’s dive into some examples of both sides of this trend.
Ashley Monroe, Rosegold
Now, see, this is an example of the opposite end of the spectrum, because while Ashley Monroe started out with excellent independent country releases like the buried gem Satisfied and 2013’s Like a Rose, her material has gotten more flighty over time. Now, that’s a dual point on sound and content, where I’d argue her writing has become less distinctive and cutting over time and the general shift toward Countrypolitan hasn’t worked so much as it’s just made her material sound flaccid; there’s a way to make generally sweet-sounding music have a dramatic edge to it. Her new album Rosegold, then, not only furthers her worst tendencies, but also exits country entirely for a warmed-over pop project that tries for something akin to baroque pop yet ends up feeling like warmed-over Lana Del Rey cuts instead. Read between the lines, though, and the shift isn’t so far-fetched. Monroe has already teased new Pistol Annies music on the way for this year and has basically stated she plans to use her solo work to explore other genres (a move away from “conservative country,” according to Pitchfork, because no one should expect an intelligent thought on the genre from that outlet). And when you consider how women in country usually fare, you can’t blame them, really. Just look at Kacey Musgraves. As another general note to the overall discussion, too, I don’t particularly care which genre(s) an artists chooses to make music within, so long as the pivot sounds natural.
That’s why when the synthetic elements are badly blended and not contributing to supporting anything within the mix, Rosegold feels like an overblown attempt at a sound that doesn’t fit for what Monroe is trying to achieve here. For a record mostly centered around flighty love songs, it’s strange how overly dark and hollow it sounds. It’s noticeable right away, from the dirgy, blocky tones on “Siren” that try to aim for dark, alluring, and sexy yet end up feeling choppy instead, to the oddly lacking “Gold” that transitions into a chorus with one of the most gutless string sections I’ve ever heard. For as much as I want to say Monroe carries it a little bit … it just doesn’t happen, and instead we get tracks like “See,” where the echoed vocal fragment is wonky and her flow is stilted and awkward, or the bad multitracking of “Groove,” which tries to cultivate something with the swell of strings and violin, only the actual groove just isn’t there. I didn’t mind the willowy touches added to the acoustics on “Silk” to give that track some actual warmth – the only moment to do so, really – or the skeletal bass riding off the chorus on “Drive,” but the moments that work are few and far between.
And as a whole, it doesn’t balance well with the actual content, which defaults mostly to cliché love songs that don’t have the deeper detail to explore any sort of nuance or complexities within them. It’s clear the focus was on sound and atmosphere first and foremost, and to her credit, Monroe is the sort of writer who will get more overtly sensual with her sentiments than others, as she does on “Drive” and “Siren.” It’s just that the production often clogs the material and doesn’t cultivate any real momentum or consistent tone, which only highlights the actual faults of the writing. I did like her questioning whether to give in to a new relationship on “Silk” when the subtext suggested that the wounds from an old one were still fresh – it gave this album something to work with, at least. But “Gold” is overly repetitive with its hook, “Flying” is thin and overwrought, “Til It Breaks” resorts to “you’ll be fine” platitudes that eschews any deep examination of the problems within, and “I Mean It” is the starry-eyed love song hampered by the same general blocky darkness that plagues “Siren,” which is about the last thing you’d want to go for there! I made a point in my notes on “See” that it felt undercooked, and really, that’s a good point for this album as a whole. I don’t begrudge where she’s going – I just think it’s time to bid adieu. Light 4/10 – this just ain’t it.
- Favorite tracks: “Silk,” “Drive”
- Least favorite track: “The New Me”
Justin Moore, Straight Outta the Country
See, the whole “country again” thing fits with Justin Moore, who’s been looking to return to this sound ever since he released 2019’s Late Nights and Longnecks … yet hasn’t really done anything interesting with it, either. See, something can sound good while still not being good, and I’d argue Moore’s music often defaults way too often to southern-pride pandering to work better than the dozens of other acts working with this same sound. With that said, I will admit I was probably a little too harsh on that last album, and though this new one fosters the embarrassing title of Straight Outta the Country and only features eight songs, there’s always room for improvement. If anything, though, this is one of those reviews that always makes me feel somewhat bad, if only because there’s a genuine effort from Moore to dive further into a sound he believes in … even if the material is rarely ever interesting. I mean, the obligatory city-versus-country sentiment of “Hearing Things” starts off the album, and it doesn’t help your case when the guitars sound overmixed and practically drown out the pedal steel and fiddle.
To its credit, that song stems from more personal anxieties and a need to return home – metatext, if you will – and for as much as Moore has never been a terribly good singer, I do appreciate that this album mostly stems from a mature context. There is some actual sincerity here, which lends itself well to the wistful atmospherics, firm bass, and brushes of liquid acoustics and percussion driving “We Didn’t Have Much,” especially with the better-than-expected control through the chorus. And when he slides into heartbreak-in-a-bar territory on “She Ain’t Mine No More,” he’s solid enough. But there’s also “Consecutive Days Alive,” which tries to paint Moore as some hardened troubadour without ever digging into the deeper details behind what got him there, and instead mostly relies on machismo. The lo-fi “More Than Me” is cute enough, I guess, even if it feels a little on-the-nose in what it’s going for and feels cloying as a result. I’ll still take it over the awful title track, where the sludgy, badly mixed electric axes give way to what is essentially the Steve Buscemi “how do you do, fellow kids” meme set to bad caricatures of “country folks,” reminiscent of the pandering schlock that plagued his earlier work. To be fair, it’s the only real bad moment here, but outside of “We Didn’t Have Much” and “She Ain’t Mine No More,” I’m just left convinced that Moore isn’t really contributing anything interesting to the discussion, even if he is following his heart. Light 5/10 – not good, not bad, just fine.
- Favorite tracks: “We Didn’t Have Much,” “She Ain’t Mine No More”
- Least favorite track: “Straight Outta the Country”
Thomas Rhett, Country Again (Side A)
Of course, I buy this particular sound coming from Justin Moore more than I ever will from Thomas Rhett, the sort of artist I always want to give more credit than he really deserves. Because, really, who is he as an artist? He rode the bro-country wave to middling success in the early 2010s before realizing he could milk his family life and an increasingly sterile pop sound to greater success with Tangled Up and Life Changes, even I still maintain that album is surprisingly decent, if just for “Marry Me” alone. Even despite the obvious connection to his father, I don’t at all buy this “country again” schlock from him. And if there’s any reason I’ve been speculating there could be a potential trend there, it’s because I’m looking at an artist who’s basically trend-hopped throughout his entire career.
But, fine, whatever. If the music is good, that’s what matters … except that Country Again (Side A) is the sort of project built off promises and hype that it can’t measure up to, and for as much as I, again, don’t particularly care for his earlier material, it’s way more convincing than what he tries for here. It’s the type of “country” project centered more around content than sound, which is why “Where We Grew Up” is your average clichéd, literal checklist song about a small town and features an overproduced snap track. It’s also why “What’s Your Country Song” references far better songs, including his father’s own “That Ain’t My Truck,” because when yours is built around blatantly synthetic production, it’s doubtful that anyone’s going to remember this particular “country” song a week from now. And, oh, to the guys that eventually date Rhett’s daughters on that particular song, which can’t help but feel like a weird sentiment to approach right now, don’t be intimidated by a guy that has a song called “All American Middle Class White Boy” in his catalog.
And I can go on with how sloppy the writing is and how much it managed to piss me off, like framing “Want It Again” as a genuine plea for his ex-significant other to come back. Sure, the ulterior motive was blatantly there in the obvious guilt-trip, but I didn’t mind it until that last verse set things up for her to leave her new significant other and return to him and made the entire song feel self-serving in a bad way. And that’s, sadly, a track trying for actual depth, because when you flip it over to “Put It On Ice,” things get even worse. Yes, it features HARDY – an artist I’ve never been particularly fond of, to put it nicely – but the real crime is that obnoxious triplet flow that basically centers around a painfully average rehash from the bro-country era.
The saving grace, then? Rhett himself, who has never been a good singer on a technical level, but has always had the charisma to make up for it. I hesitate to add “sincerity” there, given that I’d take Life Changes over the pandering schlock here, but when he shows a genuine effort at remembering someone on “Heaven Right Now,” he’s decent, even if I’m wondering which radio station he’s turning on to hear Eric Church’s No. 51-peaking “Sinners Like Me” from, you know, 2006. “Ya Heard” is self-serving in referencing his family life for the umpteenth time, but I like the frequent blasts of harmonica that give that song some rollick and punch. It’s cute enough. And though the percussion is overmixed on “Country Again,” the bass has a rattling warmth to it and the fiddle work isn’t bad, especially when the overall feeling of being “country again” stems from shifting priorities from growing older than it does returning to a sound he never fostered to begin with, making the other Eric Church reference actually kind of work. It might have made for a decent listen if he explored the entire album from that angle, but one has to judge what they have.
On that note, Country Again (Side A) simply amounts to a frustrating listen that doesn’t entice me to want to listen to the eventual Side B, because it only works in moments. Even then, there’s acts taking this sound in more interesting directions with better writing to match it. To repeat what I said with the Ashley Monroe review, I don’t begrudge artists for their creative choices, I just ask that they be genuine. This isn’t, really. Decent 4/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Country Again,” “Ya Heard,” “Heaven Right Now”
- Least favorite track: “Put It On Ice” (featuring HARDY)