Jesse Daniel, Beyond These Walls
After last year’s raucous, Bakersfield-inspired Rollin’ On, I was interested in hearing where Jesse Daniel would go next, especially when his record cut through the clutter of last year to become a real deserved breakthrough for him. His newest album, Beyond These Walls, looks inward for something more reflective and mature, and I can’t help but feel like it’s an overall step down across the board for him. To be clear, I do enjoy the more varied sonic palette and integration of Daniel’s Mexican and bluegrass influences scattered throughout here, but as someone who enjoyed the more ragged edges and greater punch of his previous material, this can’t help but feel like a safer, less interesting release that never really opens up or gets going.
Part of it has to do with Daniel’s approach in lyrical content and themes this time around, where instead of making up for hard living he’s settling down and taking stock of what’s around him. All good and well, of course, and as musical comfort food, this album suits is aim just fine. There’s just not a lot to grab onto beyond that: “Simple Things” is just a checklist ode to, well, the simple things that carries a clunky, lazy acoustic groove and plods along; “Texas Summer Night” is mostly the same thing, just with a more intimate presentation that works better for the album yet still doesn’t offer much beyond “pleasant”; and “Drop a Line (Out Here on the Water)” is essentially an instrumental showcase that never really erupts, given how fairly polished this album sounds as a whole. This is an album that really needed more meat on its bones.
To be fair, sometimes simple is effective here, meaning that it’s not the ideas on display at fault so much as a refusal to push beyond them. Take “Gray,” the easy album standout, where Daniel reconnects with an old friend only to find that he’s continuously succumbing to his own vices and bound for a dark path that Daniel knows he could have wound up on as well. And even though he’s the one that escaped a life of alcoholism and drug abuse, he can’t help but look with on with bitter resentment and dismay for someone who doesn’t care anymore. It’s a harrowing, brutal song that’s among Daniel’s best. On the lighter side, while the general progression of “Clayton Was a Cowboy” plays into pretty broad and familiar territory, I still like the generally chipper, rollicking acoustics that feels more like a tribute to a friend who wanted to live life to its fullest extent. “Lookin’ Back” plays into pretty familiar breakup track territory, but the bassline rattles with warmth and it’s more about how he’d like to win an old flame back … but won’t, because she’s moved on and he knows he still has a ways to go on the road to recovery, which makes Jodi Lyford’s backing contributions on the hook all the more effective.
Still, I’m also left wishing once again that Daniel would loosen up more as an interpreter. He sells the general nonchalant, carefree attitude of “Think I’ll Stay” pretty effectively, but I half wonder if it’s just by pure design and not by choice. And he’s certainly not playing things cool on “Angel On the Ground,” which tries to milk the “did it hurt when you fell from the sky” pick-up line for an entire song and feels unbearably cheesy. With that said, even if “Living in the Great Divide” is far from a standout for me – a political track that states the obvious but not much beyond it – I like the solid hook anchored by the great fiddle work for a greater sense of urgency, and it’s a track like that makes me wish we got even more tracks here with a bit more diversity within the tracks themselves or just with a slight added kick to them. As it is, this is fine, but I was hoping for more.
- Favorite tracks: “Gray,” “Lookin’ Back,” “Think I’ll Stay,” “Clayton Was a Cowboy”
- Least favorite track: “Angel On the Ground”
Yola, Stand For Myself
For as much as I enjoyed Yola’s Countrypolitan blend on her debut, 2019’s Walk Through Fire, I geared myself up for something different this time around for her sophomore effort. The marketing was flashier, the album suggested it was going to be a righteous reclamation for her, and the lead single to it all was pretty awesome … and I’m left liking this new album far less than I wanted to? Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s still fairly solid across the board, but the general aesthetic may be a bit misleading for the actual material.
And if the question is whether this is really that far of a stretch from that debut … well, not really. Though the country elements are a lot less noticeable, and this is a much further stretch into blue-eyed soul as a whole. It works, mostly because Dan Auerbach’s production in this lane has been extremely solid, if predictable, and even if I’ve always been an easier sell on it than others. And when the bass lines thrum, the guitars have distinct country texture, the organ has plenty of prominent swell and the horns blare when needed, it’s hard to find fault with how gorgeous (and expensive) this album sounds across the board. It’s just that there’s very little variety in tempo or actual composition throughout to really keep the momentum going. For as much as this album was billed as something flashier ahead of the release, it’s a surprisingly moody, dreary listen that, unfortunately, blends together far too often. I still love the fantastic jump and rollicking punch carried by the acoustic groove on “Diamond Studded Shoes,” but it’s the oddly isolated moment on this album that could have used a lot more just like it to keep the pace even-keeled.
All of this would have been fine if the general presentation had more bite to it – the thicker strumming on the title track is a welcome example of that – but as it is, it comes down to highlighting the tinier details of what puts certain tracks over the edge. “Dancing Away in Tears,” for example, is a disco-influenced haze that sets up a paradoxically melancholy yet joyous sendoff for two lovers and may just offer its best moment, and “Whatever You Want” is a nice break in tempo that serves as a reminder for why Yola herself is still the underlying key to making it all work. Sadly, though, even the best voices go nowhere if the material isn’t up to snuff, and I can’t help but feel like it’s another area that’s taken a backslide, too.
Again, for an album led by “Diamond Studded Shoes” ahead of its release that hinted at something with real firepower and grit behind it, this is mostly an album centered around either finding love or falling out of it – never being quite in love, oddly enough. And I don’t mind that she opts for that or paints in broad strokes when there’s other elements to do the heavy lifting. Again, the details behind the breakup of “Dancing Away in Tears” are never spelled out, but it’s obvious that it’s a break Yola herself didn’t want, so to hear that solely from her perspective lends a greater subtext behind wishing that last dance had lasted forever. Ditto for “Like a Photograph,” especially with that great crescendo in the latter half. But there’s also too many tracks between “Great Divide,” “Starlight,” and “If I Had to Do It All Again” that are missing the greater context to fully develop their scenarios, and the album starts blending together in more ways than one. Again, it’s still all very much enjoyable, but it’s the second album of this roundup where I had hoped for a lot more out of it.
- Favorite tracks: “Dancing Away in Tears,” “Diamond Studded Shoes,” “Stand For Myself,” “Like a Photograph”
- Least favorite track: “Great Divide”
Chris Young, Famous Friends
We end this roundup with an artist for whom I have no expectations of quality for anymore, and haven’t in years. Harsh? Yes. Unfair, though? Not when it comes to Chris Young, a genuinely talented baritone singer who’s been settling for tepid radio fodder for far too long. I would have just skipped right over this album, but there was the curious, more critical part of me that wanted to do his due diligence and ask, “OK, but why keep on settling for less now?” After all, the neotraditional tones that Young favored early on his career are somewhat back in style. They’re competing with “Fancy Like” and “Lil Bit,” but, you know, baby steps. Still, when I can name mainstream radio acts like Carly Pearce, Luke Combs, Jon Pardi, Lainey Wilson and even Jake Owen – just off the top of my head, at that – that are making distinctly modern yet undeniably country music, I’m left wondering if Young is just out of the loop on all of this.
And this isn’t the staunch, stuffy critic in me simply hoping just for a shift in sound for the sake of – Young’s baritone has always simply been better suited for the material is all. And considering he consistently namedrops older country legends on this project, it matters, and it especially matters when Young’s name barely catches fire like it used to these days. Case in point, the album’s first track, “Raised on Country,” a two-year-old song that may as well have been one of the early pioneers of the name-drop trend that may have felt authentic for Young a decade ago, but now just feels like a slap in the face for an album that finds him still relying on badly programmed drum machines and handclaps that contribute to a wall of noise rather than anything interesting. This is basically Losing Sleep part two, which in and of itself was I’m Comin’ Over part two. And between the choppy, nearly staccato flow of “Rescue Me” and “Break Like You Do” to the R&B-tinged “Love Looks Good On You” with those badly dated synth tones, he’s completely out of his element once again here. I don’t buy that your upbringing sounds like George Strait when your album sounds like this, Chris Young, especially not when your features this time around trade in Vince Gill for friggin’ Mitchell Tenpenny!
And really, with a few exceptions, there’s nothing to really differentiate these songs, sonically. I like the generally breezy, warmer “Town Ain’t Big Enough,” especially when he and Lauren Alaina sound great together and she actually gets a chance to shine – even if it is “Think of You” all over again – and I like that “Tonight We’re Dancing” carries the warmth of an ‘80s Vern Gosdin cut in the understated piano and steel guitar integration. But that’s the last track on the album, and if we’re going to highlight tracks that sound out of the ordinary for this album, we also have to cite “One of Them Nights” and “Hold My Beer and Watch This,” two bro-country duds without the charm or creativity of “Aw Naw” to save them. In the latter case, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen would eat you for lunch, dude. That’s the thing, too – I shouldn’t let the content bother me as much as it does. I shouldn’t care that “Drowning” is way too nondescript in its framing and background context to work up any emotion whatsoever, or that “Rescue Me” reeks of entitlement, or that “Break Like You Do” is essentially him whining because his ex-significant other found a way to move on and he didn’t. But I do, because deep down I still want the old Chris Young back. But without even the clear standout or two of those past three or so releases and a continued settlement for mediocrity, this just may well be his worst album yet – and it didn’t have to be.
- Favorite tracks: “Tonight We’re Dancing,” “Town Ain’t Big Enough” (w/ Lauren Alaina)
- Least favorite tracks: “One of Them Nights,” “Hold My Beer and Watch This”
Buy or stream the album (or don’t)