We’re keeping things close to the mainstream with this roundup edition, and while I’m not sure anyone necessarily asked for these reviews, they’re albums I wanted to cover anyway. Onward!
Trace Adkins, The Way I Wanna Go
I don’t know why I’m reviewing this other than to satisfy my own morbid curiosity, which, oddly enough, is a fitting way to introduce a veteran like Trace Adkins whose legacy is complicated to accurately assess. There are those who remember him for his tender, heartfelt ballads from the ‘90s and early 2000s … and those who remember him for utterly stupid material like “Honky Tonk Bandonkadonk” and “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” that he’s tried to replicate time and time again, almost to the point of being more of a parody act than a country artist. Hell, the big discussion surrounding his newest project wasn’t that it was a double album serving to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music business, but rather that it was led by an utterly embarrassing collaboration with Pitbull and Luke Bryan that’s too awful to even call a bad 2014 bro-country reject.
Still, I wanted to give this a chance. Adkins’ best material could honestly challenge for the best within the genre (and vice-versa for his worst material), and while I wouldn’t call The Way I Wanna Go an essential listen, it is better than anything he produced in the 2010s and at least finally shows a step toward maturation … in places, that is. This is still split down the middle in so many ways, amplified by the double album concept and devoid of any sense of consistency. Plus, I’m not sure anyone asked for a double album from Trace Adkins, of all artists. But the production is surprisingly tasteful, sporting a nice neotraditional flair in certain spots like the two excellent ballads here in “You’re Mine” and “I Should Let You Go.” And though there are more synthetic elements than I personally prefer, they are, surprisingly enough, some of the most well-blended I’ve heard on a country album in recent memory, enough to where it never feels obtrusive and actually enhances some pretty potent choruses and hooks like “Heartbreak Song” and “Jesus Was a Hippie.” And of the many collaborations here, “Memory to Memphis” featuring Keb’ Mo’ and Stevie Wonder is easily the best, sporting some excellent harmonica play from the latter artist and an overall fantastically loose blues groove that every artist handles well.
And really, loose and easy has always been a good fit for Adkins; it’s just that he’s never known that there’s a fine line between that and utterly stupid. “It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink” is a ridiculously over-the-top song showcasing Adkins on trial and is pretty humorous as a whole, and “Got it Down” and “Cadillacin’” both work in similar veins. And outside of “Where the Country Girls At” and “So Do the Neighbors” featuring Snoop Dogg, you could argue that this is an overall more mature album for Adkins as a whole, with the main thematic undercurrent offering reflections of mortality that, no, aren’t beating “You’re Gonna Miss This” anytime soon. But songs like “Where I Am Today” and the title track have an urgency to their deliveries to work regardless. I think my main issue is that Adkins has never been a prolific writer, including here, so these songs lack the personal touch that his more grounded tone can only somewhat make up for, and that’s before mentioning the other side of “mature.” “Heartbreak Song” is basically a bro-country takedown that’s around seven years too late and is hypocritical coming from Adkins, especially right before “Where the Country Girls At.” You also have your basic country pride anthems in “Cowboy Boots and Jeans” and “Somewhere in America” that feel played out and weren’t interesting at their best. Again, like all Adkins albums, you can cherrypick the best tracks and come away with a better listening experience, and the run from “Honey Child” to “You’re Mine” is arguably him at his best in years. But the second half of the album does mostly retread themes done better in the front half, and considering it runs long, that’s absolutely a problem. It’s a good snapshot of Adkins’ entire career, but all it shows is what a wildly inconsistent ride it was. Take that for what it’s worth.
- Favorite tracks: “You’re Mine,” “Memory to Memphis” (feat. Keb’ Mo’ and Stevie Wonder), “I Should Let You Go,” “It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink,” “Jesus Was a Hippie”
- Least favorite track possibly ever: “Where the Country Girls At” (feat. Pitbull and Luke Bryan)
Lauren Alaina, Sitting Pretty On Top of the World
I think this past year has made me realize how certain acts that burned brightly just a few short years ago have oddly faded away, because while I was looking forward to Lauren Alaina’s follow-up to Road Less Traveled – an album every critic seemed to get behind in early 2017 for being an excellent pop-country album with real potential – I get why the buzz has been fairly nonexistent for it. She wasn’t able to keep the momentum going from “Road Less Traveled” (the single), and between weak scattered singles afterward as well as poor label promotion and mismanagement, this, like most releases nowadays it seems, just seemed to get lost in the shuffle.
And regarding the actual follow-up … it’s strange; I like it, but it does strike me more as being good and fairly agreeable without ever really ascending to greatness or matching the best moments of that last album. And it’s not so much a case of the album doing anything wrong so much as lacking the next steps to take things further. At the very least, the production is more consistent this time around, where the neotraditional tones courtesy of the welcome pedal steel, banjo, and mandolin are prominent and support the album’s best moments. But it’s also another mainstream country album where the synthetic elements are mostly just here for show and don’t contribute to anything interesting outside of setting up a wall of sound, which doesn’t flatter the low-end of certain tracks as much as the warm, burnished bass supporting a track like “I’m Not Sad Anymore” or the liquid percussion and acoustics anchoring “Goodbye Street.” Part of that has to do with the fact that this album is partly spliced together by tracks from past EPs, which I’d argue wasn’t necessary, especially when this album runs long and can blend together after a while as it is.
Like with Alaina’s last album, though, the even more surprising element of note is the writing. And the thing is, while this doesn’t feel as personal or spoken directly from her own experiences like her last album did, her best moments do come from leaning into personal introspection. I like that “It Was Me” is framed around her confronting an old flame long after the fact and confessional in her admittance that she wasn’t quite ready to love again due to leftover scars. I also like that she spends the album trying to find the courage to love again, which eventually leads to a nice closer in “Change My Mind” where she finally does, as well an optimistic tone throughout that benefits tracks like “Getting Good” … even if the production is wildly inconsistent and Trisha Yearwood didn’t need to be here, especially when it’s jarring to hear her sing through the overproduction. Again, tracks like those as well as “I’m Not Sad Anymore” and “Goodbye Street” that are more grounded and reflective arguably capture Alaina at her best. But the album does often paint in broad strokes, and while that’s fine when she’s acting as the observer on “Same Story, Different Saturday Night,” tracks like “If The World Was a Small Town,” “Run,” and “Written in the Bar” feel less unique and more like filler material. Outside of “Getting Over Him” – in which she and Jon Pardi have absolutely no chemistry and he sounds horrible in his upper register – and “When the Party’s Over” – which may as well be a Maren Morris reject from 2016 – nothing here is all that bad, but I’m struggling to like this as much as I want to. It’s still enjoyable, though, and for mainstream pop-country, this is of the better variety, but I know Alaina can push even further.
- Favorite tracks: “I’m Not Sad Anymore,” “It Was Me,” “Same Story, Different Saturday Night,” “Goodbye Street,” “Good Ole Boy”
- Least favorite track: “When the Party’s Over”
Scotty McCreery, Same Truck
Hey, look, it’s our second American Idol alumni of the day, and while I’m a little surprised at the lack of buzz for Lauren Alaina’s newest project, with Scotty McCreery, I get it. He’s the sort of tasteful, likable performer who, sadly, hasn’t really unearthed his full potential yet, and while it’s been nice to see him score some welcome comeback (and really, breakthrough) hits, I’d struggle to call him a distinctive or memorable presence in the genre right now. And that’s a fitting introduction to Same Truck, an album I found pleasantly enjoyable on my first listen, but also one that faded quickly on repeat ones.
And if there’s a reason I’m going ahead and covering it anyway, it’s because there’s a mid-album gem called “The Waiter” that’s among McCreery’s best and may be among the best in 2021. Yes, it’s a ‘90s-esque ballad aiming for gut-wrenching sentiment that very well could have been cloying in the wrong hands, but McCreery’s empathetic, deeper timbre lends the track some welcome gravitas – especially in the drop on the hook – and I’ll admit to being a sucker for these easy tearjerkers. And I like the deeper implications of a widower who routinely revisits the same restaurant he and his late wife went to for their first date and tries to recapture that magic again while everyone looks on at him like he’s crazy, a point that he’s well aware of but doesn’t care about, mostly because it’s one of the few things left to offer some joy and peace for him. It reminds me a lot of Reba McEntire’s “In His Mind” from a few years ago in the framing, and it really is an excellent song.
As for the rest of the album … well, if McCreery’s last album was about the big comeback moment and somewhat working within his own lane, this feels like the safer follow-up project meant to capitalize on that momentum. And while that will inevitably lead to some solid radio single choices – just look at “You Time” – it also leads to cuts that are just far less interesting and unique across the board. The production still splits the difference between neotraditional and contemporary tones, and what frustrates me is how the more intimate moments will start off with chintzier synthetic elements before bringing in organic tones by the first chorus anyway – even on “The Waiter”! And considering those tones have found a slight resurgence in recent years, it’s not as immediately likable as it might have been a few years ago. But that’s also a note on the writing, where if anything is saving this album, it’s McCreery’s presentation of what he’s signing about rather than the material itself. To be fair, he’s got writing credits on all but one track here, and his writing is mostly tasteful and conservative in a Josh Turner kind of way. But you can also tell his label likely pressured him to record throwaway bro-country leftovers like “Why You Gotta Be Like That” and “Small Town Girl” that don’t fit his style.
It’s still mostly likable, but you’re rarely ever going to find anything that transcends decent or passable, which is a real shame. The easy highlights are, again, “The Waiter,” “Damn Strait” – which is a breakup song in which the one partner can’t listen to the titular artist due to the memories attached to the relationship and where the references are actually really well-executed – and probably “Carolina to Me,” which finds a complacency and happiness similar to “Home” right before it that’s a little more mature and fitting for where McCreery is at in this point of his career. Even his complications with faith over holding it together throughout the past year make “How Ya Doin’ Up There” a fairly potent closer. But as a whole, again, “safe” is the most appropriate descriptor for this album, because while there’s nothing inherently wrong with it and will likely further McCreery’s commercial run, he’s capable of better, and that’s something to consider in the long run.
- Favorite tracks: “The Waiter,” “Damn Strait,” “Carolina to Me”
- Least favorite track: “Small Town Girl”