Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Cody Johnson, Side Pony, and Joshua Ray Walker

Human the double album

Cody Johnson, Human: The Double Album

As burned out as I am on the double album concept, I don’t mind them in theory, and I don’t mind when they’re made with good intentions rather than just to abuse streaming mechanics. But there are also the ones that fall into both categories, where the overall concept behind them comes from a genuine place … and the overall execution just makes it feel completely unnecessary even despite that, which is where I’m largely at with Cody Johnson’s latest project.

Granted, I’ve never been an outright huge fan of his, but he has enough good artistic instincts to pull something like this off and hasn’t been a bad presence in mainstream country music thus far – especially not when he’s made a song like “Monday Morning Merle” or has had the guts to release a single to country radio featuring Reba McEntire. Yet even if Human is somewhat more of a mature offering from Johnson as he finds a sense of complacency in life, it’s also a bloated effort short on interesting ideas or ways to make what it’s working with last the full hour-long run time.

Don’t get me wrong, for a mainstream country release in 2021 it’s still passable, particularly in its embrace of neotraditional textures that have been the hallmark of Johnson’s sound even going back to his independent days. I guess it’s just that, even compared to the last album that could afford to take the occasional chance in its sonic scope, Human just feels very conventional in what it’s going for, especially when an act working with this sound isn’t as rare to find as they might have been five years ago, even in mainstream Nashville. Still an overall good formula, though, especially when you get to the solid driving and anthemic groove off of the richer piano and acoustics on “Til You Can’t” or the equally warm and jangly interplay between the fiddle and dobro for something bluegrass-inspired on “Treasure” that adds a sense of adventure to back up the content and probably makes for my favorite cut here. Warm and organic is always a good formula, and the album even has the good sense to bring in some rougher electric guitars to make the bar-band tracks in “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors” or “Let’s Build A Fire” sound decent enough for what they are.

But if we’re looking for where this album really excels beyond that … well, Johnson is still a decent enough performer, if a little forceful and too stoic to really cut loose and make those aforementioned tracks really work; the Jason Aldean syndrome, if you will. And there’s a song called “Cowboy Scale of 1 to 10” that’s made awkward by his hardbitten stance on what masculinity should look like before bringing in Red Stegall and Corb Lund, among others, and turning it into one big joke, and it’s an awkwardly jarring transition. Not to mention that there’s three covers here that don’t work well with Johnson’s more reserved style. I mean, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” just reminds me how much frailer Willie Nelson is becoming as a performer, “I Don’t Know A Thing About Love” feels clunkily produced in the midrange, and Vince Gill’s “Son of a Ramblin’ Man” feels as out of place as the Charlie Daniels cover of “Long Haired Country Boy” did on Johnson’s last album. 

Which is also to say that, when it comes to Johnson, most of what we get on this album are tracks about settling down and finding contentment in life, which, to be frank, is not the sort of theme that makes for a particularly interesting double album, especially when I’d struggle to say the writing here ever rises above average. The title track, “Known For Loving You,” “Driveway,” “Made a Home” and “Stronger” are all fine, but they’re interchangeable and don’t contain the finer personal details to really stand out as more than just decent love songs, especially when Johnson didn’t write a good chunk of this album. I like the urgency behind making the most of the time left on “Til You Can’t” just as I really enjoy when he leans on a narrative for “I Always Wanted To” in painting an older man left forgotten due to ageism yet still desperate to chase his dreams and robbed of those experiences with no time left. It’s a powerful moment to close out the first half, and though “When It Comes to You” is overall more slickly produced than I would prefer, I like how a woman’s backing vocals will slip in for the hook on a track about longing for an old flame. But overall, like most double albums I’ve heard this year, there’s not enough here that’s mind-blowingly great enough to justify the length, especially when this is, for all intents and purposes, largely just another Johnson album. Fans will like it, but I’ve heard this sound performed better too many times to get all that interested.

Grade: 6/10

  • Favorite tracks: “Treasure,” “I Always Wanted to,” “Til You Can’t,” “When It Comes to You”
  • Least favorite track: “Cowboy Scale of 1 to 10”

Buy or stream the album

Lucky break

Side Pony, Lucky Break

Oh, you’re telling me that Alice Wallace and Caitlin Cannon teamed up to form a collaborative duo and release a debut project? I mean, you have my attention, but I also get how this collaboration might not spark as much interest for fans who haven’t heard either artist’s previous projects, from Wallace’s more sultry, genre-bending style on 2019’s Into the Blue to Cannon’s more manic, wildly fun presentation that worked well on last year’s The Trashcannon Album both of which are valid and great on their own.

So mash them together and … well, this very much has the feeling of a “side project,” but it’s still pretty good when viewed under that regard. I think my main issue is that, like with most “buddy” albums in this vein, I’m always left wishing for greater interplay between all involved. And we do get that, albeit on a closing track that’s probably one of the better pandemic songs I’ve heard, even if it sounds a little awkward coming out now removed from those extreme lockdown periods. You can tell that both Wallace and Cannon are trying to find their balance as vocalists and work on an even level playing field with one another, and I get that. But let’s be honest, Wallace usually shines above anyway on pure volume alone, and both artists are different performers as a whole. Wallace has the huge, sweeping range to go for bigger, bolder moments and make the moments of direct emotional pathos in “Old Woman” and “All I Have is Want” really connect, and Cannon is the sort of looser, more charismatic performer who can sell the shit-kicking, devil-may-care attitude of tracks like “Bad Ideas” and “Heels” really well, and I actually wish that contrast was highlighted further.

But really, I’m sold enough based on how lush this album feels in its overall sonic scope, with a ton of rollick behind it and glistening, smokey textures to support the liquid keys, supple strings, and pedal steel that comprises a lot of the ‘70s-inspired warmth of this project. Hell, “Heels” is very clearly aiming to emulate Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” in that rollicking groove, and it kind of earns the comparison! But while I do enjoy tracks playing to seedier territory like that as well as “Bad Ideas,” the ballads in “All I Have is Want,” “Pressing My Luck,” and “Old Woman” are where that polish really shines in a simply beautiful way, especially when discussing the surprisingly dark “Under the Surface” that balances more twinkling textures against the sandier percussion and thunderous drums and builds up to a surprisingly potent swell.

And despite what the cover and overall combination would have you believe, this isn’t an album playing to easy “bad girl” vibes, either. If anything, it subverts those expectations for something more grounded. Yes, “Bad Ideas” and “Heels” pretty much play into Pistol Annies territory, and yes, they do mostly pull it off, but this isn’t so much an album for women seeking revenge on scorned lovers as it is an album for women … displaced and forgotten, which makes the neglected wife on “All I Have is Want” a deeply rich character, and what makes the mental downward spiral of “Under the Surface” really potent within that context. They don’t want to have to be the hell-raisers; they just want a sense of normalcy and happiness, which is probably told best on the beautiful “Old Woman.” If anything, it what’s makes the generic self-motivational platitudes of the title track feel highly unnecessary, and while the closing track is a jarring way to close out everything, it’s still a great listen. Let’s hope that both artists flesh this out for something more, because this is a great first step.

Grade: 7/10

  • Favorite tracks: “Old Woman,” “Pressing My Luck,” “Under the Surface,” “All I Have is Want,” “Bad Ideas”
  • Least favorite track: “Lucky Break”

Buy or stream the album

See you next time

Joshua Ray Walker, See You Next Time

This is my third time reviewing a Joshua Ray Walker album, and thus far I’ve always been left with the impression that Walker is a quirky writer with some really compelling concepts and a personality to carry them who also stumbles to fully unleash his potential in the actual execution. And yet with his newest project reportedly ending a trilogy of character-driven projects set to a very specific mood and theme, we may haven’t even truly been introduced to Walker just yet.

So, fine, I went into this newest project expecting more of the same … and while this is very much playing to the usual seedy bar-band territory of Walker’s previous two projects, it’s also easily his best project yet, finally nailing a sense of greater consistency and delivering one hell of a fun listen, at that. But it goes beyond that, and while Walker is careful to point out that there’s a fine line between the personal and the character-driven narratives on his projects, I’m not sure how much I believe that, given that the running theme across this entire trilogy has come in finding a sense of self-acceptance and an acceptance of others still finding their way, painted through a very empathetic viewpoint that finds Walker vulnerable enough to be himself, shown best on “Cowboy” and “Flash Paper.” And that’s largely where See You Next Time really works for me: the offbeat, quirkier moments are still there, but they feel grounded in realer stakes and flow more consistently. Yes, the blast of horns off of the darker bass and glistening textures on “Sexy After Dark” stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the project playing more for a driving honky-tonk energy, but for a track about coming alive at night in an establishment where you feel like you belong and tapping into a different part of yourself that you’re too afraid to expose otherwise, it’s a riotous blast that really grew on me.

And really, outside of that, the overall sonic palette is very much what you expect from Walker at this point – thicker acoustics balanced against the electric axes and a rougher blend of pedal steel, fiddles, and saloon piano to ground in the melodic hooks and grooves. And when specifically referencing “Dallas Lights,” “Dumpster Diving,” “Cowboy,” and “Gas Station Roses,” they’re probably his best tracks on a pure compositional level alone. But circling back to the main motifs, the real highlights come through in how much personality Walker gives his characters, where even the unlucky saps on “Three Strikes” and “Dumpster Diving” find a reprieve in Walker’s world. And you know, maybe there is something to that whole trilogy idea …

But if there’s two reasons to check out this album, it’s “Cowboy” and “Flash Paper,” both of which are basically their own views on modern masculinity and weaved together in ways that don’t feel preachy and easily make for some of Walker’s best-ever cuts. The former track is pretty much a vicious takedown on a cowboy playing dress-up who has his own limited scope of the world turned upside down by reality, and I like that Walker’s own role in it is never revealed – whether he’s the other party’s new significant other watching this guy try his luck at what won’t be, or whether he just watches it all unfold naturally from afar. It’s a great reminder that no matter what you look like, happiness is found from embracing who you are first and foremost. And it’s what makes “Flash Paper” so heartbreaking, Walker’s sendoff to his late father that finds them together in those final moments before the end, with Walker wishing for one last show of affection from a man who can’t afford to be that vulnerable … even then, where the goodbye will have to come in what’s left behind rather than what’s said and what will, ultimately, stick more, like it or not. I’ve seen some people criticize the buzzy electric guitar lingering in the low-end as distracting, but for me it was a good reminder of that distance between two people who can look at a situation so differently and yet say the same thing in their own ways. A gutting little song, and possibly Walker’s best ever.

Now, I do still have some slight criticisms. While I didn’t mind the production quibbles on “Sexy After Dark” and “Flash Paper,” the drums are oddly mixed on “Fossil Fuel” and mute the impact. And while this album is mostly consistently celebratory in its self-accepting atmosphere outside of “Flash Paper” and the heartbreaking “Gas Station Roses,” I do wish Walker had leaned on the narrative to give these characters more unique personality or flesh them out better and not make certain tracks like “Fossil Fuel,” “Welfare Chet” and “Three Strikes” get overshadowed by similar-sounding songs. And while the closing track is a cute reference to the trilogy idea, I’m not sure it’s much more than a fun gimmick, which can get distracting on an album that only barely clips the half hour mark. With that said, even if this album is meant more as a transitional effort into whatever’s next for Walker, this is the first album of his I’ve really loved, and it feels good to finally say that. See you next time, indeed.

Grade: 8/10

  • Favorite tracks: “Flash Paper,” “Cowboy,” “Dallas Lights,” “Dumpster Diving,” “Gas Station Roses,” “Sexy After Dark”
  • Least favorite track: “Fossil Fuel”

Buy or stream the album

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