Album Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘100 Proof Neon’

I don’t really know where to place expectations with a new Ronnie Dunn album anymore. You see, with Brooks & Dunn you were always prone to get very accessible, straight-down-the-middle neotraditional country – maybe not with as much depth as, say, Alan Jackson or Patty Loveless, but certainly with more hard-charged swagger in mind, thanks to Dunn’s broad tone. But with Dunn himself … well, it’s an odder conversation. His self-titled 2011 album was a pretty solid step toward something more mature and thoughtful, thanks to excellent singles like “Bleed Red” and “Cost of Livin’,” but his two albums after that were messy and uneven pivots toward a sound entirely out of his wheelhouse.

So, for his first solo project in six years … well, he made a Brooks & Dunn album, and it may just be his best since that self-titled effort. If anything, it’s just a more agreeable listen on tone and presentation alone, with plenty of textured electric axes weaved in with some pretty conventional chord and melodic progressions you’d expect from the former duo and the era in which they thrived itself. Personally, I would have preferred to hear a bit more fiddle to differentiate certain melodic progressions here that can run together quickly – although when it gets to play lead on “Somethin’ I Can’t Have” it’s great; it’s perhaps my favorite track here. And this is definitely an album coasting more on agreeable tone over any distinguishing texture, which is one reason I prefer the richer, more fleshed-out warmth of Triston Marez’s version of “Where the Neon Lies” from last year over the more polished take here.

If anything, it’s a comfort-food listen at its best and worst, where consistency is its biggest strength and also what keeps it from standing out a bit more. Granted, that’s a larger conversation meant for the writing, which mostly plays to familiar bar settings in drowning out heartache by either drinking or getting rowdy – again, not that far removed from Brooks & Dunn itself. I already described “Broken Neon Hearts” as a brighter and less interesting (but still very solid) “Neon Moon,” and while I hate to say that’s a pretty decent description for the rest of this project, the shoe does fit. That’s also to say that the album can feel a bit one-note overall, not helped by tones that can feel a bit too bright and upbeat to add greater weight to the sentiments here, or writing that could maybe use a bit more introspective detail overall. The Ashley Monroe cover of “The Blade” is about the closest this album gets to that, and like with “Where the Neon Lies,” I do have to say I’m content sticking with the original.

Still, outside of his falsetto that I could really do without on “If Love Ever Comes My Way Again” or the braggadocios “Honky Tonk Skin” that’s been done to death, there aren’t really any outright duds. And there are plenty of very solid tracks to be found: “She’s Why I Drink Whiskey” carries a really easygoing melody and hook to stand up with anything in Dunn’s catalog – solo or duo – and while I don’t think Parker McCollum was really necessary to have on “Road to Abilene,” the two sound surprisingly good together. And if you like that quintessential ’90s country sound … well, I’d say there are some better alternatives, but something that comes straight from the source is pretty solid, too.

(7/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Broken Neon Hearts,” “She’s Why I Drink Whiskey,” “Somethin’ I Can’t Have,” “Road to Abilene” (feat. Parker McCollum)
  • Least favorite tracks: “If Love Ever Comes My Way Again,” “Honky Tonk Skin”

Buy or stream the album.

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