You know, it says a lot that I actually cared about America’s Got Talent this year, if only to watch either Drake Milligan or Chapel Hart win and, if not (which they didn’t), nevertheless represent country music (though if I had to pick, I would have to give my vote to the latter act). That’s not to say it was the event to discuss in 2022 – singing competition shows only rarely produce artists with actual longevity or stay in the public consciousness for long, and that’s with me being polite and referring to the American Idol days – but it was certainly better support than Chapel Hart will ever get from the outdated country music industry … and, it was just plain fun to watch; they deserve better.
Milligan is a bit of a different story, an artist signed to Broken Bow Records who’s almost taken a roundabout way to stardom and, prior to 2021, was probably known more for his acting ability than his singing one. But with a debut album that came just in time for last week’s finale of the aforementioned show, regardless of where everything goes from here, he deserves better as well, because Dallas/Fort Worth is just simply a highly enjoyable listen.
Granted, there are two caveats with that statement, in that this project absorbs everything from a five-song EP of his released last year. Whether that’s a bad thing or not is up to you, given that most of the material was solid enough for a second life over here and that this is mostly an extension of a previously established sound that makes sense to include anyway. But part of my other caveat is that, in truth, this is a meat-and-potatoes neotraditional country project that’s rarely going to surprise you in any way, right down to the era and influences invoked.
And while that has kept me at a distance from loving similar projects in this vein released this year a little more, there’s just something magnetic about this album that hits my pure joy receptors as a country music fan, never once revolutionary but never needing to be, either. And it all comes down to what I said before: Milligan is a fantastic singer with a mature warmth and timbre to his delivery that exceeds his years, the production has both the muscle and charm to fit within a familiar template but make it work to its advantage, and the melodies and hooks are damn solid across the board to help this go down easy – which is probably the one element I find to be lacking in similar projects and could very well just be the key that unlocks this album for me. It’s why “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” charges forth with a playboy swagger all its own, and why the bouncy sway and rollick anchoring tracks like “Tipping Point” and “Kiss Goodbye All Night” won’t leave my head.
Granted, there is still something a bit anonymous about this project. It’s enjoyable enough to satisfy, for sure, and Milligan is enough of a diverse interpreter to balance the moments reliant on swagger and slightly deeper introspection well, but I would love to see him push a bit further with the writing and compositions to make them more unique instead of just really well-performed. And to his credit, I do think the new material shows a slight commitment to at least starting on that path. I love the dusty, ‘70s-tinged liquid polish anchoring “Hearts Don’t Break Even” that he pushes to even greater effect off the darker groove of closer “Cowboy Kind of Way,” and there’s even a western-swing collaboration with Vince Gill that’s as fun as you’d expect it to be in “Goin’ Down Swinging,” as well as a James Burton collaboration that turns into an extended rockabilly jam via “Long Haul” – because of course it does!
But I will say the writing is only rarely interesting, never bad and serviceable enough to work as is, though there are moments like “She,” “Hating Everything She Tries On,” and “Bad Day to Be a Beer” that can feel a bit oversold and, in the latter case, just goofy. And when it mostly otherwise trades between drinking songs, love songs, and heartbreak songs, again, I just can’t shake that feeling of anonymity with this record. With that said, there’s really not a bad track here, and there are definite highlights within “Sounds Like Something I’d Do,” “Over Drinkin’, Under Thinkin,” “Hearts Don’t Break Even,” and “Long Haul,” among many others. So yeah, maybe it’s not the most revolutionary introduction, but it’s one hell of a fun time – and that’s good enough for me.
- Favorite tracks: “Sounds Like Something I’d Do,” “Kiss Goodbye All Night,” “Hearts Don’t Break Even,” “Over Drinkin’, Under Thinkin’,” “Tipping Point,” “Goin’ Down Swinging” (feat. Vince Gill), “Long Haul” (feat. James Burton), “Cowboy Kind of Way”
- Least favorite track: “Hating Everything She Tries On”