It’s not even quite yet February, but this roundup post will bring me to 10 total albums reviewed thus far this year. That’s five times as many reviews as I had under my belt last year at this time. So much for trying to cover less, I suppose. Onward!
JD Clayton, Long Way From Home
I’ve said this before, but one reason I love the early months of the year is because they provide the only time period where the new music onslaught is manageable and I actually have the time to make new discoveries of my own. So up first, we have an Arkansas-born performer who’s released a couple of scattered EPs into the wild over the years, with Long Way From Home being his debut proper. And, given that JD Clayton’s vocal timbre sits somewhere between Gabe Lee and Brent Cobb in his nasal but very expressive, charismatic delivery and rapscallion charm, this was an unexpectedly nice surprise! Even sonically, though, I’m tempted to further those comparisons, because this sits squarely in that ‘70s-inspired country and southern-rock mold, with a big soulful bent in a lot of the crescendos and rollicking grooves that can lend this album a lot of anthemic heart. Sure, it plays a bit too close to the influences at points to stand out on its own – not just the aforementioned ones but even the blatant Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyrd Skynyrd worship in some of the melodies and progressions, even if that cover of “Midnight Special” is extremely good – but I just love how warm and textured this album is across the board.
If anything, one of my only complaints is that it takes a little while to really get going, and I’d attribute this to two factors. For one, Clayton’s delivery can feel a bit oversold at times on more tender love songs like “Beauty Queen” and “Goldmine,” but I would also say that the writing is probably the weakest element of this album. Never bad, mind you – if anything, its biggest crime is that it plays to familiar tropes of the sound and time period without the deeper or more distinctive detail to push further. So you get stock imagery of working man’s blues on “American Millionaire,” or, again, a tasteful but fairly cheesy sentiment in “Beauty Queen.” But starting with the title track, this album really kicks into gear, offering more pensive, reflective material, and often with the right bite in the solos to absolutely nail that anthemic swell, whether it’s blowing off steam on “Heartaches From Heartbreak” with its well-timed solos, or in the livelier blend of guitar rollick playing off the organ on “Cotton Candy Clouds.”
But again, I really like Clayton even more for his hangdog charm, which can convey a lot of roughness in some of the beaten-down moments, like the calming, campfire-esque “Sleepy Night in Nashville” or the familiar tale of the struggling musician on the title track, while also knowing how to cut through to lend power to actually getting through the struggle. It’s one reason that “Different Kind of Simple Life” is the easy highlight across the board for me, a more atmospheric, hazy track coasting off the warmer bass and liquid keys and pedal steel and restraint overall in its empathetic view for the struggles of everyday, common people, until it’s allowed to soar through that incredibly soulful chorus and subsequent hook. So yeah, as a first step, this is great – absolutely recommended.
- Favorite tracks: “Different Kind of Simple Life,” “Sleepy Night in Nashville,” “Midnight Special,” “Heartaches From Heartbreak,” “Cotton Candy Clouds,” “Long Way From Home”
- Least favorite track: “Beauty Queen”
Tyler Hubbard, Tyler Hubbard
And from one debut album, we turn to another … I mean, if you can call it that. I always said that reports of Florida Georgia Line’s death would be greatly exaggerated, so long as Tyler Hubbard pursued a solo career. Now, in terms of their influence, that’s another question, because as now just another dude in Nashville, I have no idea how long Hubbard or his career will coast on legacy alone. But in offering the benefit of the doubt, I went into this album with a sort of morbid curiosity – a hope that Hubbard might bring more to the table, given that he says he’s capable of more than just what he offered with the duo, and … yeah, nope. This is basically the next Florida Georgia Line record, a boring mix of stale, checklist bro-country and boyfriend country tropes that Hubbard and his contemporaries have milked to death over the past decade.
Now, it being that said mix isn’t the issue alone. I’ve personally yet to find a halfway decent boyfriend country song, but the thing with trends isn’t the trends themselves, but rather the oversaturation and lack of originality that comes with trying to constantly emulate their origin points. I mean, yeah, Hubbard may have first dibs on bro-country, but the overall problem is that this album offers nothing one hasn’t heard before, especially within the past decade. On the positive side, when the production aims for the sweeter blend of organic warmth found in a lot of the pedal steel and banjo, it can strike a happy pop-country medium. I may still not care for “5 Foot 9,” but there’s an earnestness there that’s hard to hate, and when the album leans on its mindless hooks, like on “Dancin’ in the Country,” it can be halfway decent. The problem is that, outside of a few tracks like those, it doesn’t, instead opting for the same overly polished guitar tones and percussion that doesn’t have a lot of charm or groove to be all that memorable – not to mention the mostly polished vocal mixing – and that’s before further mentioning the clunkers that lean on trap-inspired percussion and feel like bland leftovers from the aforementioned eras, like “Out This Way.”
But the other problem is that this album just isn’t nearly interesting enough to sustain its length, both sonically or lyrically, given that the bulk of these tracks amount to either the same checklist, small town living-inspired tracks that made up the bulk of Florida Georgia Line’s discography, or, again, the family man-inspired tracks that boil down to “I’m so glad God made this woman just for me.” In essence, the same arc Thomas Rhett drew nearly eight years ago with “Die a Happy Man.”
To be fair, it’s lived-in and genuinely sweet, even if Hubbard isn’t exactly a naturally charming vocal presence, but without the differentiating details from track to track, this album blends together almost immediately. There are a few decent moments in the back half that try to change things up: I like that “35’s” boasts a bit more driving momentum and gallop overall to speak to the urgency of needing to live life more; I didn’t mind the smoked-out groove driving the heartbreak of “Leave Me Alone”; and I did appreciate the slight Celtic flair in the melody of “Way Home.” But by then, it’s way too late. I don’t know, I think past fans are going to find this too boring to sit through, and as for everyone else who already moved on, that’s probably the better route to go. It’s not as bad as I had expected, but it’s not good or interesting enough to be worth more than a passing glance.
- Favorite tracks: “Dancin’ in the Country,” “35’s,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Way Home”
- Least favorite track: “Out This Way”
Elle King, Come Get Your Wife
You know, I guess this could also be considered a debut album, at least in theory. Most people know Elle King for her 2015 hit “Ex’s and Oh’s” and subsequent messy relationship with the spotlight that resulted in a darker, more complicated follow-up with 2018’s Shake the Spirit. And while that song was, by industry definition, a pop hit, the actual melting pot of her influences always ran deeper, a mix of blues, soul, rock, and even alt-country that probably broke through at just the right time. It’s why even despite this fitting a familiar tale of a rocker going country that usually carries embarrassing results with it in using a genre to sustain momentum, I didn’t get that cynical mindset with King. Though I still wasn’t sure where to place expectations: “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home)” was a pretty great start, and the unexpected cover of Tyler Childers’ “Jersey Giant” proved she understood the real points of attention right now within the genre (on a separate note, that song isn’t included on physical versions of the album but is on streaming platforms, so it counts toward my overall thoughts on the album and “rating”), but “Worth a Shot” just seemed like an average cut meant to placate radio.
But overall, that messy combination of singles is somewhat indicative of the album’s overall style, for better and worse. It mostly plays to the same smoked-out, ragged sonic palette you’d expect from similar contemporaries like, say, Ashley McBryde and Miranda Lambert, and that’s a naturally great for King as a vocalist, especially given that she’s the main draw with her material anyway. As a performer, I’ve always liked her, not just for her distinctive rasp, but also for how she’s managed to steadily imbue more emotional subtlety into her deliveries to make her work feel lived-in and resonant almost on that alone. And that helps, given that this album plays into some very familiar songwriting tropes and checklist deliveries that I wouldn’t be all that gripped by on paper alone. She still paints in slightly broad strokes, but with more variety present in a lot of tempered mixes across the board, she mostly sticks the landing. “Ohio,” ironically enough, tends to meander for a track about coming home – literally and metaphorically, I suppose – but the expressive smolder cuts through regardless, and against the liquid rollick, “Lucky” actually feels like it’s been a hell of a journey to find normalcy in turning toward something new.
But I also think it’s the front half that resembles this album’s awkward attempts at trying to find more stable footing in centering King as a more distinctive presence in country music, mostly due to more conventional cuts in “Before You Met Me” and “Worth a Shot” that try to play to swaggering sentiments but are too polished to really connect further. And while I did like the gospel swell added to the hook of “Try Jesus,” it feels like they were really stretching with a humorous idea for a hook on that one. If anything, once the actual snarled frenzy gets to kick in on the southern-rock barn-burner that is “Tulsa,” this album paints a much more interesting picture.
And the thing is, the ragged weariness of playing against a frustrated relationship on the bluegrass-inspired “Crawlin’ Mood” just fits her better as an overall vocal presence, too, as does the plainspoken but still pretty humorous, old-school country melodic flow of “Bonafide.” Heck, even the more contemporary moments akin to the hazy snarl of “Blacked Out” and the stomping “Out Yonder” just have more flair and bite to them as a whole. And while the album does end with a slightly clunky soulful cut in “Love Go By” that takes a while to find a decent flow, having “Jersey Giant” as a technical near-final moment makes up for it. All in all, then, I’d definitely say King has a seat at the country music table, maybe to the point of blending in a bit too well at points. But if her artistic tendencies continue in the more interesting direction of this album’s back half, she could really reinvent herself as a force to be reckoned with, and as it stands, this is still a good listen.
- Favorite tracks: “Crawlin’ Mood,” “Bonafide,” “Jersey Giant,” “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home),” “Tulsa,” “Blacked Out”
- Least favorite track: “Worth a Shot” (feat. Dierks Bentley)
5 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: JD Clayton, Tyler Hubbard, and Elle King”
Ok Zack I’ll admit skimming the through to get to Elle King. I haven’t heard anything from her I didn’t like. I’m going to give that album a listen.
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Ha, totally understandable! Hope you enjoy it!
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I’d never heard of JD Clayton before, but his is the first album of the year that I really liked on first listen (some of the other new albums from this year are growing on me though). I really like his voice and the production. At first I enjoyed the faster-paced songs such as American Millionaire the most, but, on subsequent listens, I tend to prefer the more reflective songs such as Sleepy Night in Nashville.
I had similar thoughts as you did on Elle King’s album (namely, that I preferred the second half of the album much more than the first). Overall, it’s pretty good, but this will likely be an album where I’ll listen to a handful of songs now and then rather than the whole album.
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Glad you liked the JD Clayton album! Really hope more people hear that one, because it really was an excellent surprise of the year thus far.
I agree! Hopefully he gets some good exposure.