We’re sticking to the mainstream for today’s review roundup. And given some of the names involved here, I’m surprised how well this turned out. Onward!
Kelsea Ballerini, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat
I expected this, just not quite so soon. Kelsea Ballerini’s Subject to Change was one of my favorite albums of 2022, mostly because it refined a lot of her melodic instincts on an album stuffed with hooks and was able to find a happy pop-country medium of its own; it was lightweight, for sure, but in a great way. But the main criticism levied against it was that it felt impersonal, given Ballerini’s recent divorce. “Doin’ My Best” was the only track that addressed, well, anything regarding her past few years. Here’s my main counterpoint to that: While it is always nice to hear an artistic pivot inspired by pain and heartbreak like, say, Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone, artists don’t owe us those deeper glimpses into their personal lives in order to make compelling art, and it’s gross when doing so becomes the expectation we set.
Even still, with a quick turnaround, we have Rolling Up the Welcome Mat, an EP that coincides with a short film that seeks to address her divorce head-on, albeit on her own terms. And despite what I said before, if there is one project that can really serve to highlight her underrated strength as a highly detailed writer, it is one like this. Actually, given how spare this album can feel across the board, the greater focus on restraint and intimacy aims the main pull directly on the writing itself. I’m of two minds on that. On one hand, if the writing was the one element that felt impersonal on her last project, the overall sound and production is the element that operates similarly here. Outside of the sharply synthetic and overmixed percussion of “Blindsided” and an intentionally messy interlude, there are rarely any outright flubs, but it plays to the same murky, atmospheric, willow folk-pop mix one might expect from, say, Ingrid Andress, just without the lusher color or texture to offer a better foundation, outside of some nice dobro and piano flourishes here and there.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I can really fault the album for choosing to emphasize the writing, because it just may be some of the best of her career. Now, she’s never been a vengeful hell-raiser on record, and I think, if anything, it frames a lot of the wearied empathy on display here. She’s still very much blunt about things being over, but considering the main culprit here is emotional detachment from time spent apart as artists constantly on the road and them falling in love too young, she doesn’t try to absolve herself of any culpability for the way things ended. And for those who have wanted to discount her previous work as being flighty and immature, this is the next step forward that’s painted with superb detail and nuance, particularly in the hooks themselves; “Just Married” is stellar in that regard, and, productions issues aside, so is “Blindsided.” But it’s also a project focused around Ballerini’s own continued growth, ending on a note of forgiveness for herself and ex-husband Morgan Evans on “Leave Me Again” while also being very blunt in stating that he needs to take certain steps toward moving on as well. Even still, it’s surprisingly evenhanded throughout and melodically sound across the board. And if this is more just a way for her to quickly address personal criticisms more than a full-blown spectacle in its own right, it’s a damn potent one, all the same.
- Favorite tracks: “Mountain With a View,” “Just Married,” “Penthouse,” “Leave Me Again”
- Least favorite track: “Blindsided”
Stream the album or watch the film.
ERNEST, FLOWER SHOPS (THE ALBUM): Two Dozen Roses
You can’t fool me with a Shenandoah reference that easily.
In all seriousness, I reviewed ERNEST’s Flower Shops album last year and found an inconsistent but mostly likable album that walked the line between a very organic old-school country sound and a more generic modern Nashville-based bedrock. It was very chameleon-like, if anything, which came as no surprise, given ERNEST’s main background as a behind-the-scenes writer for other artists.
Now, I normally skip over these deluxe re-releases of albums. In the modern age, they just feel like cheap ways to extend (or try and generate) hype for album eras, when all they really do is flood an already oversaturated market. But with this addition featuring 13 new songs and overshadowing the main album itself in length, along with some surprisingly positive buzz thrown its way, I’m making an exception, even if my main verdict doesn’t shy away from what I thought about the initial album itself: It’s pleasant and generally warm and well-produced across the board in playing even further toward the old-school, ‘70s-esque blend of countrypolitan and old-school honky-tonk timbres (and it probably also carries the most pedal steel I’ve heard on a mainstream country project in quite some time), even if it’s also missing something further in the sound and writing itself to better anchor ERNEST as a more distinctive performer. If anything, while you’ll still get lazy homages to outlaw-era tropes he really can’t sell on tracks like the weed-driven “Anything But Sober” and the poor man’s version of Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her” with “Drunk With My Friends” (even if that ragtime trumpet adds a nice touch), this album overall plays to much breezier textures across the board and is better for it. And it comes out swinging with the big saloon-piano buildup of “This Fire,” establishing the drunken, sad-sack screwup archetype this album mostly plays around, but in a way that can lean in effectively and playfully, too.
And that’s probably for the best, as, much like the original first half of this album, the tracks here that try to play to more self-reflective roles often feel lacking in greater danger or depth, not helped by how he often eschews those harder questions in favor of deflecting toward ex-lovers anyway. “Hill” is just a hamfisted attempt at reworking the “hill I can die on” metaphor, and even “Nothin’ to Lose” feels surprisingly lightweight and undercooked as an attempt at inward reflection. I think it’s why there’s still that chameleon-like aspect to this project, because while the crisp, George Strait-like melodic flow of “Wild, Wild West” and the darker, bouncier groove of “Burn Out” are enough to hook me in on a surface level, ERNEST isn’t really a captivating enough performer in his own right to lend greater weight to this project. His voice is rough when he leans into his upper register, and not in a good way. And he gets outshone by both of his duet partners here, first against Dean Dillon’s more weighted and mature timbre on the incredible “What Have I Got to Lose,” and then against Jake Worthington’s more natural rollick and charisma displayed on “Heartache in My 100 Proof.” Still, all in all it is mostly likable on tone alone, and I would say between “This Fire” and the tempered heartache evident in “Songs We Used to Sing” and especially “What Have I Got to Lose,” there are genuine highlights this time around worth the attention. It’s just missing that more distinctive edge to put it over the top for me.
- Favorite tracks: “This Fire,” “Wild, Wild West,” “Burn Out,” “Songs We Used to Sing,” “What Have I Got to Lose” (feat. Dean Dillon), “Heartache in My 100 Proof” (feat. Jake Worthington)
- Least favorite track: “Anything But Sober”
Chase Rice, I Hate Cowboys & All Dogs Go To Hell
This is one of those albums I was prepared to skip over entirely. And I may have to apologize to ERNEST for noting his own workman-like, chameleon-esque approach to songwriting, because at least he’s putting his artistic instincts to mostly good use. Chase Rice operates similarly, a once behind-the-scenes writer who rode the bro-country wave to very minimal success with his own solo career, and now usually alternates between promising better material he can’t actually deliver, and pandering to the lowest common denominator with whatever trend of the day will pay the bills. Yes, he is capable of penning something legitimately great – “Jack Daniels and Jesus” remains a genuine highlight – but with all of the better alternatives these days, I don’t have much patience for his yin-and-yang approach.
So even despite Rice calling his newest album the one he always wanted to make and self-labeling it as a much deeper and more insightful affair overall – in part inspired by his late father and by becoming a father himself – it took some surprisingly positive buzz from unexpected circles for me to see if this was worth a passing glance. And, honestly? It’s better than it has any right to be. And I fully don’t expect Rice to turn over a new leaf with this for long, but there’s enough good material to justify discussing this album at all, and that’s an unexpected positive.
Much like with ERNEST, however, I’m not sure if the recent wave of independent singer-songwriter talents by way of Zach Bryan is influencing other writers or what, but the greater focus on deeper songwriting and a grittier presentation style is a notable factor here, even if Rice tends to fall back on familiar tropes of his own and of the era he’s trying to evoke. For one, while this is certainly rougher and more ragged than any of his previous work from a tonal perspective, there’s something about the guitars that just sound washed-out and lacking in greater heft or groove, outside of the extended country-rock slow-burn of “Oklahoma” that is genuinely excellent.
It’s rarely bad, mind you – although between the clunky flow, horrid vocal production, and checklist small-town living clichés, “Way Down Yonder” is the real clunker here – but it is lacking greater distinctive texture and presence throughout. That’s not to say there aren’t still moments I didn’t enjoy, from the folk-like rollick anchoring a fairly solid hook on opener “Walk That Easy,” the genuine swing carrying the legitimately great bar band sing-a-long of “Goodnight Nancy,” the gentle atmosphere nestling the soul-searching “Key West & Colorado,” or the fast-picked acoustics anchoring a surprising amount of darkness in “I Walk Alone” that’s actually really potent. But you’ll also get tracks that feel clunky and hollow, like the tonal mismatch of the oddly lethargic “Bad Day to Be a Cold Beer,” or that oddly buzzy, unflattering guitar tone anchoring “If I Were Rock & Roll.” It’s an album that tries to find the difference between urgent and settled but can end up feeling stiff as it stumbles along the way.
Even still, it’s an effort that has a surprising amount of genuine heart to it that I don’t want to begrudge, and that, thankfully, extends to the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong – overall, this is still mostly checklist-driven material, even at its most thoughtful. But while I won’t say Rice has ever been a technically good singer, he can be heartfelt, and that’s enough to carry tracks like “Life Part of Livin’,” or the two tongue-in-cheek title tracks well enough. With that said, there’s no way he’s reworking Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” in his favor on “Sorry Momma,” and he doesn’t have the charisma needed to carry bad bro-country leftovers like “Way Down Yonder” or “Bad Day to Be a Cold Beer.” Even “Bench Seat,” the current favorite cut with a notable music video that addresses suicide, admittedly doesn’t operate as a standalone song quite as effectively without the context surrounding it. But Rice’s dogged, heartfelt commitment to what he’s selling is probably what lends this album genuine heart and urgency. If anything, the tracks where he touches on being the frustrated industry songwriter, albeit very loosely through the musical journey and salvation of “Oklahoma” or the conflicted, damn-near Lucero-esque “I Walk Alone,” are probably what I find most compelling. Even still, between “Bench Seat,” “Oklahoma,” “I Walk Alone,” and “Goodnight Nancy,” regardless of whether this is a one-off detour or a genuine change of heart, there’s still more here to appreciate with this album than I expected. Not bad, and better late than never.
- Favorite tracks: “Walk That Easy,” “Key West & Colorado,” “Bench Seat,” “Oklahoma” (feat. Read Southall Band), “I Walk Alone,” “Goodnight Nancy” (feat. Boy Named Banjo)
- Least favorite track: “Way Down Yonder”
2 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Kelsea Ballerini, ERNEST, and Chase Rice”
Haven’t got around to the Ballerini or Ernest albums yet. The Rice album seems to suffer from wannabe Yellowstonecore meets Eric church but doesn’t understand what makes those click. It’s a great step forward, but to me doesn’t deliver on the promise of the record. Still a good sign for the mainstream at least
Yeah, this is actually a great way to describe the sound. There’s a good foundation, but it’s just missing that extra spark.