Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Dierks Bentley, Lucero, and Channing Wilson

This is the first of two album review roundups I plan to publish this week. Volume one features reveiws for new albums from Dierks Bentley, Lucero, and Channing Wilson. Volume two will feature reviews for new albums from Iris DeMent, Muscadine Bloodline, and The Shootouts. Onward!

Dierks Bentley Gravel & Gold cover

Dierks Bentley, Gravel & Gold

Being a Dierks Bentley fan means accepting his pragmatism. He’s an artist I grew up with and always admired for his hangdog charm as a vocalist and his simple accessibility as a songwriter – the sort of artist content with writing great familiar, tried-and-true country songs who could also swing for the fences with something more grandiose when he wanted, especially compared to his contemporaries. Albums like Up On the Ridge, Riser, and The Mountain stick out for that very reason, as does his underrated side project through his Hot Country Knights outfit. And if it means he has to put out a commercially driven project now and then that’s not all that great … well, so be it. It’s one reason why despite me not caring for “Gone” or “Beers On Me,” I was willing to accept a bit of push and pull for whatever would follow.

Only, Bentley scrapped that inevitable commercial project – two of them, apparently – and let those aforementioned songs just be singles as he figured out something more true to what he wanted, away from Nashville’s reach in his new settled home of Colorado. Given, too, that “Gold” grew on me a lot and that Bentley himself was stepping into the producer’s chair for the first time in his career, I was optimistic. And while I won’t say Gravel & Gold is quite the ambitious leap forward I was hoping for in ranking among those aforementioned projects, this is a very solid pivot back to what Bentley does best as a performer overall.

And hey, 20 years into his career, I’m glad to hear him pivot back to the more acoustic-driven, neotraditional and bluegrass-inspired tones that marked his 2000s albums, as there’s plenty of great plucky texture in the mandolin and fiddle to be found here across the board. Though like with the writing, I’m never going to say it’s outright exceptional – it’s just heartfelt and breezy enough to excel off of really great tone and texture to complement the hooks, melodies, and grooves well. Even still, without the compromises of his last few projects, it’s good to hear mountain-inspired music that actually has the space to breathe, from the chipper gentleness of “Sun Sets to Colorado” to the quiet, reflective “Still,” all the way to the smooth rollick anchoring tracks like “Old Pickup” and “All the Right Places.”

I won’t say it clicks all the way: “Same Ol’ Me” is just brash and clunky in its groove and can’t anchor its southern-rock heft effectively, or in the checklist self-character portrait of he writing, for that matter. But it’s still got nothing on the album’s true dud in “Beer At My Funeral,” which suffers from pretty much the exact same issues but suffers worse for its bad attempts at humor and levity. And that’s a good segue into the writing, because if there’s a strength this album has, it’s the weight of maturity and a sense of contentment, where Bentley knows he can now play to an older perspective in his more grounded sound this far into his career. And for as much as I’d like to hear songs like “Sun Sets in Colorado” or “Still” as shots aimed at modern Nashville as he settles in his new home, they’re really just about him finding peace and perspective and nothing more. Or, to quote another track here, finding “Something Real,” even if that track is a little too thuddingly obvious to land all that effectively amongst the broader clichés.

I think, if anything, it’s why despite finally getting back to a consistently agreeable sound, I’d still like to hear him push farther with the writing – lean more on the gentle, personal self-reflections of “Still” or “Roll On” rather than some of the broader sketches we get otherwise. Because while I like the extended metaphor for heartbreak we get in “Cowboy Boots” alongside Ashley McBryde and the sense of togetherness anchoring “Walking Each Other Home,” there are times when the metaphors and verses can feel a bit too disconnected or forced to punch at their fullest capacity. Still good, don’t get me wrong. If anything, this might be Bentley’s best solo album in nearly a decade, and between a great back half featuring great cuts like “Roll On,” “All the Right Places,” “Old Pickup,” and an extended bluegrass-inspired jam featuring Billy Strings in “High Note,” there’s a lot of warm, natural rollick to like on this project. And if this is just the potential first step of Bentley doing whatever he wants next in his career, I’m happy to hear it.

  • Favorite tracks: “Sun Sets In Colorado,” “Still,” “Cowboy Boots” (feat. Ashley McBryde), “Walking Each Other Home,” “Roll On,” “All the Right Places,” “Old Pickup,” “High Note” (feat. Billy Strings)
  • Least favorite track: “Beer At My Funeral”

Buy or stream the album.

Lucero - Should've Learned By Now

Lucero, Should’ ve Learned By Now

After a very personal, dark, heavy listen in 2018’s Among the Ghosts and a weird ‘80s-inspired synth-driven rock pivot through 2021’s When You Found Me that didn’t land as effectively with longtime fans (even though it really did with me), I’m not surprised to hear long-running alternative-country act Lucero return to something much lighter and accessible with newest album Should’ve Learned By Now. Which, for them, speaking as a fan, still makes for a crass-as-hell, swaggering descent into fuck-up territory – in the best possible way, of course, even if I do miss the bigger dramatic moments of those past few projects.

Yeah, minus the horns, this is the band playing into their most wily and rambunctious tendencies since probably Women & Work – letting loose the darkness and having a bit of self-aware fun with themselves this time around. And that last part is important, because this is still a band over 20 years into their careers still having to balance out those wildfires with the weight of maturity that anchored their past few projects. It’s why I love the setup of opener “One Last F.U.,” where lead singer Ben Nichols’ character just came to the bar to console a friend rather than burn the joint down, only to be bothered and end up having to tell the nuiscance to go screw himself while he leaves to drink alone. It’s tempered material overall, but there’s still those fleeting moments of youthful ambition hanging by a wire, reflected in some of the lyrical content but mostly in the album’s commitment to guitar-blazing, groove-driven southern-rock with a lot of urgency to support it.

In that sense, it’s probably the band’s most consistently melodic and hook-driven project to date, and that lends itself well to the glistening sheen riding off the keys and galloping groove of “Macon If We Make It”; and ditto the galloping groove part for “Nothing’s Alright.” But there are times where the indulgence in brighter sheen can feel a bit out of place, like the A.M. rock-ready “At the Show” that feels a bit twee overall, or the oddly buzzy, lethargic “Rains For Weeks” that never kicks its heartache into high gear and feels oddly lacking throughout. Even then, for as much as the band as touted this as a brighter effort, that’s less reflected in its rowdier tendencies as it is in a sense of contentment and inner peace. It’s one reason why the tempered thankfulness in the love song of “She Leads Me” lands effectively, because it has the weathered detail in the writing to feel earned.

If anything, it reminds me of American Aquarium’s Chicamacomico from last year, where the darker stakes are still there but feel more manageable. Really, the few stabs at outright darker personal danger by way of the title track (even if I do love its percussive stomp) or “Nothing’s Alright” feel more conventional and broadly sketched than anything else in playing to the intended upbeat spirit. It’s when you get to a track like “Buy a Little Time” where it feels more grounded, because one more mistake means losing everything gained thus far in a battle for personal progress, where the greater urgency still fits the intended groove and momentum this album aims for.

There’s still consequences to own up to, which is despite playing to overall more rambunctious tendencies, I did say it was a self-aware effort. Hell, it’s one reason why I love how the album ends, first with the clear -eyed “Drunken Moon” anchored in that huge piano hook where hope is found in earnest, and then through the jumpy, jangly “Time to Go Home,” where aside from that lead riff balanced against the accordion and its self-deprecating attitude, I love for how it treats its hangover as more philosophical – a plea to carry him home metaphorically more than literally in a plea for stability. Truthfully, I’m not sure if it’s got the overall killer standouts I typically expect from them by way of “Coffin Nails” or “Bottom of the Sea,” and I did, again, miss some of the more overtly darker moments that characterized their last few projects. But this is an album where pivoting back to familiar tendencies doesn’t mean sacrificing what’s been gained along the way, and I can respect that.

  • Favorite tracks: “One Last F.U.,” “Macon If We Make It,” “She Leads Me,” “Buy a Little Time,” “Drunken Moon,” “Time to Go Home”
  • Least favorite track: “Rains For Weeks”

Buy or stream the album.

Channing Wilson Dead Man

Channing Wilson, Dead Man

Well, this is certainly an interesting case. Channing Wilson is a name who you might only recognize from liner notes thus far, a Georgia-based songwriter who’s written for various acts over the years, such as Luke Combs, Jason Eady, and Sunny Sweeney, among others. And in going back through his credits, I found it interesting how he only ever seemed to score one cut per album, because between “She Got the Best of Me,” “Black Jesus,” and “How’d I End Up Lonely Again,” he’s ended up crafting most of my favorite songs from those aforementioned artists. He plays to a very familiar old-school functionality, but the hardbitten eye for detail and heartache does resonate through. If anything, I can see why fans clamored for him to release a solo album of his own, which he finally has – and with none other than Dave Cobb behind the producer’s chair, too.

This is a tough project to discuss at length, however, because while it operates on a tried-and-true formula throughout and is generally solid, finding the truly distinctive edge here anywhere proved to be the biggest challenge for me. Again, it does a lot right. The grooves have strong melody and the pedal steel and more rounded, swampy acoustics and electric axes blend together to create a richly ‘70s-inspired outlaw-era sound. And when the album touches more on its rougher edges of groove-heavy, blues-inspired southern-rock by way of “Blues Comin’ On” or the title track, there are some damn potent compositions to be found here. But I’d be lying if I said they defined the entire album, which mostly plays to midtempo restraint in its slow-burning country texture, where the cadences are measured and it’s rare that the songs have as much punch as they could. Part of it is how similar instrumental tones can tend to run together fast here and stifle some of the crisper elements, though part of it is also the production. Of course Cobb’s trademark aged, organic tones and near-lo-fi sounds are typically easy to appreciate and have anchored plenty of fantastic projects, but if there was an album that could have used more unique crunch or crispness in playing this particular sound, it was this album.

Of course, it’s not like I can say it doesn’t suit Wilson’s rougher, Jamey Johnson-esque drawl effectively throughout, nor can I say it doesn’t suit the lyrical content well, either. It’s archetypal in playing to many outlaw-era tropes of living hard and resorting to some very dangerous vices as coping mechanisms. And Wilson isn’t afraid to go as dark as possible in framing the very real concept of death as a natural consequence, either. But I don’t know, I’m left wishing all of that blunt darkness was balanced out with more interesting storytelling over broadly sketched, familiar tropes and scenes. There’s a lot of danger here, but it rarely feels grounded in anything more distinctive or gripping. “Beer For Breakfast,” “Blues Comin’ On,” “Sunday Morning Blues,” “Gettin’ Outta My Mind” … all fine songs, no doubt, but with those titles, you can guess where they tilt easily, and there’s not much distinctive edge to pull me in further. If anything, the intimate, confessional, introspective title track closer probably makes for my favorite moment, because it’s grounded in something more personal as he communicates his struggles and anxieties to contribute a part of himself to the world. It’s a solid project that I can see clicking further with those who are natural suckers for the sound and era it’s trying to evoke. But even as a fan of that era, I was just left hoping for a bit more here.

  • Favorite tracks: “Drink That Strong,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Trying to Write a Song”
  • Least favorite track: “Gettin’ Outta My Mind”

Buy or stream the album.

4 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Dierks Bentley, Lucero, and Channing Wilson

  1. I generally like Dierks Bentley – I never owned any of his albums, but I liked most of the singles he put out, especially early on in his career. I was surprised that his last album was a full five years ago. This new album is solid; I’ll likely listen to it once in a while, but it won’t be on regular rotation for me. Similar to his collaboration with Brandi Carlile on “Travelin’ Light” from The Mountain, my favourite song here is “High Note” with Billy Strings.

    I’ve never listened to Lucero before, so this album is my introduction to them. I’ve only listened once, but I enjoyed it and I’ll revisit it again.

    One of Channing Wilson’s songs came on randomly on Spotify for me a few weeks ago (I think it was “Gettin’ Out of My Mind”) and I enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to this one. Once I started listening, I wasn’t that impressed as the first handful of songs were just too heavy and somewhat cliched for me. However, the best songs, to me, are in the back half of the album and I enjoyed the slightly more contemplative writing and subdued production in the second half. So, overall, a solid album that shows some good promise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good way to summarize Dierks Bentley, I think. He’s never been outright exceptional, but he’s been consistently solid and that’s worked in his favor. I admit that I have a softer spot for music given that I grew up in the same era he was coming up through.

      Lucero can be a very acquired taste, so glad you enjoyed this! If I had to offer further recommendations, I’d say Tennessee and That Much Further West.


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