Thursday, January 21, 2016

Album of the Day: Randy Rogers Band - Nothing Shines Like Neon

In the week where we lost Glenn Frey, the Eagles guitarist who played on and co-wrote "Take it Easy" (among several other hits), it seems appropriate to focus a blog on an album that draws a huge amount of inspiration from the Eagles' music. The album in question, Nothing Shines Like Neon, is the latest record from Texas country outfit Randy Rogers Band. Like Front Row Seat by the Josh Abbott Band, Randy Rogers is an artist that I've only recently become familiar with, and this is the first full album of his that I've heard (aside from Hold My Beer his 2015 collaboration with Wade Bowen). In other words, I can't comment on the influences that run through the entire Randy Rogers Band discography, but I can say that Neon is so drenched in the sound and atmosphere of 1970s Mellow Mafia folk-rock that it's legitimately baffling this album is only a week old. I mean hell, even the production on this thing sounds classic, giving the songs a dusty, organic feel that is a far cry from the airbrushed gloss and brickwall compression that you hear on most mainstream-leaning country albums these days.

Looking at the cover and reading the title for this album, I thought for sure it was going to be a sell-out record. Sure, I didn't know a thing about the Randy Rogers Band's past, but the word "neon" in music tends to align with synthesizers and poppy choruses--whether you're talking the neon lights of that first Killers albums or the better-left-forgotten era of "neon pop punk." Add the album cover, which, like so many other recent country records, evokes Friday night at the bar, and I was bracing myself for something I probably wouldn't enjoy when I pressed play.

Needless to say, I was surprised at what these 11 songs actually contained. It turns out that the bar actually is the main setting for most of the songwriting here. However, instead of romanticizing a night of drinking like so many members of the "bro-country" persuasion do, Rogers finds the humanity in the gin joints and honky tonks of his native Texas. Indeed, rather than being loud and celebratory, most of Nothing Shines Like Neon is reserved and achingly sad.

That's not to say this record is one filled with oppressive heartbreak or tragedy, but there's a certain melancholy in how it depicts normal people and their reasons for heading out to the bar on a Friday night. In "Neon Blues," the focal point of the song is a woman who "ain't in the mood for anymore lies or pickup lines," but who comes to the bar every night to drown her sorrows and forget about the man who walked out of her life. "Tequila Eyes" sees the narrator meeting a new potential love interest in a bar, but instead of the initial moment of attraction coming due to looks, the song is poignant, gentle, and classy, portraying the thought process of a man who senses a wounded heart and wants to mend it. And "Meet Me Tonight" is a softly wrenching ballad about a husband trying to recapture the magic of a romance whose flame has long since gone out. "Meet me tonight/In a memory somewhere back in time/That old dive just south of Santa Fe/When you used to look at me that way," Rogers sings in the first verse. It's a simple bit of plainspoken poetry, but the way Rogers delivers it, in a weary and weather-worn voice, truly conveys the fatigue of a relationship that may or may not have lasted past its expiration date.

Surprisingly, given the album's title, the majority of Nothing Shines Like Neon is made up of mid-tempo balladry. There's also a road trip song (opener "San Antone"), a whiskey-soaked bar band rocker ("Takin' It As It Comes"), and a B3-washed groover ("Rain and the Radio"), but for the most part, Neon thrives on slow-flowing beauties that examine the romances and heartbreaks of heartland America. Country music, of course, is a traditionally "sad bastard" genre of music. Following a breakup with a longtime girlfriend, my cousin once said to me: "She dumped me and took my dog; I feel like I'm living in a country song," and that's about the best and funniest encapsulation of this genre I've probably ever heard. But the characters on Nothing Shines Like Neon are resilient, willing to keep trying and to put themselves out there again even after they've had their hearts broken over and over again. What could be more human than that?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Album of the Day: Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop

"Let's put our hearts together/Two parts love and a pinch of good weather/And top it all off with the sun and mix it with rum," sings T.J. Osborne in "Rum," Brothers Osborne's first hit on the country charts. On record, those lines signify Osborne's recipe for a good time. A similar recipe could describe what makes the band's debut album, called Pawn Shop and released last Friday, such an enjoyable powerhouse. Mix the sunniness and gloss of mainstream country music with the wistful romanticism of 1980s rock and roll, douse it in whiskey and top it off with a singer whose voice is equal parts Bruce Springsteen and Chris Cornell, and you've got a pretty good idea of whats makes this record spin.

Unlike yesterday's "album of the day" (Front Row Seat by the Josh Abbott Band), there's not a ton of depth to these songs. Brothers Osborne aren't aiming for the detailed character studies of Jason Isbell with their brand of country music. They're more along the lines of Chris Stapleton, delivering a soulful sound (and more than a few mentions of booze) and then decorating them them in more mainstream-appropriate wrapping paper. "Rum" is basically a sunnier version of Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" (which was itself a cover), while the surging, riot-starting closer "It Ain't My Fault" sounds like it would have been right at home on the raucous back half of Stapleton's Traveller.

Pawn Shop isn't as good as Traveller, of course, but it's a promising step forward for the radio country crop. "Rum" was a minor hit last year," as Brothers Osborne broke through with a promising EP, while second single "Stay a Little Longer" has wormed its way very close to the top of the charts. The latter is the obvious highlight on this record, a fairly straightforward song about a friends-with-benefits arrangement that quickly blossoms into something more--regardless of how much the narrator tries to deny his true feelings. The chorus hook is infectious and hummable, but the song's defining feature is an epic three-minute guitar solo from the second brother of Brothers Osborne, John. This is the kind of free-form, southern-rock-tinged solo that we simply don't hear anymore, a technically magnificent and intentionally overblown bit of indulgence that will probably mark "Stay a Little Longer" as the climactic moment every live set these guys ever play. It ain't "Freebird," but it's closer than you might think.

The songwriting on Pawn Shop is solid and varied, ranging from big road trip anthems like "American Crazy" to swampy groovers like "Dirt Rich." But it's the musicianship that really sets these guys apart. Similarly to A Thousand Horses, who scored a number one country hit last year with "Smoke," Brothers Osborne are a band who you can tell are a terrific live outfit just from listening to their album. Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, the Wallflowers) takes care to make sure everything on the LP sounds organic and live, but the distinctive talents of John on the guitar and T.J. on the vocals do most of the heavy lifting.

Indeed, T.J. Osborne's whiskey-soaked baritone is brewed with a perfect mix of blues and rock, lending a smoky otherworldliness to ballads like "Loving Me Back" (which features an effective vocal feature from Lee Ann Womack) and plenty of yearning earnestness to "21 Summer" (a wistful beauty that recalls the back half of Born in the U.S.A.). Not every song hits: "Greener Pastures," for instance, is a bit to on-the-nose in its depiction of the weed-smoking lifestyle to be effective. But for the most part, Pawn Shop is a remarkably accomplished and enjoyable LP, an album where the band finds such a natural groove that it's hard to believe they're playing on a debut. The biggest complaint I have is that I have to wait five months to blast this record in my car this summer.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Album of the Day: Josh Abbott Band - Front Row Seat

Okay, so an intro: I want to get back to blogging more over here, and writing shorter bits of content in addition to what I've been doing at With that in mind, I'm launching an "album of the day" series where I'll give recommendations of new albums that I'm really digging or old favorites that jump back into my rotation on any given day. Or new discoveries from years past. There's a good chance that I won't post every day, but I will try to keep up with it and shine a light on more albums (and hopefully, more unheralded albums) than I've been able to do just writing long form reviews. I didn't get a chance to write about a lot of my favorite albums and EPs from last year, just because there was so much stuff that I fell in love with. I hope that, with this series, I will be able to chart my year of listening a bit more comprehensively.

To start this series, I'm featuring Front Row Seat, an album that Texas country stalwarts the Josh Abbott Band released in November of last year. This is a record that an AbsolutePunk user recommended to me in the thread for my Best of 2015 list, which means that it didn't make it onto that list. However, after spending a lot of time with this album over the past week or so, it probably would crack any revisited top 30 I might compile for the year. Ever-changing lists: such is the life of a music fan.

Front Row Seat starts out as a bright, mainstream-leaning country record. The hooks are big, the fiddles sparkle like sunlight, and the lyrics are about stuff like drinking with your buds, falling in love, and making every second the night count. The opening track, "While I'm Young," is a pretty standard boy-meets-girl-in-a-bar story, the kind of story that we've heard from a million different country songs at this point in time.

The difference with "While I'm Young" is that it isn't the whole story, but just the start of it. For Front Row Seat, frontman Josh Abbott decided to go the autobiographical route, charting his entire relationship with his wife--from their meeting to their divorce--over the course of a five-act, 16-song LP. So while this album starts with the euphoria of falling in love, that's not where it stays.

The first eight or nine songs on this record are uplifting and invigorating, perfectly capturing the electricity of meeting someone who you know is going to be incredibly important in your story. "Live it While You Got It" is a send-up of taking chances and being adventurous with the person you love, while "Wasn't That Drunk" sees two lovers (with the female perspective personified by a note-perfect feature from up-and-comer Carly Pearce) allowing the lowered inhibitions of a wine-drenched night to finally kickstart a romance they've both been yearning for. The title track, meanwhile, is the album's centerpiece, a big-hearted, big-chorus piece of roots-pop about how, when you fall in love with someone, you are the only person in the world who gets a front row seat to their life and to everything they do and everything they are.

With songs that feel this alive and that capture the spirit of being young and in love so perfectly, it's tough not to wish that this album could just stay in that vein for always. But on the sobering "Born to Break Your Heart," everything takes a turn for the worst, and soon, we're past the path of no return. Abbott's marriage--which was the subject of at least one of his previous albums--obliterated after he cheated on his wife, presumably while on the road and living some incarnation of the rock and roll lifestyle. The last seven tracks of this album chart the disintegration of the relationship and find Abbott wallowing in progressively deeper pits of longing and despair. On "Ghosts," you can hear him choke up right before launching into the second chorus. On "This Isn't Easy," he sings a song from his ex-wife's point of view, with clear understanding of how much he hurt her. And on "Anonymity," he closes out what began as a bright and warm Texas country record with a dark, cold acoustic heartbreaker, a song so raw and barren that it almost hurts to listen to.

We've all heard albums about falling in love before. We've all heard albums about heartbreak. What makes Front Row Seat fascinating isn't just that we get both, packed into one cohesive narrative, but also that Abbott actually stops being the protagonist midway through. Even if you go into this album not knowing that Abbott cheated on his wife, not knowing that his own unforgivable mistakes destroyed a huge part of his life, you can hear it in his voice on those last few songs that he knows he's not the hero. What makes a song like "Amnesia" so powerful is that, even as Abbott is singing about how forgetting his ex-wife entirely might be better than learning to live without her, it's so obvious that he knows he doesn't deserve "better"--whatever that is. He's in hell because he put himself there, because he drank too much and cared too little and let himself get sucked into a moment of temptation that decimated everything. This is not a "How could you do this to me?" kind of breakup record; it's a "how could I do that to you" breakup record, and it's all the more devastating as a result.

Listen to Front Row Seat here.