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?

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