Wednesday, 24 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #2

Whenever anyone says to me, "I don't like country music," I always agree. Then I tell them, "I don't like rock music, either. I don't like soul, rap, jazz or reggae. I don't like indie. The only type of music I like... is good music. Regardless of genre." (They usually punch me at this point. I usually deserve it.)

Of course, I'm a hypocrite. You may have, on occasion, heard me say, "I don't like dance music." And of all the musical genres, that's the one I struggle most to find any common ground to stand on, mainly because (to quote you-know-who), "it says nothing to me about my life". But, arguably, dance music isn't supposed to say anything about our lives. It scratches a different itch... one that I've rarely needed scratching. But even then... Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk... occasionally, dance acts do break through my force field and connect with me in one way or another. But I digress...

I'm now at an age where it's probably more appropriate for me to be listening to country music than hardcore drum 'n' bass. And while I've always been a fan of classic country - Cash, Rogers, Kristofferson - lately, I've been drawn to the music made by a number of contemporary "pop" country artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw. Brad Paisley, however, is in another league altogether. Not only has he become my favourite purveyor of country music, he's now one of my favourite songwriters period. (Yes, I used the Americanism on purpose. Full stop.) A recent live performance recorded  for BBC4 in which Paisley and three of his Nashville co-writers spoke about their approach to songwriting helped me explain why. Unlike a lot of lyricists (not just country), Paisley doesn't just write songs about love and loss, or cars and girls. His canvas is a broad as life itself - crime and religion and racism, fame and ego and money (or lack of it), the internet, parenthood, time travel, death and resurrection... you name it, Brad Paisley's probably written a song about it. With humour, sensitivity and lyrical dexterity. Along the way, he's worked with Clint Eastwood, LL Cool J, Eric Idle and William Shatner. And even though a lot of his songs are set in the southern United States and speak directly to his core fanbase, they also manage to say a hell of a lot to me... about my life. And they never fail to make me smile.

All that said, when I first listened to his latest album, Moonshine In The Trunk, I wasn't sure it was destined to become a classic. After last year's magnum opus, Wheelhouse (#4 in My Top Ten Albums of 2013), Moonshine seemed necessarily throwaway. A party album, perhaps, after the master's thesis in songwriting that Wheelhouse represented. Here, instead, were clichéd country tunes about drinking, acting dumb and taking your girl for a drive. Or so it seemed... 

But Moonshine In The Trunk is an album that snuck up on me. There are songs here deeper and more mature than anything Paisley's written before - perhaps because, as well as being an expert storyteller, Paisley's finally learning the power of a good metaphor. Back on that aforementioned BBC4 special, he talked a lot about his straightforward approach to songwriting, confessing admiration for lyricists such as Lennon & McCartney whose best work is more poetic in nature. "If we wrote a song called Strawberry Fields Forever," he humbly suggested, "there'd be a pick-up truck parked in the middle of that strawberry field with a couple making out in the back". On the best crafted songs here - Shattered Glass and Perfect Storm - he employs allusion, metaphor and other rhetorical devices and suggests ideas to the listener to develop themselves rather than straight-out telling the story. And, just like the Beatles, he understands that the best albums jump from light to dark, from heartfelt to hilarious... from Something to Maxwell's Silver Hammer. 

The first half - Side A, for those of you listening on vinyl - of Moonshine... is a perfect record in that regard. Every one's a winner, as Errol Brown once said. The opener, Crushin' It, is the song that set me up to believe this would be a more frivolous work than Brad's last album. It's basically a song about a screw-up whose only real talent is drinking. But, of course, it's about more than that. It's about self-doubt, realising you're never going to be a rock star or a rocket scientist, and being happy with whatever talents you've got. As with all Paisley songs though, it's the little details that sell it, as the familiar domestic tableau below demonstrates nicely...
They say your baby's mad cause you told her that you'd hang some pictures for her
You know the ones she framed late last spring of you and her in Florida
You're up on the ladder when it shatters into smithereens
She shakes her head, looks at you and says
"Ain't you good for anything?" and you say...

Every week has a weekend, by this time Friday night
You want a margarita, I'll get Tequila and ice
And I'll be crushin' it, with a cold one in my other hand
I'll be crushin' it, when I'm finished with my can
I can stomp it with my boot, crunch it with my fist
Smash it on my forehead, yeah I got this
I'll be crushin' it, oh I'll be crushin' it
Then comes the lead single, River Bank, a 'be happy with what you've got' anthem with a water-skiing squirrel in the video. Now, I'm always wary of multimillionaire rock stars singing songs about how you don't need money to find contentment, but I also hate it when songwriters who specialise in writing about the everyman forget what it's actually like once they hit the big time. Paisley manages to still write songs from the ordinary Joe's perspective even though he's now living an extraordinary life. And long may that continue.

Next up is Perfect Storm, a love song written for the wife of one of Brad's co-writers, Lee Thomas Miller, (though most of the lyrics came from Paisley himself), packed with metaphor, but boiled down it's about a woman you love... even though she's got a temper on her that'd drown George Clooney.
And she destroys me in that T-shirt
And I love her so much it hurts
The above couplet sums Paisley's lyrical skills up well. The natural detail of the first line breaks the cliché of the second line. Genius.

Then comes High Life, an affectionately hilarious character piece written from the perspective of a bunch of lazy-ass, welfare-sponging low-lives who'll do anything to avoid doing an honest day's work. You know the sort...
I heard a song a couple months ago
It was Carrie Underwood on the radio,
Reminded me of a poem my brother wrote
Back in the second grade
Now I know she didn’t steal it, but so what?
We lawyered up and we sued her butt
These days we figure we’d pretty much
Get paid to go away.
Turns out the song's also a sly dig at an actual lawsuit filed against Brad's co-writers for "stealing" ideas for one of his earlier hits. Morrissey would be proud.

The title track, with its ZZ Top guitars, Springsteenesque opening lines and Dukes of Hazzard references is possibly the most Country thing on here... but it's a great driving anthem too. And then comes Shattered Glass, an empowerment anthem for women who are finally breaking through the glass ceiling. Shades of Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams in the music, but (much as I love 'em) those guys never wrote anything as clever as this. And finally, there's Limes, another song ostensibly about drinking (Tequila, again), although I've definitely been encouraged by the sentiment... even though it's been years since I touched a drop.
When life gives you limes...
Make margaritas!
Like the rest of this record, Limes made me feel good about myself at a time when I really needed to do that. Moonshine... was the happiest, most upbeat album I've heard all year... and that was exactly what the doctor ordered. And if Side 2 wasn't quite as strong, despite entertaining songs about going green and why we shouldn't give up on space exploration... well, I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

I've spent a large part of my life listening to feel-bad music, but this year in particularly - despite all the amazing things that I've seen and experienced - I really needed a margarita. Thanks, Brad.

I'll be back after Christmas with some runners up and my big Number One. In the meantime, enjoy the festive season - and crush a beer can or slim some lime in your tequila on me.

1 comment:

  1. There ain't nuthin' wrong with country music, baw, Me myself I just love a bit of Marty Robbins. Merry Christmas.


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