Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Saturday Night

Fact of the matter is, most of us write off country. This is not entirely our fault, collectively; There are two kinds of country, and one of them really, really sucks. The kind that sucks, "country," is the sort that tends to dominate the airwaves today. It's bland pop with a twang and lyrics that not only aim, but pander directly to, as much as I hate to bring politics into this, "Real America." The music is boring, and the lyrics are "folksy" in that patronizing sort of way. But I've been told I just don't understand the concept of easy entertainment, so maybe this is my shortfall.

At any rate, the good kind of Country, "Country" (with a capital "C," as opposed to the lower-case), is Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, and Hank Williams. I refer to this, with the wonderful sense of superiority you can only get from a condescending maxim, as "Real Country." What separates Country from country? Well, there are a lot of things. There's a genuine element in Country which is sorely missing in country. And country sounds like someone took a belt sander to Country, removing all the interesting bits that gave it a feeling all its own. They, and by "They" I suppose I mean "The Country Man" or some equally ambiguous, omnipotent bastard, made it really boring.

The future of "Country" is looking pretty bleak, really. Which brings me to an exception to the rule.

My parents listen to country. They don't enjoy Country, though both will lie to you and say they do. The point is I spent a lot of time in the car with them during high school, and most of the music was less than enjoyable. I started grabbing onto certain songs I could find a thrill in. This was during my musical awakening, of course, and anything I could grasp, to make the ride less torturous, was appreciated. There was "Friends in Low Places," which is just a great song, no matter your tastes. There was a nice cover of "Here Comes My Baby" by, uh... that band... yeah. But there was also "I'm Gonna Miss Her." It started simply enough, and, being fair, it started with a roll of my eyes. It opens slow, a man discussing his proclivity for fishing, and his wife's disapproval of said fishing. She meets him at the door, and gives him an ultimatum; you go fishing today, and I'm leaving. I listened to all of this with the withdrawn disdain only high schoolers seem capable of mustering (the rest of us have learned it's really not worth all the effort). But then the song did something unexpected.

The tempo picked up, and Brad Paisley, as that was his name, declared, "Well... I'm gonna miss her." It's such an inspired moment, so well-realised, so without artifice, that you smile. I smiled. Yes, I broke my condescension, my ever-important sense of superiority, and smiled. I even enjoyed it. So "I'm Gonna Miss Her" joined my list of exceptions to the rule, those country songs which I could enjoy. (For the record, I consider "Friends in Low Places" to be Country)

I started keeping an ear out for more Brad Paisley. Over the ensuing months, I started noticing not just that his songs were funny and had a personality, but that his guitar was on fire, seemingly as a regular condition. This is a man I would rank in the Top 100 guitar players going today, with a strong, strong eye on my Top 20 faves, all time. He's that good. And that subtle, too. These are country songs, after all. So there are solos, but they are short. It's his lead work during the verses that really impresses. Limber without being showy.

This year, Brad Paisley released his seventh album, American Saturday Night. The reviews for it were splendid, and so I decided to venture forth and acquire a copy of a country album. This is new territory for all of us, I'm sure. Before I continue, I should note, that this album is brilliant, and you should buy it. Now.

One of the things Nashville albums are known for, to the extent that it has to be accounted for when reviewing a country album, is filler. A typical Nashville record has four or five singles, and the rest is detritus, used to fill the space. This album doesn't have any of that. Every track here, and I never say this, could be a single in the right context. A few are too slow, too subtle for that to happen, but they could be.

The songs here manage to be clever and heartfelt. They're original while staying familiar, which is a high compliment for country. Remember, this is meant to be enjoyed. It's not Animal Collective; you aren't supposed to work at it. It is simply meant to be. And it is. The melodies will stick in your head, and so will the lyrics. Is it schmaltzy? Of course, but in just the right dosing. "Anything Like Me" is about Paisley's first son, saying "It's safe to say that,/ I'll get my payback,/ if he's anything like me." At the moment, it's my favourite song on the album. Paisley's greatest strength is his honesty; "The years are gonna fly by./ I already dread the day,/ he's gonna hug his momma, he's gonna shake my hand, he's gonna act like he can't wait to leave./ But as he drives out,/ he'll cry his eyes out,/ if he's anything like me." Say what you want, but not only is it enjoyable, it's affecting; it made me feel fuzzy inside. The only other album to do that this year? Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective. I just blew your mind.

So here we have an album that's hits, and only hits; this could have been released as a best-of, and I'd have believed it. And here we have a formidable songwriter operating at what I can only assume is the peaks of his powers. And here we have a backing band in peak shape, sounding like their having fun! Weird!

Brad Paisley makes country. He does. I can't pretend he doesn't. Yet, yet, his music, it's clever, it's original, it's genuine, it's touching, it's fun, for fuck's sake! And it has a bit of a honky tonk, swingin' personality to it, which makes it musically interesting. So maybe it's Country after all, and maybe the future isn't looking so bad as far as that goes.

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