It’s a strange new era of music, this digital age. As the emphasis has gone from buying albums to downloading individual tracks, the album has found itself threatened, something of a dying art form in pop, rock, hip-hop, and now, increasingly, in country music. The older, more traditional country music consumer base has slowly begun to embrace digital downloads, coming late to the party much like they did with compact discs a generation ago.
Trend-setters that they aspire to be, Big & Rich has expanded their challenge of country music conventions from just incorporating styles from other genres to fully disregarding the traditional structure of the country music album. The result, Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, is as surprising a listen for its song sequence as it is for the song selection itself.
The album’s unconventional structure finds the duo evenly splitting the album between ballads and up-tempo numbers. The first six tracks take it easy, then the final six crank up the noise – think Ike & Tina Turner’s take on “Proud Mary”, only the approach is applied to an entire album, rather than just one song. It’s disconcerting to have the expected rhythm of an album – up-tempo and ballads regularly alternated – replaced with a heavy dose of one followed by the other. What’s revealed in the process is that Big & Rich, contrary to their party animal reputations, are actually much stronger tackling ballads, which has often gone overlooked, despite the fact that “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”, “I Pray For You” and “8th of November” were light years better than fluff like “Comin’ to Your City” and “Rollin’ (The Ballad of Big & Rich).”
The ballad side, as we would’ve called it in the vinyl days, opens with “Lost in This Moment”, the top ten hit that manages to make singing about a wedding sound new again, thanks to its strong point-of-view and attention to the most minute details. The title track follows, which sums up a pretty good philosophy of life. Things start to get interesting with “Faster Than Angels Fly”, a beautiful inner-city love story that ends in tragedy, which is equal parts West Side Story and “El Paso”. John Legend gives a stunning a capella introduction to “Eternity”, and his presence elevates what is otherwise a fairly ordinary declaration of love, save for the killer observation that love should be so much like heaven that when we actually get to heaven, we can’t tell the difference.
By the time the final ballad, “When the Devil Gets the Best of Me”, finishes playing, it’s hard not to crave something with a beat. And good Lord, what a beat we get with “Radio”, which has an opening that suggests the sound that would surface if Motley Crue put on some cowboy hats and twanged it up a bit. Despite their insistence that listeners crank this one up when they hear it on the radio, this is exactly the type of performance that has limited them at country radio. It’s just a little too loud and outside the conventions of the genre to inconspicuously hang out between Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.
The remaining tracks are full of charm, with the highlights being the insightful “You Never Stop Loving Somebody” and the downright hilarious “Please Man,” as in “Please man, don’t call the police man,” the earnest plea of a man having a party too loud. The latter track features a bewildering guest appearance by Wyclef Jean, who manages to name-drop Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels and Reba’s sitcom in one short rap.
Interestingly enough, the most subversive thing on the whole album has Big & Rich completely inverting their approach of mixing up the genres. They take one of the biggest hard rock arena anthems of all-time – “You Shook Me (All Night Long)” – and perform it as a straight-up traditional country song. The arrangement and vocal sound like something right off of a George Strait album. Strangely enough, they do more to expand the boundaries of the genre with this fiddle-laden cover song than they ever have with their country, rock and rap in a blender version of “country music without prejudice”, which suggests that if they ever fully realize their goal of reshaping the genre, it will be an inside job.