Big & Rich, Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace

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June 10, 2007

Big & Rich
Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace
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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.

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  1. Mike WhitakerNo Gravatar says:

    Don’t have time to write a lot at the moment, but I gotta get this out! I’ve read a lot of reviews that bashed this album as just being thrown together and coming across as a collection of demos. Thank God somebody finally gets it. The album’s construction is both reminsant of the old LP days, and cleverly formatted for the digital downloader of today. And the music and song selection is so clever, that many people can’t open their mind and actually absorb it. It’s new, and in country, that’s often misconstrued. No sacrifice of roots and heritage here, just a new take on it. An expansion of the country horizon. And the balls to cover ACDC. Nothing needs said. That statement stands for itself. Great album, from a duo that will someday be looked on as a pioneer of country in the 21st century.

  2. Jim MalecNo Gravatar says:

    Mike,
    The problem with your comment is that is disregards the major problem with this album–it is absolutely FULL of cliches. I would not have had as much of a problem with the randomness of the song selection had the songs themselves been to the quality I’d have expected from John and Kenny. But if you go back and look at my review (which you quoted), you’ll find that I’ve listed just a few of the many quite terrible lyrics that never should have this kind of a record. Now…do I hold Big & Rich, as writers, to a different standard than I hold some other artists, and does that affect my review? Of course.
    Another thing…when you talk about having “the balls” to cover AC/DC…sure, it takes balls, and I don’t fault them for that. I fault them for their choice of direction, and the fact that the felt the need to completely change a song that didn’t need changing in the first place. Again, it comes down to quality. i don’t have a problem with the cover–I have a problem because it’s a BAD cover.
    And because Big & Rich can do better. We’ve seen that on their first two records.

  3. Stephen says:

    Why should a cover be exactly the same as the original? If they want to change it, and make it sound like a traditional country song, it’s their right.

    Ultimately, for good or bad, they made the album to get themselves in the mainstream. HoaDC and CtYC were good CDs, but they stayed on the fringe when it came to radio, with singles at 21, 11, 15, 15, 21, 34, and 18. This album already has a top-ten single and probably will have at least one more, which will get them increased exposure so that their fourth album, they can go back to being wacky and crazy and they’ll have a bigger fanbase. Is it selling out? Possibly. But it’s something they need to do, especially with CtYC only selling 1 million (HoaDC sold 3 million) and the stagnation of their friend Gretchen Wilson’s career.

  4. Stephen says:

    What I mean by the last comment is Comin’ To Your City sold so many fewer records than Horse of a Different Color, that it would have been foolish to record another similar album, as the sales trend would only have gone downward.

    Also, they gave other people a chance to write songs for them. Besides the cover, “Faster Than Angels Fly” and “Loud” weren’t even written by either of them. So now they’re giving other peoples’ songs a chance, which, for a group that cowrote every song on the first album, takes guts, to give part of their musical control away by singing someone else’s song.

  5. Jim MalecNo Gravatar says:

    Stephen, first of all, there’s a lot of truth in your comments. I think they were right to try to shake things up after the second album, which stalled a bit (even though selling 1,000,000 units is damn hard these days). The problem I have, again, is not that they tried to move themselves to the mainstream…the problem I have is that the songs aren’t very good, especialy when you hold them up not only to the stuff on the first two albums, but also the stuff they (see: Rich) has written for others.

    What are the potential singles off this record? “Faster Than Angels Fly,” which is the best song on the record IMO, is NEVER going to fly at today’s country radio. Too complicated a story. So, really, we’re looking at, maybe, “When The Devil Gets The Best Of Me.” Of all the uptemos, what would actually work? None of them are very memorable.

    As far as the AC/DC, sure–they have every right to change it. And no, I’m not saying they should have covered it exactly in the AC/DC style. But I think if you ask most people in the industry they’ll tell you that you need to treat covers with a sense of respect, because listners form attachments to songs. It’s not like “You Shook Me Al Night Long” is something that country fans will not e familiar with–they know this song and they freakin’ love this song, and what Big & Rich has done is, instead of putting their own stamp on it, IMO, they’ve trivialized it. So aside from the fact hat it sounds silly, I think they are walking a fine, fine line. Do I respect them for trying? Hel yeah I do. But I think they missed the mark.

  6. Stephen says:

    Whatever they release, besides FTAF, will have a chance just because it will ride the wave that LiTM has established. They’ll probably release either “Eternity” or “Between Raising Hell” next; the latter seems more radio-friendly. What I hope they don’t do, but what they probably will, is release Loud or Radio next, just because it’s the Big & Rich “sound.” I think that will backfire, as neither is particularly memorable.

    And I mostly agree that the first two albums were written better, although I wasn’t a huge fan of Save a Horse or Comin’ To Your City (the song). My four favorite songs from those albums were Wild West Show, Live This Life, Never Mind Me, and I Pray For You, and they went 21, unreleased, 34, and unreleased, respectively, so what do I know.

  7. Stephen says:

    So I mostly agree with you. WtDGtBoM probably wouldn’t fly either, as there’s no drumbeat at all (and only Kid Rock can probably get away with a cocaine reference on country radio). What’s the last song that’s completely drum-less to do really well on radio? “All These Years” by Sawyer Brown, or “Just One Night” by McBride and the Ride, or something else I don’t remember?

  8. CodyNo Gravatar says:

    Big & Rich’s new cd is, in my opinion and many others, their best yet. It revieled the calmer side of this fantastic duo. Also, many of my favorite songs on the album were written by themselves, which makes it extra special. The three best songs on this album are “Lost in the Moment”, “Eternity” and “Faster Than Angels Fly”. All three are on “Side A” of the album, and are soft but extremely powerful ballads. There are only two songs on the album that disappointed me in terms of Big & Rich’s incredible career. Those two were “High Five” (which I found had an annoying chorus) and “Shook Me All Night Long” (which I found was disappointing compared to ACDC’s version of the song. But all in all, this was a great album, that sparked my interest and make me shake to the beat on “Side B”, and made me think about life on “Side A”.

  9. Stephen says:

    Actually, Cody, this was the first B&R album that had any songs at all that weren’t written by either of the two, and in fact, “Faster Than Angels Fly” is one of the three songs (“Shook Me” and “Loud” being the other two).

  10. willy says:

    Mutt Lange produced YOU SHOOK ME ALL NIGHT LONG for ACDC along time ago.
    Why would big and rich ruin the great production of Mutt Langes songs.

    Mutt Lange produced 7 of the top 100 best selling albums of alltime which included all of Shania’s albums, all of ACDC’s biggest selling albums and Def Leppards hysteria and pyromania, Bryan Adams waking up the neighbors, the cars (heart break city) and so many more acts.
    Mutt Lange is the greatest producer of all time.

  11. Mike WhitakerNo Gravatar says:

    Willy,

    Commercial success does not always equate greatness. I disagree with declaring Lange the greatest of all time. So many names come to mind, but I don’t have the time or inclination to spark up this debate. I’ll simply say this: If we are defining greatness by commercial success, what happened to Sam Phillips?

  12. Stephen says:

    Also, Mutt Lange has not produced all of Shania Twain’s albums. Her first album, which produced two (very) minor hits, wasn’t produced by him; I don’t believe they had even met at that time.

  13. willy says:

    Mike, it doesn’t matter if you disagree with it because Mutt Lange is regarded globally as a music genius and one of the greatest producers of alltime.
    When you have so much success with so many different acts from all types of genres then you are a music genius.
    You say so many names come to mind? Oh really? Because any article about greatest producers of alltime include Mutt Lange,Quincy Jones. Phil Spector and a couple of others.
    You need to seriously do your research on Mutt Lange, the man is a genius. He has written and produced tons of the most success songs and albums of alltime from different genres.
    So Mutt Lange could very well be the greatest of alltime.

    Stephen, I don’t even count shania’s first album as Shania’s. She didn’t use any of her songs or her style.
    THE WOMAN IN ME is Shania’s first true album where she got to use her own songs and style and took control of everthing.

  14. willy says:

    I also think when a big time mega worldwide producer like Mutt Lange waltzes into Nashville and creates a whole new sound people get intimidated. He created a whole new sound for Nashville just like he created a whole new sound for heavy metal rock.
    No other producers has done that it 2 totally different genres.
    Mutt Lange is truly one of the greatest of alltime and regarded as a music genius by his peers and the industry.
    the producer of the grammy awards called Mutt Lange one of music greatest geniuses in song writing and producing and called him the best producer in music history.

  15. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Mutt Lange didn’t create a new sound for Nashville so much as adapt his arena rock sound for the genre. He used some country instruments but the production tricks were the same, which is why they sounded so great remixed for pop radio.

    I’m a huge fan of Shania’s work with Mutt, and I think they’ve made three great albums together. But it’s a stretch to say that he created a whole new sound. Very few other country artists made records similar to Shania’s, though quite a few tried to go pop after she had so much success with it.

    In terms of the great producers of all-time, I agree with you that the list would be incomplete without Mutt Lange. Quincy Jones and Phil Spector are also good calls. I would add Owen Bradley to the list as well, and of recent producers, I can’t think of a better one of this generation than Rick Rubin.

    Alison Krauss might be one of the best artist-producers, which is rare enough a dual role to begin with. She’s produced my favorite Nickel Creek and Alan Jackson albums, and has done some fantastic work with Reba McEntire and The Cox Family.

  16. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Let me add that I don’t see the grounds for complaining about B&R redoing the arrangement of the song. Shania Twain herself completely reworked the song into a country/bluegrass number with Alison Krauss & Union Station for a network special. If anything, I think it honors the original by not trying to copy it.

  17. willy says:

    Kevin, you need to do some serious research on Mutt Lange and all of his peers comment about him, He is without a doubt in the top 3 record producers of alltime.
    It is not just his producing but he has written some of the most successful songs of alltime.owen Bradely, who is he? He isn’t regarded as one of the best.
    Like I said just go ask people like Rick Ruben and other peers and they think Mutt is a music genius..
    Mutt is a global producer who only produces the biggest and best acts of alltime which he molded.
    Mutt is just in another league as far as success and music genius.

  18. willy says:

    Also, Shania has a right to re work ACDC since her husband produced ACDC. It had Mutt’s blessing and Shania is a music icon who is one of the biggest stars of alltime.
    Why would Big and rich ruin it?
    I think when we talk great producers of alltime, it is a very short list with Mutt Lange, Quincy Jones,Phil Spector and the Beatles producer.
    Rick Rueben is the best new and young producer.
    These are the names that are always brought up. With Mutt the only one of those woh is envolved in all aspects of the music like writing,producing,creating and playing guitar and singing. Thats why Mutt is a billionare, he takes money from all ends.
    Shania herself is worth 500 million and Mutt own shares of BMG too that was sold for 4 billion.

  19. Stephen says:

    Whether you consider the album Shania’s or not, at the end of the day it was her debut album in Nashville. Her second, third, and fourth albums were some of the most successful of all time, but I doubt The Woman In Me would have even come about had someone not heard Shania Twain (the album), liked what they heard, and decided they wanted to work with (and marry) her.

    As for “You Shook Me All Night Long,” I’m happy Big & Rich did what they did with it. If they had tried to make it sound like the original song, it would have just sounded stupid. John Rich screeching the vocals? Where would their distinctive dual-singing have come in, as Kenny Alphin singing at all would have just “ruined” it right then and there. I’m much more a fan of songs that, when covered, are made to sound unique and original rather than a direct ripoff, especially crossing genres. And finally, it all rests with the AC/DC members who wrote the song. They gave B&R permission to use it on their album, and once those rights are granted, there’s no stipulation the song “has” to be done a certain way. If they feared the song would be “ruined,” all the Johnsons would have had to do is say no to B&R.

  20. Stephen says:

    Also, Owen Bradley was only one of the most influential record producers in the 1950s and 1960s. If he weren’t around, who knows if country music would be even close to where it is today commercially and artistically.

  21. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Willy,

    Why you’re being condescending and obnoxious to me, indicating that I need to do research regarding Mutt, is beyond me, especially since I AGREED with you that he’s one of the greatest of all time.

    Stephen,

    Any artist can cover a song once it’s been recorded and released commercially, without having to get the permission of the writers. They have to pay them the royalties, but they don’t need their approval to record it.

  22. Stephen says:

    Okay, I guess I misunderstood that, then, through earlier things I read that for a long time Led Zeppelin refused to allow any other artists to cover certain songs of theirs. I extrapolated wrongly in that regard, I guess.

  23. willy says:

    kevin, my middle name is obnoxious.
    I just think you understate what Mutt did in Nashville. Ask anyone there and they will tell you. He had to learn how the Nashville game was played until he broke the rules of the game.He learned how the nashville game was played making TWIm and then broke the rules of the game with COO.
    Nashville is its little clique town and when a meg famous worldwide producer like Mutt Lange comes to ruin their music they get really jealous.
    Mutt and shania are the devil to country music in some peoples opinions.

  24. Stephen says:

    Well, it looks like the questions about B&R’s next single may have been answered, as it appears “Loud” is going to be the next song released from BRHaAG. I project it topping out at about #20, though it at least will be a good bridge to another “slower” song from the album as the third single (my guess is “Eternity” or the title track).

  25. Stephen H.No Gravatar says:

    And that is why I don’t get paid to make predictions.

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