September 15, 2008
In retrospect, the news that The Lost Trailers had recorded their own version of “Chicken Fried” should have been a warning. It turns out that the group’s fifth studio album is chock-full of banal odes to small-town life that would have fit just perfectly alongside that Zac Brown Band number – or maybe made it look better. Truly, Holler Back is the rare sort of musical work that manages to say almost nothing unique or interesting about any one of its well-worn subjects. It’s a collection of songs which seem to serve no individual purposes except to check another country music cliche off the list, whether it’s the pleasures of youthful rebellion (“Blacktop Road,” “Hey Baby”), the nostalgic value of lost innocence and love gone by (“Summer of Love”), or, of course, the merits of simple, rural living (“Country Folks (Livin’ Loud),” “Things You Don’t Grow Out Of”, the title track).
But the themes are not what kills this album. Any theme can be rendered fresh given a fresh angle; the problem here is that there are no angles. Country music will probably never tire of songs about lovers leavin’, but what need does anyone have for a song in which the man’s only objection to his addressee’s departure is “How ‘Bout You Don’t”? You can certainly appreciate the idea behind considering those “Things You Don’t Grow Out Of,” but what’s the point of writing a song simply to state that those things do, in fact, exist? When a song’s titular line is all you really have to say about the subject, why write it? And if you must write it, why force it? Why not just be forthright with the fact that you have nothing substantial to express?
Consider the lead single and title track, “Holler Back.” It’s a shamelessly contrived piece that knowingly caricatures every person it features: we have the Ebonics-loving “city-folk” friend, the “country folks” who “got it good” (’nuff said), the cowgirls who exist only to “[shake] their sassafras.” There is talk of wild seeds being sewn and much “hey!” and “ho!” shouting-along. It’s the kind of mindless single that’s designed to serve as the soundtrack to your rowdy, drunken festivities – and in that sense, it is very well-written. The details are charming and creative in their utter inanity, the production is tight, the chorus is strong. It’s dumb, but that’s the idea. And for what it is, it works.
The same approach also scores on closing track “Gravy,” a port from the previous album (there are three others, by the way) which recounts a young man’s decision to sell marijuana in order to “save the family farm.” Once again, the character’s situation and personal psychology are reduced to fun Cliffs Notes like, “my mama cried, my grandma cried; my grandpa would have cried, but he done died,” but after the eight tracks of indiscriminate, mid-tempo filler following “Holler Back,” it’s just nice to hear anything at all that sounds like a band inching toward a personality.
But of course, those eight mid-tempo tracks are there – and each with a moderately rocking production (they all bleed together), a singalong chorus (ditto), and any number of lyrics championing or otherwise making extensive (but never in-depth) mention of such hallowed practices as slamming the door, hitting the highway, wanting to be a changed man, beholding the wide open sky, finding out where the road goes, being a wild horse that’s ready to run, chasing the wind, taking a ride on Saturday night (or, alternatively, tearing down a gravel road on Saturday night), playing music loudly in pick-up trucks, loving the cooking at Mama’s house, singing the Star-Spangled Banner proudly, and learning lessons from your Grandpa (though presumably not the same one who taught you about growing weed in “Gravy”). Listeners who are relatively unfamiliar with country radio and have thus not heard such practices espoused in a multitude of recent hits may very well enjoy these eight songs, but the stereotyping will be hard to ignore for most followers of the genre’s mainstream output.
Ultimately, The Lost Trailers’ considerable promise as a vocal group gets all but completely lost within this sea of forgettable, recycled compositions. The success of “Holler Back” may net these boys a few album sales, but it’s doubtful that many fans will be won by the remainder of the material here. If there is any lesson to be learned from Holler Back, it’s that no amount of talent or slick production can overcome a fundamentally flawed sense of song.