October 11, 2008
Call it a case of high expectations. You’ve got a beloved Texas act, trusted Texas producer (Radney Foster), major-label resources, and that all-important decision to “self-title” (especially enigmatic considering this is the act’s sixth album overall). By all indications, Randy Rogers Band should be a definitive work for its titular group, or at least a solid showcase of the blazing heartland rock they’ve cultivated over the last decade.
Instead, it’s a mixed bag, replete with middling numbers that ignore the band’s unique strengths and winning numbers that play to them. At their best, Randy Rogers Band tackle matters of the heart with straightforward vigor, tearing into what are essentially simple themes with enough convicted rock charge to make it all sound not only believable, but important. That lyrical simplicity is always on display here, but some of the thrill is gone, resulting in a few too many songs that go down easy but fail to match the emotional impact of a “Somebody Take Me Home” or “One More Goodbye.” That said, the craft is dependably solid throughout, and when Rogers & Co. finally do cut loose, the results stand toe-to-toe with the best of their catalogue.
The set kicks off with “Wicked Ways,” a fiddle-framed throwback by bassist Jon Richardson (sort of the band’s token traditionalist songwriter) that finds its narrator seeking spiritual redemption in the arms of an equally troubled woman. Lyrically, it’s not the most compelling exploration of tough living, and actually feels unfocused in spots, but it does make for an interesting introduction to the set and a pleasant reminder that these guys, for all their hard rocking, still understand the fundamentals of country music.
But things start to dip down on the one-dimensional “Better Than I Ought to Be,” which lifts its melody from the guitar riff of Pat Green’s “Somewhere Between Texas and Mexico,” and only get more vapid as the band launches into a trio of numbers (“Lonely Too Long,” “One Woman,” “Never Be That High”) which, for all their sonic pleasures, provide no twists on their tired themes (romantic neglect, romantic commitment, and youthful misconduct, respectively). The group even starts to sound bored here, with Rogers slurring his way through parts of “Never Be That High” as if he’ll do anything to break the monotony.
Fascinatingly, he actually does so the very next track. “Didn’t Know You Could” is a challenge to keep a relationship going strong through hard times, but it might as well be Rogers challenging himself not to settle into an artistic rut when he sings, “Now every time reminds me how it’s all a big cliché / You always run away from me / And I run away from you.” The song is noticeably imbalanced in structure and actually sounds lyrically and melodically overwrought in spots, but its imperfections only make it all the more intriguing in comparison to the preceding radio filler, and there is a beguiling sense throughout that the band is trying desperately to stretch themselves, which actually clicks well with the song’s built-in urgency. It’s a definite bright spot.
The remaining six tracks are split evenly between yet more uninventive (albeit well-crafted) filler and some clever standout tracks. In the former category rest lead single “In My Arms Instead,” the vague snarl of “Break Even,” and “Let It Go,” a song whose chirpy message of self-help simply doesn’t click with Rogers’ weary tone. In the latter stands the endearing “Buy Myself a Chance,” which finds Rogers bragging about his skills on the dance floor to what sounds like a countrier take on Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt,” plus “When the Circus Leaves Town” and “This Is Goodbye,” two stark, introspective songs which turn in insightful lines like, “this is walking away from us to save ourselves.”
So, final tally? Four very strong tracks, seven mostly forgettable ones, and one traditionalist piece somewhere in the middle. If it all sounds terribly disjointed, it’s not; the band’s signature sound is broad enough to comfortably meld their various shades of southern rock, and Foster’s intuitive production style unites it all while still making even the less interesting material sound fresh and distinct. The main weakness of the album ultimately comes down to a discrepancy between style – which each number has in spades – and substance, which is comparatively rarer. At the end of the day, Randy Rogers Band is not the consummate showcase that its eponymous title might suggest, but for all its strengths and weaknesses, it’s an interesting glimpse into the artistic state of a well-traveled band trying hard not to slow down.