Rascal Flatts, <em>Unstoppable</em>

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April 25, 2009

rascal-flatts-unstoppableRascal Flatts
Unstoppable

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There are two ways to view Rascal Flatts: as the group that just won its seventh consecutive Academy of Country Music award for “Best Vocal Group” and is currently out-selling every country group in the industry, or as a pop-country group filling a country music niche. If you choose the former, you’ll likely deem the group’s sixth studio album, Unstoppable, a categorical failure.

But here’s the thing: if every album was judged against context –against its reception instead of its actual merit– all of the original value would be lost. While Unstoppable is not the show-stopping, brilliant piece of work you’d expect from the most successful country group in the industry, it is a decent album, solid in delivery and emotion. It may not do much by way of moving the group forward, thematically or artistically, like the previous album hinted at – but I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just don’t expect to gain any new fans.

Unstoppable is consistent in all the ways you’d expect vocalist Gary LeVox, guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bassist Jay DeMarcus to be consistent. LeVox’s polarizing tenor riffs play lead, the production is smooth and heavy, and the songs fit almost squarely, though effectively, within the thematic duo of heartache and inspiration. If this is your cup of tea, the boys are on point.

Take “Forever,” a signature power ballad waiting in the wings of the album’s lead single, “Here Comes Goodbye.” It’s a dramatic song about a relationship ended too soon that crescendos to a booming chorus and has all the bells and whistles of a radio smash. Then there’s the up-tempo “Close” with a catchy hook, about holding onto the memories of a past relationship. The surprisingly powerful title track, Unstoppable, is a quintessential message song about the healing quality of love. All three are predictable, yes, but solid nonetheless.

Tucked inconspicuously beneath the usual suspects, however, is one of the best songs on the album – a sleepy, stripped-down number that will never see the light of country radio, but therein lies its charm. “Things That Matter” is a poignant ode to life’s underlying blessings, the ones that move you forward when the world seems to want to push you backwards. The song has a simple two-line chorus: “Things that matter/ things that don’t,” a gorgeous bridge and an uncharacteristic minute and a half of instrumental lead-out.

If “Things That Matter” is an example of the Flatts’ finest, “Summer

Nights” is the exact opposite. Following in the group’s trend of cringe-inducing summer ditties, a la “Me and My Gang” and “Bob That Head,” “Summer Nights” is the most gimmicky of them all, beginning with laughter and cheers and full of lines like “teeny French bikinis.” It’s sure to be a concert favorite, but it’s a sorely disappointing throw-away.

Fortunately, none of the other weak songs on the album come close to the train wreck of “Summer Nights,” as they aren’t flawed so much as they are forgettable copies of other, stronger songs on the album. That’s the album’s fundamental setback: it lacks thematic depth. If the boys would break their circle of topics on the next album, and perhaps bring back some of their old harmony-heavy sound, I think they’d be surprised at the pay-off. A little growth goes a long way.

The interesting thing about the Flatts boys, though, is that, as middle-of-the-road as their music may be, you rarely get the feeling they’re compromising their artistry. The music they make seems to be the music they’ve always wanted to make, and they do so with a sincere passion. If you look closely, there’s a real difference between a genuine, shameless pop-country act and a packaged pop artist.

Never has this sincerity been more evident than in the closing track of Unstoppable. Far and away the best song on the album, “Why” delicately and movingly deals with the subject of suicide. The delivery is tender, the desperation is quiet but potent and the comparison to life as a “song” is beautiful.

Maybe one day Rascal Flatts will pull another “I’m Moving On” and rightfully blow the country music industry away. Until then, I’ll settle for enjoying Unstoppable for what it is – a decent, pop-country slice of the larger country music pie.


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  1. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    Instead of calling it Unstoppable , this album should have been entitled Unacceptable .

  2. CMWNo Gravatar says:

    Farce the Music parodied it as Intolerable in the latest Country Day (link).

    Very well-written review, Tara. Haven’t heard the album (just can’t do it), but I suspect I’d have been rather harder on it than you were…

  3. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    On Friday while I was in the gym working out at lunchtime, a song came on whatever music service they use that I vaguely recognized. I couldn’t quite place it at first, but knew it was something I hadn’t heard in a long time. At first I thought it must be a pop cover of a country song — sort of like some pop groups have covered John Michael Montgomery and Lonestar songs (or maybe they covered the pop versions, I’m not sure). It took a few moments for me to realize that the song was Rascal Flatts singing “What Hurts The Most”. It’s amazing how when you’ve been away from mainstream country radio for a while (I haven’t listened in well over a year), how obvious it is that stuff like this bears little resemblance to country. We’re conditioned to accepting as country when we’re used to hearing it on the radio. But thankfully, acts like Rascal Flatts no longer exist in my world and I sure do not miss them.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I’m with CMW. Very good review. While it’s no secret that RF isn’t my cup of tea, I think your points were well articulated and that’s all I can ask for from a review of an album that may not fit my music taste.

  5. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Razor,
    Do you know if you were hearing the original version or the remixed recording of “What Hurts the Most.” I will admit that “What Hurts the Most” is one of my guilty pleasures and one of the very few RF songs that I enjoy.

  6. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    It still had some traces of steel guitar in the intro, so it must have been the original. I remember being a little surprised to hear it.

  7. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I haven’t heard anything from this album yet besides the lead single, but reading this review reminded me how rare it is for this band to be discussed respectfully. They’ve certainly brought out my snark more than any non-teenage country act this decade.

    But they’ve also had some songs that I’ve absolutely loved (“I’m Movin’ On”, “Bless the Broken Road”) and a few that I’ve liked (“These Days”, “What Hurts the Most.”) I’m going to check out the songs Tara recommended, since her review indicates that we agree on their best and worst moments to date.

  8. KentNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with Kevin about the rarity of a respectful review. I’m glad Tara gave them a chance, and whether she liked them or not, gave them a fair review without all the negativity that most people throw at Rascal Flatts.

  9. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    For me, tHe problem with Rascal FLatts is that their music is rather bland. The guys sing well, and some of their songs are good, I even have their Greatest Hits album (a Christmas gift). Throw Johnny Gimble and Lloyd Green on their tracks and I might even enjoy many of them

    As it is, the French have a word that fully defines my feelings toward RF : ennui

  10. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, do you own their first two albums? There are some really great songs on them that are more akin to “I’m Moving On” than the new stuff they’ve put out.

  11. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I had them both at one point because I wanted “I’m Movin’ On” and “These Days”, but I can’t honestly say I listened to them all the way through. What tracks do you recommend?

  12. StephanieNo Gravatar says:

    Lovely review, Tara. I’m not a huge Flatts fan by any means, but I do find a number of their songs entertaining.

    I miss the days of “Fast Cars and Freedom,” “Mayberry,” and “Bless The Broken Road.” Their earlier single were most distinct and the production was much better, IMO. I agree with Paul on his observation of blandness.

  13. CharlieNo Gravatar says:

    I enjoyed the review Tara, and I think you gave the album a fair shake. I am not sure people expect “a show-stopping, brilliant piece of work” from RF though.

    From my admittedly limited experience with RF, it seems like this type of album is exactly what I would expect from them.

  14. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar says:

    “Like I Am,” “Long Slow Beautiful Dance,” “While You Loved Me” among others. None are any less pop-country, but I think the sound was a bit more distinct, and the quality of the first three albums just all around better.

    Charlie, you may be right. I just want people to be able to listen to this album without holding it up to any sort of standard, whether it be good or bad. That’s the only way you’re going to enjoy music for what it really is!

  15. AndrewNo Gravatar says:

    I really wish they would go back to their older, harmony-centered sound. Their first album is still my favorite by far.

  16. Matt BNo Gravatar says:

    Mark Bright certainly worked better w/them than Dann Huff (since Huff’s been the last 3 album’s producer). I think maybe Jay DeMarcus should produce the record w/o any other producer, might get them back to a more ‘steel-laced’ harmony driven sound.

  17. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I even liked them when their first album came out. I’m tellin’ ya! Dann Huff…

  18. Maggie HassanNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with Andrew. I perfer the old Rascall Flatts. I like some of their more current songs as well, but nothing will ever compare to “I Melt”. I do love how most of their songs are so optimistic and full of life; “My Wish” is perfectly written. :)

    Tara, this article is great. I love reading your perspective on something you are so passionate about. I think it’s important to look at artists’ work with an open mind, as you do.

  19. BLLNo Gravatar says:

    Very well written review. I won’t be getting this as the lead singer totally turned me off on them when I heard them live well before they had a record deal.

  20. dudleyNo Gravatar says:

    As much as I enjoyed Kevin’s pithy A+/F- reviews of Rascal Flatts’ work (and they, along with Dan’s pictorial review of Miley Cyrus’ current single, were incredibly amusing), I’m glad to see someone reviewing Flatts for what they are. I don’t mind LeVox’s…vox when he dials it down (for example, in the first verse of “Here Comes Goodbye”). But I find it downright intolerable when he goes for those big glory notes, as he does far too often on the songs on this album. The obvious studio enhancement of those notes makes me dislike them even more — they are distracting and drain the sincerity out of the songs’ delivery.

    “The interesting thing about the Flatts boys, though, is that, as middle-of-the-road as their music may be, you rarely get the feeling they’re compromising their artistry. The music they make seems to be the music they’ve always wanted to make, and they do so with a sincere passion.”

    That’s fair, but the sameness of their style and LeVox’s delivery across songs, as well as the repetition in thematic content that you point out, makes it seem like the band has gotten complacent and isn’t trying very hard. That’s off-putting, frankly.

    Flatts usually find some pretty solid melodic hooks with which to stock their albums, and Unstoppable is no exception. Several of the hooks seem rather derivative, though. “Close” turns the first half of the first line of the Keith Urban “Once in a Lifetime” chorus into a full hook. “Love Who You Love” cribs a hook from the first lines of the Carrie Underwood “Just a Dream” chorus. The hook of “Forever” actually sounds like a slowed down version of “Close.” And so on.

    “Things That Matter” and “Why” strike me as the best-written songs on the album, but I think Flatts overcooks them both. I know that both songs represent Flatts’ idea of a lighter touch, but I don’t think their touch is light enough. LeVox doesn’t modulate his voice well enough and the instrumentation remains a bit too intrusive.

  21. KNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the balanced review. Although I know the Flatts make it all-too-easy for critics to hate them, I still think they deserve a review based on the lyrical content and overall quality of the album. I also agree “Why” is by far the best single on the album, but I also like “Forever” and “She’d Be California.”
    I also agree that RF should branch away from Huff- he overproduces the albums and strips them of almost all emotional intensity.

  22. LaurenNo Gravatar says:

    Rascal Flatts is up for 2 CMT Awards! They really need your help so get to voting! In the category of Group Video of the Year, they have 2 videos: “Everyday” and “Bob That Head.” PLEASE ONLY VOTE FOR “EVERYDAY”–we DO NOT want the vote split!! VOTING ENDS FRIDAY!!!

    Tell all your friends to vote! Vote with every e-mail address you have!! PLEASE!!

    http://www.ccmt.com/cmt-music-awards/vote

  23. Cory DNo Gravatar says:

    They may get some good songs their way, but the vocals they offer as well as the production turns me off completly.

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