Album Review: Eric Church, Chief

by

July 24, 2011

Eric Church

Chief

On his new album, Eric Church sings that we need “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all.”

Bear in mind that he’s singing these lines on an album loaded with distorted vocals and sound effects, guitar solos closer to Three Doors Down than Cash, and a song about Bruce Springsteen.

That’s not to say that Chief is a bad album, because there are a lot of keepers in its 11 tracks – some of them are even country songs. It just seems odd to be calling for Country Music Jesus when you’re acting like one of the money-changers in the temple.

Church’s willingness to incorporate different stylistic elements does keep things interesting. “Creepin’” kicks the album off with a swampy vibe and ends up being even catchier than “Smoke a Little Smoke.” “Homeboy” unexpectedly includes a harp flourish or two with the hard rock guitars, while “Springsteen” manages to capture that Springsteen sound without sounding like a ripoff of one of The Boss’ hits. On the flip side, “Keep On” attempts to blend the bravado from a Toby Keith song, a guitar lick possibly lifted from an episode of “CHIPs”, and some guy in the background repeating random words from the verses. It just doesn’t work on any level.

Fortunately, all the production tricks don’t often get in the way of a strong collection of songs. The two best ones, “Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up,” were written by Church and Luke Laird and tackle the aftermath of a failed relationship. In particular, “Over When It’s Over” nicely expresses the frustration of having a good thing fall apart.

“Homeboy,” written by Church and Casey Breathard, is the most interesting lyrically. In lesser hands, this could have been about a farmboy wooing his wayward brother back home with a list of wonderful things about country living (sweet tea, parties in the barn, etc. etc.). Instead, Church gives a much more realistic portrayal (“Ain’t a glamorous life but it’ll keep you out of jail”), and he and Breathard deserve credit for creating characters with depth and for avoiding a simplified happy ending.

Then there are the requisite drinking songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Jack Daniels.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they all have a retread feel about them and aren’t nearly as compelling as the other tracks. The lyrics have just enough of an edge to help bolster Church’s outlaw rep but not enough to be actually controversial. So expect to hear Church singing about shoving overtime up his boss’ can or how Jack Daniels kicked his ass on the radio soon.

If you’re looking for Country Music Jesus, Chief may not be the answer to your prayers. On the whole, though, Church has put together one of the most ambitious and interesting albums that mainstream country music has seen all year.

 

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  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I’m really happy to have you writing for us, Sam.

    Great review.

    I’ve only listened to the Amazon clips so far, but I thought the album actually sounds pretty interesting. Then again, I am one who liked “Smoke a Little Smoke” due to its unique production.

  2. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Enjoyed the review, Sam. Nice to see some of your work over here at CU.

  3. Blaine JacobsNo Gravatar says:

    Nice review Sam.

    I’m looking forward to this album more so than I was. All the talk about being a self-professed outlaw, and how country music needs to embrace his uniqueness did the exact opposite of its intentions. Church has been hit or miss with me for some time now, but Chief sounds interesting enough that it’s worth a listen.

  4. AndrewNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll admit I got a little excited when I saw Sam’s name here.

  5. DevinNo Gravatar says:

    The review is nice. And I haven’t checked out the album at all myself. But I got a fairly negative vibe from your review which surprised me with the final 4 star evaluation. Guess I’ll just have to check it out for myself.

  6. TraditionalistNo Gravatar says:

    I truly wish I understood why people think this guy is such a great songwriter and why he feels like he is an “outlaw” especially after this quote straight from his mouth…

    What is your must-have tour accessory? “I have a couple of things. The two important things are a certain kind of sheets, because again, just anything that can make the bus feel like home [helps], so a high-quality thread count sheets … that’s a good one, and Jack Daniel’s. We have it here [at home] and we have it on the road. We just make sure it’s nearby [laughs]….”

    Oh my lord… you compare yourself to Johnny Cash and bitch about your thread count on your sheets in your bus??? Seriously? WOW! You are Bad Ass Eric!

  7. ScooterNo Gravatar says:

    If you can get past all the macho bluster I think Church is a great songwriter – genius at times. Really like this album and also liked “Carolina”.
    I saw him open for Miranda last year all I can say
    is his shows are “different” and not boring. Get close enough to watch his facial expressions during the show and you will be cracking up.

  8. DerekNo Gravatar says:

    That CHiPs reference was amazing. I don’t know how you noticed that. When I first read it I thought to myself ‘What?’ and then I started humming the CHiPs song and it hit me. That was the perfect comparison for the guitar lick.

  9. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I have to say that it turns out that I really enjoy this album. Nobody is more surprised than I am.

  10. NurhadiNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks For Your Description

  11. Adam JamesNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll have to check this one out. I’ve liked pretty much everything I heard off his last record but I never bought it, so I’ll give this one a shot. Good review!

  12. lisaNo Gravatar says:

    i listen to samples on amazon. idon;t like it.there was only two songs i like. drink in my hand and keep on. i just download the songs.

  13. Noah EatonNo Gravatar says:

    The only part of the review I can staunchly disagree with is the single “Homeboy”. It is undoubtedly a hook-heavy anthem with a well-studied metric flow with the rhyming and scansion in the verses and chorus, and produced reasonably well, but lyrically it is just mind-numbingly atrocious and caricaturing.

    *

    With that off my chest, this is otherwise a pretty solid album.

    *

    The production and Church’s distinctive vocals are what makes “Chief” stand out especially. It’s cleaner production-wise compared to his previous work, and unquestionably sounds like a contemporary Country album………….and yet it has a downhome, mesquite smoke to its texture. “Jack Daniels” is a perfect example. It has a melodic sheen to it, yet is instrumentally rich and you could easily imagine yourself hearing performed at a backyard barbecue pit with fellow blues musicians, with the gritty acoustic strums and bluesy electric guitar breakdowns.

    His hard rocker sensibilities also are reflected in this tightrope. “Country Music Jesus” feels about as epic as a three minute and forty-five second tracks have come in much recent memory. It starts off on a more back porch patio blues vein, then builds itself up with additional Stratocaster effects around the 1:08 mark before kicking into high gear with a sheet-of musical-napalm-melting-your-face hook at around 1:41, with even the last sixteen seconds dedicated to delirious interjections of bacchanalia.

    *

    Lyrically, Church is heavily one track minded with about half of the songs either being about drinking, heartache or getting stoned (or a mixture of all three, as in using alcohol and marijuana to alleviate his sorrows). Musically, however, this sounds anything but one track minded. “Like Jesus Does” reflects a more toned-down, breezy offering from him that I could see work as a radio song, and “Keep On” sounds like something straight out of the early 70′s rock scene (actually, it sounds very much in the vein of James Otto’s discography). And all his influences tend to pepper most the rest of the tracks to various degrees.

    My main criticism of “Chief”, aside from “Homeboy” of course, is Church’s over-reliance on hackneyed topics. Musically he more or less displays his “outlaw” chops (as you can see, I really grind my teeth when I hear that term now as it has become used so interchangeably)………but for much the same reason I criticized the Zac Brown Band and Miranda Lambert’s most recent, otherwise exquisite albums…………Church is anything BUT an “outlaw” with topical selection. If being a true “outlaw” in Country music is all about chortling with an as-a-matter-of-factness that you guzzle Jack Daniels and smoke weed and you don’t care what anyone else thinks about that………well………..the former half of it anyway pretty much makes seven of every ten artists on Country radio presently “outlaws”.

    *

    “Springsteen” and “Drink In My Hand” are by far as radio-ready as he’s gotten to date, and you can bet he’ll net his first two Top Five hits with those, if not outright chart-toppers. “Hungover and Hard Up” is also radio-friendly enough to make a broader impression, I think, even if I base that thought more on the melodic texture of the song and not so much bolstering a strong hook (it is relatively hookless and is driven by a breezy melody). Finally, I would argue “Over When It’s Over” would be as radio-friendly as he has come……………..if only it wasn’t too short at barely over two minutes in duration. It’s, for the same reason, why “Keep On” doesn’t stand out as a candidate (it might actually be too fast a shuffle for radio to handle these days anyway).

    It might also be wise for him to make a bid for the hardcore chicken-fried metal title by releasing “Creepin’”. With Aldean distracted with more melodic flair presently and Brantley Gilbert the only other artist releasing no-holds-barred country rock at this moment in time on Country radio, Church has plenty of room to establish himself further in this sphere. It would require a bit of a radio edit, for sure, but I can see it working as a single once done so. It has quite a stompin’ riot of a chorus.

    *

    My advice for Eric Church may spark reasonable disagreement among some of you, but it would be to give “Creepin’” a try next, first. Should it work out well for him, great. If not, that’s okay………….”Springsteen” will put him right back on cruise control as the third single. Then, I think he can go one of two directions for the fourth single: 1) Release “Hungover and Hard Up” if he wants to maintain his rebellious edge as a lyricist, or 2) release “Like Jesus Does” if his intention is to broaden his artistic scope and personality, as that is a reasonably radio-friendly slower song. Then, should he stick it out long enough to go five deep, go with the other sure bet, “Drink In My Hand”.

  14. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    If country rock has to be a category, I much prefer what I hear Eric Church doing on this album, including “Creepin” to Jason Aldean’s bland version of country rock.

  15. Hoggy from OzNo Gravatar says:

    ^ Ditto Leeann. Church’s music is so much more interesting…sonically, thematically and vocally.

    Having said that, I’d prefer Gary Allan over both Church and Aldean :)

  16. Bryan O'ConnorNo Gravatar says:

    I TOTALLY Disagree with your assestment, It’s a GREAT ALBUM that SHOULD win Album of the year but it won’t because Eric isn’t “mainstream” enough…. And listening to the words of Country Music Jesus says JUST that, Jesus, just like Johnny Cash was to to country music was DIFFERENT from the Rest of the so he’s singing about SOMEONE who is Different from all these watered down “country stars” Like Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean to come SAVE Country Music from this mass Hysteria that is going around and saying just because you wear a hat and boots don’t make you TRUE country, that country music NEEDS to get back to it’s a roots a lil.

  17. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    Bryan,

    Thanks for the clarification. I now agree that Eric Church is just like Jesus.

  18. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I’m with the consensus.

    Church has become a fantastic melody-writer and an expressive singer, and I really dig this album’s production, too. He just still suffers from chronic bad taste. “Homeboy” is one of the best-sounding singles of the year (besides the RAAAWR guitars in the second verse), but since it stoops to a sort of xenophobia and puns up “homeboy” so gauchely, it becomes a waste. “Like Jesus Does” feels like a dumb knock-off of “God Love Her,” and calling himself a “long gone Waylon song” is just way too full of it. And he says “Country Music Jesus” was supposed to be ironic, but he wasn’t able to make that come through, so that sounds dumb, too.

    I don’t know. He’s obviously so talented; I wish he didn’t make it hard to enjoy him!

  19. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yeah, he doesn’t do swagger as well as Toby Keith, but he thinks he does.

  20. wmcmNo Gravatar says:

    And he says “Country Music Jesus” was supposed to be ironic, but he wasn’t able to make that come through, so that sounds dumb, too.

    I disagree. I listened to the album first, then I read reviews and was shocked to see nobody picking up on what I thought was the obvious. I wish I’d had the courage to post here before I saw where Eric Church confirmed it.

    My thing about that song is if a guy’s singing about a country music Jesus coming along but those lyrics are set against hard rock guitar riffs that culminate in a gospel revival, you have to either think the he’s a completely literal and sincere idiot oblivious to concept of irony or that he’s well aware of the irony and using the gospel revival as a way of poking fun at all the panting for the return of the real country outlaws. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read enough Eric Church interviews but I do not believe the guy is an idiot. I figure him for more of the Kanye West type of guy as far as his public persona.

    I’ll try and say this delicately because I mean no offense but might give it anyway. Reading the reviews I felt like people got too caught up in Eric Church’s egomaniacal wannabe outlaw image and maybe it was easier for people less well versed in his history to figure out what he was trying to do. I don’t feel too bad for Eric Church though because he probably thrives on the idea that critics don’t “get” him.

    What’ll be interesting is what happens when the blogosphere’s aversion to Eric Church’s personality and taste intersects with its good will for Miranda Lambert. They’ve collaborated on a bunch of songs aimed for her next album. I for one will be disappointed if we don’t hear at least one and if it isn’t obnoxiously clever or cleverly obnoxious. Eric Church didn’t write on the lead single so it’ll be a little longer before we can hear anything they’ve done.

  21. caseyNo Gravatar says:

    I have a few comments and points to make about your review. Eric Church does have a a number of sound effects and voice distortions in his new cd Cheif. But This is new age country. To be a singer now, you need to have the new effects and the have what is popular to make it as a country singer. If Eric Church made music sound like Waylon or Willie Nelson, ect, then he wouldn’t make it in the industry because that is not what most new age country listeners want to hear. But Eric does keep the way of the music in his songs, he sings of all the alcohol and smoking, just like Waylon and all the old singers known as The Outlaws. I think what Eric meens by we need a “longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all” is that all the modern country singers lost the essence of what country music was about. They don’t sing about all the things that country music used to be about. They all need to prove they are country by adding sweat tea and peaches and hay fields. The old singers would just sing about their feelings, and their loved ones that they still have or dont. Now all the country singers are pop, and try to make their songs sound country with all the things that are associated with a country way of life, like hay fields ect. Eric sings about how he feels, and he keeps the old outlaw look on the country like old country music was like.
    With that said, I don’t think that you are right about him with this song Country Music Jesus. He made that song, I think, to prove the point I made above about how modern country music is now pop and not at all like the real, the good stuff, of old country music. And yes he does have a few voice effects and such, but if you are at all familure with Waylon you’d find that he experimented with voice changes and sound effects. He goes into a rock theme in some of his newer cds (although he is passed on, saddly) He used electric guitar and he used voice distortions. If you listen to his song Waymore’s Blues, which is an AMAZING song, then you’ll find that he used sound effects in his guitars and electric guitars and he uses voice effects. It’s the change of the century,you got to use those things to make your music be popular now. Do you understand what I mean? I believe in the same thing as Eric Church. I think all this modern day country music is useless and it all sucks honestly. I’d listen to Waylong Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jesse Carter ect. any day. They are REAL counry music singers, and we will never see another generation in country music that is as good as the past one. It’s sad to say but its very true. Eric Church IS the sheep among the wolves standing tall, Or vise versa, a wold amongst sheep standing tall, because he is the leader of country music now, he keeps the essence of what country music is really about in his music. He is bold, and he stands out strong. That is what makes a good singer.

  22. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Wow! I’m warming to Eric Church, but making him out to be more than a talented guy who still needs to reach his potential is difficult to swallow without cringing. I just don’t feel that he’s nearly as deep as he or his choir makes him out to be.

  23. caseyNo Gravatar says:

    hmm, well I dont’ quit understand how you got “him being more than a talented guy who still needs to reach his potential” out of my comment, because that’s not the statement I was making. I was simplying implying that he is what old country was made of. He has that old way about him that Waylong Jenning has. I grew up with Waylong playing on our radio all the time, and I know he is a great country singer. I wouldn’t ever of out Eric Church on the pedistal next to Waylon if he didn’t have the same potential as Waylon. He simply has that old way of music about him. He sings of real things and he isn’t pop country.

  24. caseyNo Gravatar says:

    Waylon**

  25. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    wmcm,

    I appreciate the very thoughtful comment. I’d read that “Country Music Jesus” was supposed to be ironic before listening to the album, so that might have messed with my expectations some, but to me the song sounded…not dead-serious, but kind of like a joke-y song that still means its core sentiment (like “Any Man of Mine”). But not quite ironic. He didn’t quite make it sound like he was mocking the “country music needs a savior” viewpoint, perhaps because he spent too much time on religious imagery and not enough time actually exploring that viewpoint. Just my opinion, though – I can see it both ways.

    I agree the Church/Lambert collaborations will be interesting to hear. I could see them coming up with some great stuff (in some ways I think this album does the hard-rock-country thing better than Revolution did), although naturally I do worry that his attitude could rub off on her in a bad way. It’s not like she’s totally immune to lapses in taste herself.

  26. JayJayNo Gravatar says:

    The critical consensus on this album has been so strong that I feel compelled to check it out. But man oh man do I loathe “Homeboy”. That song will be one of those timeless staples that will be used for years to come to make fun of/ stereotype people who love country music.

  27. [...] Church in a song called “Springsteen” off his new album, Chief. Love the lyric, like the album and am sort of, kind of warming up to the [...]

  28. Noah EatonNo Gravatar says:

    “Homeboy” remains a leading contender for my Top Ten Worst Singles of 2011 shortlist.

    And I say that willing to give credit where credit is due. You can tell “Homeboy” is tightly composed. As far as scansion and metric rhythm is concerned, I will hand it to “Homeboy” in that the composers had a nice knack at both and so made for a bouncy feel with regards to the internal rhyming and general delivery of the song. That’s not as easy as it looks in a musical landscape teeming with run-on sentences and non-rhyming non-sequiturs.

    *

    But that doesn’t alter the fact that “Homeboy” is an intensely intelligence-insulting song. The title isn’t even at the forefront of my distaste with it, but by the simple fact that it shamelessly and lazily settles on the “add one and one together” formula of depicting hip-hop stereotypes in the first verse, equating them with the subject’s lawlessness, and then contrasting it with the lawfulness of downhome livin’ (I would say “country utopia”, but admittedly Church does admit that country life “ain’t a glamorous life” before rubbing in the but that is “it’ll keep you out of jail.”

    How condescending is that? Are certain types of crimes more likely to be committed in urban enviros as opposed to rural ones? Of course. But the whole dichotomy isn’t nearly as cut-and-dry as pundits and the established media often make it out to be. When you get right down to it, we all have differing priorities with regards to our livability. A lot of Americans who presently live in urban areas tend to feel malaise with their natural environs, while many people who live in rural areas tend to feel malaise with regards to the lack of options. Not all small towns are identical, for sure, but the “Church Pew or Barstool” mentality is indeed prominent across much of small town America, and that disenchantment that comes with the monotony certainly proves to spur its own waves of criminal activity. It’s not saying bars and churches in small towns are to blame for all those crimes or anything. It’s just alluding to the reality that, when your physiological and psychological needs are not being met and your enviro is doing little to help, it becomes much more likely someone is going to do something irrational at best, unlawful at worst.

    “Homeboy” is a song that is professionally well-crafted and rhythmic……….that is nonetheless atrocious lyrically, that only needlessly deepens the whole rural versus urban tribalistic divide, and is otherwise built largely on list song descriptors.

    Has “Homeboy” honestly even done much to buoy this album? I’m doubting it myself. If it was, it would be competing with the latest singles from the likes of Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean on iTunes, and the music video/lyrics video on YouTube would have many more hits than it maintains now. Brantley Gilbert’s “Kick It In the Sticks” has SIX MILLION hits on YouTube for crying out loud, and that song was never a radio hit……..not to mention received most of the hype prior to him signing with the Valory Music Co. And even if “Homeboy” may be popular among concert-goers, I would still bet there are plenty of songs die-hard Church fans would rather hear than that.

  29. Adam JamesNo Gravatar says:

    @Noah

    I think you’ve gotten so wrapped up in one small part of the song that you’ve missed the big picture as a whole. Sure there are some depictions of hip hop stereotypes, but country music stereotypes almost everyone, especially the folks it is supposedly by/for. The stereotype of the country boy into hip hop culture who emulates the thug/gangsta “lifestyle” is a fact. As someone who’s played a lot of small towns and grew up in one the size of your thumb, I’ve MET that guy many many times. It’s not racism or insulting to the intelligence (and if you think this song is insulting to the intelligence, you should listen to the radio and catch some of the chestnuts on there) it’s a story song that uses an archetype we’re all familiar with to help build its central character.

    “Homeboy” is not only a different sounding song, but it’s written about a topic that hasnt been done to death. The album itself is really good too and I think Eric Church has the potential to put out a game-changing album if he really focuses.

    Like it or not, country is the new rock n roll and Eric Church seems to be one of the ones leading that charge.

  30. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    “The stereotype of the country boy into hip hop culture who emulates the thug/gangsta “lifestyle” is a fact.”

    I do believe this.

    But that’s also delicate territory for a song to tread, and I just think this song happens to do it clumsily. Church spends so much time seething about the wannabe’s appearance that it sounds like he’s basically equating the trimmings of hip-hop culture – which are, in and of themselves, innocuous – with bad, even criminal, behavior.

    Now, it could well be true that guys who wear fake gold on their teeth (which – is that actually something white country boys do ever? I’m asking sincerely; have no idea) are more likely to get into trouble with the law. I don’t know. Certainly you couldn’t fault a parent for being concerned if their kid came home dressed like a rapper. And yet…

    When you get down to it, the appearance isn’t the real issue; what the kid does is. So I wish the song focused more on the kid’s behavior (the cussing out mama, pushing daddy around, etc.) than on being like, “why are you dressed all hip-hop-like?” and making a mocking pun out of hip-hop slang (“homeboy”). It distracts from the substantial concerns of the song, suggesting that those substantial concerns share significant space in this narrator’s head with ugly, superficial, ethnocentric ones – a simple disgust with that which looks different.

  31. Hoggy from OzNo Gravatar says:

    In regards to “Country Music Jesus”, I assume Eric Church hasn’t heard of Jamey Johnson.

    Anyway, this album was only released in Australia yesterday. Since what I’ve heard of it sounds pretty cool and unique, and you guys say it’s pretty good, I think I may take a rest from assignments and go out into the rain and get this :)

  32. wmcmNo Gravatar says:

    But that’s also delicate territory for a song to tread, and I just think this song happens to do it clumsily. Church spends so much time seething about the wannabe’s appearance that it sounds like he’s basically equating the trimmings of hip-hop culture – which are, in and of themselves, innocuous – with bad, even criminal, behavior.

    Dan, thank you for explaining your POV without resorting to calling the song “intelligence insulting”. I can at least see where you’re coming from. But the way I took the lyrical focus on appearance, it’s designed to call the prodigal son out as a poser. The key line is “we both know who you are.” I don’t know about you but the idea of people who get caught up in the idea of rebelling against their parents by adopting the trappings of a “street” lifestyle they’ve actually got no connection to is very familiar. I see ‘Homeboy’ as the story of a poser who’s gotten in over his head play-acting at a lifestyle he’s not tough or smart enough to handle. The hip-hop references are just to illustrate what this kid’s idea of rebellion was and how shallow it is.

    He didn’t quite make it sound like he was mocking the “country music needs a savior” viewpoint, perhaps because he spent too much time on religious imagery and not enough time actually exploring that viewpoint.
    I see the use of religious imagery as an inherent exaggeration that implies the mockery. I see what you’re saying about the lyrics lending themselves to a literal interpretation but I think the not-country musical bed and the exaggeration element as the things that show the mockery.

    My criticism of the song is I’d prefer if the point of view were closer to what Eric’s said in interviews: it may be silly to pant for a “Country Music Jesus” but the sin is more in letting a narrow idea of what the outlaws did constrain you from seeing the merits in people trying to take country music somewhere interesting without robbing it of its roots. With CMJ Eric’s just trolling certain critics and he’s capable of being more thoughtful about country music than that.

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