February 2, 2013
How Country Feels
Randy Houser impressed the critics with 2010′s They Call Me Cadillac, but country radio yawned, and neither of the album’s two singles cracked the Top 30. Houser’s Stoney Creek Records debut thus comes across as a mea culpa of sorts, as Houser shrugs his shoulders in defeat, and gets ready to do some good old-fashioned pandering.
The title track and first single, which recently became Houser’s first number one hit, was a most accurate preview of the project to follow. Producer Derek George swaps out the tasteful, traditional-leaning arrangements of They Call Me Cadillac for spit-shine polished productions tailor-made for endless airplay. The album is peppered with odes to country living and rural romance. Trucks! Tailgates! Hollers and hills! Country girls! Skinny dipping! Houser shouts Aldean-style over a pounding bass line in “Sunshine On the Line,” and shoehorns in some arena-rock chants in the vapid backwoods come-on “Running Outta
Moonlight.” Lyrical formulas and clichés abound, from “Hands up, rockin’ like a boat… We’re gonna live this never-ending summer like we’re just growin’ younger” to “This kiss, this moment, yeah I just wanna stay in it.” It’s unfortunately fitting that one of the songs finds Houser singing, without a hint of self-awareness, “I wrote a song ’bout absolutely nothing with my toes tapping in the sand,” as the majority of the album’s tracks seem to be about exactly that – nothing.
Even when the songwriters’ aspirations seem to be slightly higher, the songs rarely rise above one dimension. ”Route 3 Box 250 D” grasps at domestic violence to create a semblance of emotional heft, but leans on a bare-boned narrative that fails to channel the narrator’s inner struggles and emotions, while the songwriters awkwardly attempt to create a title hook out of the narrator’s home address. Though “Along for the Ride” is one of the better-produced cuts, the lyric offers only dime store pseudo-philosophy with a boring, cliché-driven take on what Iris DeMent said far more eloquently with “Let the Mystery Be.”
The album’s only truly outstanding cut is one unlikely to see the light at radio. ”The Singer,” co-written by Houser with Cory Batten and Kent Blazy, is by far the album’s best-written song, utilizing a clear-cut, accessible hook in detailing the struggles behind a marriage in the spotlight. “She loved the singer; she just couldn’t live the song,” Houser sings, effectively summing up the heartache of a woman who loves her famous spouse, but can no longer settle for being “just one of a million screaming his name.” “Power of a Song” speaks to the power of songcraft with a melody that draws out an evocative performance from Houser, but the lyrics don’t pack the punch of past gems like Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When” or Sara Evans’ “Three Chords and the Truth.”
The problem of weak material is compounded by the album’s length – a whopping fifteen tracks, roughly half of which are interchangeable. What’s with the need for today’s artists to fill an album up with fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-plus songs when barely five of those songs have anything substantial or authentic to say? Of course, Randy Houser’s performances are consistently solid - unsurprising, as he is in command of one of the strongest male voices on country radio. He even manages to elevate the formula-driven title track into something mildly enjoyable. But the problem remains that there’s no voice strong enough to save a fifteen-track album that’s stacked with poorly-written songs.
How Country Feels will likely succeed in keeping Randy Houser on the radio for the next two years. Nonetheless, we might observe a moment of silence for the early artistic potential that this album leaves largely buried.
Top Tracks: “The Singer,” “Power of a Song”
Buy: How Country Feels