According to Rascal Flatts bass guitarist Jay DeMarcus, the banjo has become an elusive, endangered species.
(So is a Rascal Flatts rocker that doesn’t want to make you jam with anyone named Elroy, throw away your old Igloo cooler and lose your appetite every time you see a Sonic Drive-In.)
To put the lead single from the formidable trio’s forthcoming eighth studio album in perspective, a brief backstory of the instrument in the spotlight is warranted.
Indeed, the banjo has been long revered as a quintessential ingredient in not only country music, but as an integral part of all American music. Brought to the United States via the slave trade (the earliest documented mentioning of a “banshaw” is generally believed to be 1678, from an autobiographal note in Martinique that describes a convergence of slaves prior to deportation in which one is depicted plucking a “banza”.) Thomas Jefferson, himself, would later recognize this instrument in 1781, who referred to it as a “banjar.”
From the formation of the Sweeney Mistrels to their integration into parlors in mid-nineteenth century Boston, from the emergence of celebrated banjo legends such as Charlie Poole and Earl Scruggs during the mid-twentieth century to helping differentiate American country music from Western European influences then onward……..the banjo, in all its clawhammered, fast-arpeggiated glory, has stood the tests of time and its legacy is secure.
Tragically, recent years have not been kind to this tone-ringed, sometimes fretless, watermark. Since its heyday, it has been relegated from the forefront of traditional American music to something treated like “natural flavor” to add a hint of distinctive zest to modern country radio tracks. You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to find something on your local radio station’s playlist that prominently features a banjo as opposed to merely being submerged in the mix.
But no need to fear, y’all! Rascal Flatts are back to rescue this five-stringed wonder from obscurity………..I guess.
According to an interview by DeMarcus on the eve of this single’s release, he explained that “Banjo” is about “getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life” by driving as far out into the backwoods as you can “until you go so far you start to hear a banjo.”
In theory, that makes for an enticing, musical journey. So why is it that “Banjo” is at its most intimate in the opening minute, and ends at its most obstreperous?
The first two verses bow with a notably banjo (!) driven arrangement, free of schmaltzy string arrangements and Huff’s signature 80’s-rawk sensibilities. Lead vocalist LeVox laments how the “B.S.” has gotten so thick in the concrete jungle that he has decided to rev up his four-wheel drive and make a run for the back roads. By the time the chorus kicks in, the trio suddenly regresses to a standard arena-rock chorus that sounds as though it was cloned from “Summer Nights”, with LeVox beseeching you must “kick it into four-wheel drive when you run out of road, and you go……..until you hear banjo.”
“Banjo” steadily ramps it up from there, where LeVox goes on to brag in the third verse that their “little place of heaven hidden” has not been tracked by the satellites or G.P.S. yet (I’m willing to bet the song’s three co-writers we can eventually track it on Google Maps.) Finally, by the time we reach the song’s coda, rather than being greeted with an intimate, back-patio banjo solo or perhaps a whiff of mountain music, the group finally regresses to its stereotypical stadium-rock histrionics, with the touch-ups of banjo deafended by high octane blasts of electric guitar testosterone as the group fist-pumps to battle cries of “Whoa oh oh!”.
If “Banjo” is any sort of musical statement, it is quite a contradictory one. By DeMarcus’s logic……….shouldn’t the song start off dominated by electric guitar, only to gradually veer closer to traditional instruments and sounds as it goes on? It certainly sounds to me like, the more closer the group drives home to the hinterland, the more noise and distraction there tends to be! Perhaps the B.S. is even thicker where the G.P.S. don’t sleep!
Then again, considering the arrangement, suppose we were to re-think “Banjo”. Perhaps, “Banjo”, if anything, is an existential crisis put to music. It concerns a troubled protagonist, who “can’t take a breath without gettin’ sick” in this wasteland of the 21st century, and is idealistically driven to try and find a relic that has been long believed to have faded into obscurity. The longer and longer he drives on, the more desperate he grows, yet his panglossian disposition encourages him to press on. Finally, by the coda, he has started to become unhinged by his migraine-induced desperation that he, emotionally, has “ran out of road” as he hears what sounds like the last banjo crying insolably as it is being usurped and broken apart by stratocasting poachers.
Whatever this single’s three writers were intending, it misfires as a musical statement of sorts. In spite of this, that contradiction doesn’t necessarily defeat the entire listening experience. I for one appreciate the renewed energy output here, especially following back-to-back ballads (and several album cycles dominated by schmaltzy ballads before that). Also noteworthy is the fact LeVox’s vocal performance here is not nearly as overdone as we have been accustomed to hearing of him overall. LeVox actually sounds like he’s enjoying the ride here, rather than belting as though it’s all life or death. He even sounds rapturously laid-back often, most notably during the verses.
If anything, the group would benefit from channeling this sort of renewed hunger a little more often (minus the last 35 seconds)……………..albeit steering clear of lyrical swamps in the vein of offenders like “Bob That Head” and opting for less of Huff’s trademark rawk bombast. “Banjo” may not offer anything new to the table, but it is certain to become a live setlist standout and I can see numerous listeners tuning this up while burning up calories on the treadmill. Who knows, perhaps live renditions of “Banjo” on their forthcoming tour may provide a refuge for various accomplished banjo players to exhibit their skills from city to city. I hope so, anyway.
If you dare not overthink “Banjo”, you’ll likely at least tolerate it in a way you haven’t been able to tolerate previous rockers from Rascal Flatts. If you are hankering for some clawhammering in its most intimate splendor, however………try not to breathe, and keep on drivin’. You ain’t even close.
Let me take this moment to say that I recognize this is a lengthier review than many of you who frequent this community are generally used to viewing.
I suppose I have a natural obsession with scratching deep into every little detail I can muster. One of my primary recent influences beyond the country music reviewing community is Reviewtopia’s Todd In The Shadows……..who I admire for academically deconstructing modern pop singles and always having so much to say. I suppose I, clearly, channeled his influence in this offering.
But don’t expect this to be my routine mode of operation. I’m aiming to experiment more in the vein of brevity in future reviews, as I believe reviewers must make a point to evolve stylistically much like we constantly hope the artists we review do……..or at least make a tried-and-true formula sound fresh each time! =)
Congrats on making your full-fledged CU debut, Noah!
I like this song for what it is, but as you mentioned in the review, it’s best not to look too deep. I think the production has its good moments, and the vocal is one of Gary’s best in awhile. He also genuinely sounds like he’s enjoying himself here, which is a relief. I think he’s a really effective vocalist when he actually believes in what he’s singing, and this song is a prime example.
I did notice the vocal seems to become a bit more forced as the song gets louder, which is irritating; the vocals probably would’ve been more consistent if the loud electric guitars hadn’t kicked in.
I do think there is an effort made to give this a laid-back vibe with some traditionalinstrumentation mixed in; even though the execution isn’t stellar, I appreciate that there seemed to be some intent to make this sound a little gritter and more country than most of their recent material. It’s still glossy, and it certainly isn’t in the vein of their strongest uptempos like “Mayberry” and “Fast Cars And Freedom,” but it’s a start.
The new album is titled “Changed,” and the press released mentioned Rascal Flatts will co-produce the project with Dann Huff. I’m interested to see what they come up with, because they co-produced a few earlier albums and came up with some great stuff.
PS- Beware, there is a track called “She’s Leavin'” that resembles “Bob That Head, in both production and lyrically vanity; I thought it’d be nice to warn ya so you wouldn’t be surprised. Then again, I liked “Bob That Head, because at least it didn’t aim to come across as anything more than cheesy arena-rock, so what do I know?
Is there any chance you post as “LispingHibiscus” on Pulse? This review seems oddly familiar…:)
Why thank you Ben! =)
It is an utmost pleasure being a part of this budding, thriving community. I still regret the lengthy delay in marking my debut in earnest here. I was honestly distracted with personal life distractions on my end late last year (many of us were to varying degrees I’m sure) and I also tend to have an all-or-nothing disposition where, when I’m not fully focused, my attention span can be woefully defective at that point in time! (laughs)
Again, thanks everyone! There will unquestionably be plenty more in store! =D
Hey Karly, thank you for your generous contributions to this discussion and your compliments! They are very much appreciated! =)
The production ends on a sour note to my ears, but all in all I believe it’s about as tolerable as anything the trio has put out in at least five years that would qualify as a rocker. At least they don’t sound like they’re either in a stupor here or LeVox is vying to be the lead vocalist of an Air Supply tribute act. The trio were in a desperate need of a change of pace following “Unstoppable”, and “Why Wait” was just the kind of warm, feel-good record they needed to find their stride again. This obviously isn’t as good as “Why Wait” in that it lacks its charm and impressionability, but it still makes for a more energetic listening experience.
I agree with your point on the laid-back vibe. I feel they succeed with that in the verses and right before the coda primarily. The pre-chorus and chorus tend to work against establishing that atmosphere, but we’ll take what we can, right? ;)
Thanks for the advance warning on “She’s Leavin'”. Self-aggrandizing their own group name into its lyrics or not, it will take more than just circular breathing to make it through that number, I’m sure! ;)
Yes, I am indeed LispingHibiscus on Pulse Music Board. It’s great to see you here! =)
i love rascal flatts new song.
…i love keith urban’s new song – but what’s wrong with his voice?
Officially – welcome, Noah!
Tom: Urban was recently under the knife to remove a nodule on his vocal cords. He has since been recovering, and there is actually an amusing, freshly-released interview in which he described awkward moments during a three-week stretch when he couldn’t sing, talk, cough, or make any sort of audible effects whatsoever for the purpose of ensuring a full recovery. Urban even mentioned he had a dream where he was singing like a higher-pitched singer and then hurried to his doctor, concerned if he could have been singing in his sleep! (laughs) ;)
Awwwwwwwww, thanks so much Tara! =)
Is it possible that Tom was tongue-in-cheeking this song’s close resemblance to Keith Urban’s signature power-banjo style, and that it’s a commentary on the irony of hearing Gary’s vocal instead?
Really, I didn’t finish the song based on Noah’s warning that the banjo becomes not just a secondary star but more of a bit player by the end. But I will say this is the first time I’ve thought another act was precariously close to “poaching” the KU vibe. I’ll probably enjoy this song on the radio, but not without reminding myself that RF owes a huge debt (if not apology) to Keith.
Yeah, I can see that possibility (even though I think Keith Urban is well superior to Gary LeVox as an all-around vocalist, in that Urban has a better knack at sounding effervescent while maintaining an aesthetic of cool, while LeVox too often treats cadence as though he’s twisting a sink faucet on and off! ;) )
It’s really no coincidence that the two, sonically especially, share a lot in common. Dan Huff has been incessantly producing records for both acts for the greater part of this past decade. So be sure to appropriate some of the blame Huff’s way as well! ;)
Noah/Lisping Hibiscus, whichever or whatever you wish to be known as in the blogosphere, I must say that that was an impeccable review. I like the review a lot more than the song.
^Ha, ditto to that!
Awwwwwwww, thanks Billy! =)
It really doesn’t matter. I’m ecstatic being addressed by either. I developed the pen name because my given name is an awkward pun in itself, and I actually use it as well with social networking, but I really love both. =)
I agree with much of the critique of this offering, but go easy on LeVox. To say that Flatts owes a debt to Urban?? Hardly. Flatts have been doing it at an incredibly high level for as long if not longer than urban.Further, I believe LeVox turned in one of the greatest vocals of all time on “I’m Moving On”. Still blows my mind every time I hear it.
Not longer than Urban, I’m afraid. Urban released his first album in Australia back in 1991, and had his first hit in the U.S. in 1999. Rascal Flatts broke through the following year, in 2000.
I liked the Flatts from around 2000 to 2006 or so, but lately I haven’t been so interested. Even so, I respected the Flatts for not falling prey to the “I’m country” syndrome of Justin Moore, Jason Aldean, Craig Morgan.
This song is ok I guess, and Its definitely not as aggressive in asserting the joys of the backwoods as a lot of stuff. But I’m not a fan of celebrating the backwoods or music instruments associated with rednecks. I hope this is a one-off for the Flatts, but I think its tolerable despite its theme.
This song is nice enough, I guess, though I feel that this sort of theme has gotten overdone on the radio lately. Still, I’d much rather listen to the Flatts than any of the acts who repeatedly remind us of how country and how redneck they are (Justin Moore, Jason Aldean).
Again, I hardly think Gary LeVox and Keith Urban are torn from the same cloth as vocalists. They have considerably different approaches. Neither are weak vocalists by any stretch, but I just prefer Urban in that his approach feels more natural and cool, while LeVox’s style is traditionally more hot-and-cold oriented, or quiet-loud.
They often just SOUND similar because Huff is the man behind the soundboard for both artists, and always relishes rubbing off some of his 80’s bombast nostalgia into his production practice.
Sweetcheeks, I concur with your general point.
Admittedly, I have liked Aldean’s two most recent singles in that I feel he tackles material that may reside in the familiar tropes you mention, yet is lyrically delivered in a way that still stands out at least a little bit from the rest of the “I’m Country!” By-The-Textbook fodder.
“Tattoos On This Town”, I have to admit, is my second favorite Aldean single to date (on the surface that’s probably not saying much, but those who know me well enough know I’m neither an Aldean detractor nor fan and actually believe he has plenty of enjoyable album tracks like “Not Every Man Lives”, “Back In This Cigarette” and “Church Pew or Barstool”) and I also like his newly released “Fly Over States” overall. Aside from that, he has always released terrible lead singles (as well as “Crazy Town”) that rate among the worst singles beyond that in recent history in my opinion………..but I have to say Aldean does impress me every once in a while.
Justin Moore, on the other hand……. =P
I should clarify that I find some of the “I’m Country” songs to be fun, but the theme has been done so much lately that it has kind of worn its welcome with me.
I also prefer the “Im Country” songs that celebrate country life without putting down the city. The city is by no means perfect, and it deserves its criticisms, but these songs sometimes come across as chauvinistic. And the country is not utopia either.
Anyway I prefer Rascal Flatts when LeVox tones down the delivery a bit.
I do think Noah is right to a large extent about the banjo being relegated from the forefront of traditional American music (and all the banjo jokes we’ve heard over the years don’t help). However, I would point out that the Dixie Chicks (they’ve been in a couple of papers [LOL]) have used it prominently, thanks to their own Emily Robison burning it up on “Sin Wagon” and “White Trash Wedding.”
I’ve always found the Urban/Levox comparison to be interesting, probably because I’m not an Urban fan, but I adore Rascal Flatts. There are similarities in the pop/country sound, and I think they both fall into the category of either doing their craft well, or overdoing it to the point where it sounds stale and boring; there is rarely a middle ground with either RF or Urban, in my experience.
I do find a certain authenticity in both artists, even if the material may not live up to the talent of either. I find an authenticity in RF’s lyrics, but I don’t always connect with their live performances, while I don’t tend to see anything special in Keith’s studio recordings, while I see that spark in his live performances.
While I don’t love all of the Flatt’s material, I feel like they’ve tried to mix things up a little bit, and the fresher sound of “Nothing Like This” is certainly a major step in the right direction. While I don’t think “Banjo” is their best uptempo song, it’s clear to me they are at least trying to do something a little different, and it doesn’t seem forced or overly cheesy.
Keith has a lot of potential, and while I agree he’s the better vocalist of the two, I don’t feel like he’s even attempted to do anything fresh, or even a little bit different from his usual material. He seems so passionate about making music and performing, it surprises me that he seems so content to coast along on the same type of uptempo pop/country material.
And I hardly think the Flatts “owe” anything to Urban; they have maintained a consistent level of superstardom for 11 years, and they are still one of the most visible groups in music. They’re still touring as much as ever, and I believe they only take about 3 months off, around the holidays. They are always releasing albums,playing the Opry, etc. Keith has a more consistent track record with radio, but he is not selling albums, digital singles, or concert tickets the way the Flatts are. They were one of the many artists to influence fans with their more polished sound, and I’d argue their influence among the general music industry has been deeper than Urban’s, who certainly isn’t as consistent as the Flatts are these days, in terms of success and popularity.
Rascal Flatts is certainly more consistent in selling albums and digital singles than Keith Urban is, but from what I understand, they rate about even in concert ticket sales. It’s just Rascal Flatts puts on more shows annually, which is why one could attempt to make the case they outdo Urban in that regard as well.
Otherwise, you’re spot on, in my view. I think the reason Keith Urban still retains great radio success is because of his all-around presence as a performer and sex symbol. A recent survey conducted by the Zebra Pen Corporation confirms his still-potent viability: a whopping 45% of females surveyed said they wanted Keith Urban to send a valentine to them, while the runner-up Bruno Mars ranked a distant second at 24%. Obviously any survey should be taken with a grain of salt, but it still comes to show Urban’s name recognition is as sharp as ever.
Recent interviews have hinted, however, that Keith is finally appearing to move outside his comfort zone, even though he hasn’t offered specifics yet as to the direction of his next record.