Monday, August 17, 2009

George Strait - Twang


To my regular visitors, I want to say, “Don’t Panic”. Oliver di Place is not about to become a mainstream country blog. But I do feel that there is a place for this here.

To newcomers who are here because of a search result for George Strait, I also have a message. First, welcome. And second, I hope you will stay around after you have taken in my review of Twang. Look around, listen to some tunes, and maybe discover a musician you never heard of before. And third, I’m sure many of you are more knowledgeable about mainstream country, and about George Strait’s career than I am; please feel free to share that knowledge in the comments.

I first got into country music in the late 80s/ early 90s. I had a girlfriend who enjoyed going to bars to dance to the local country cover bands. These bands couldn’t afford to try to reproduce the full blown productions of the original recordings. So they performed stripped down versions, which emphasized the song. I learned that country songs were uncomplicated expressions of honest emotion. I learned that this emotion had to be conveyed by the singer and the instruments, especially the melodic instruments, such as fiddle, pedal steel, lead guitar, and piano. If the emotion cannot be felt in the performances of any of these key players, the whole thing falls apart and sounds maudlin and fake. Just as the best of the cover bands met this challenge, so did the best artists on country radio at the time. But recording artists faced the additional challenge of avoiding overproduction. A great country song may have swelling strings and other studio adornments, but it must never sound like the producer is trying to force the listener to believe the emotion.

Country music has changed greatly since then. Some of the artists who used to heard on the radio would now be considered alternative country, and mainstream country radio would never touch them now. But, in my view, the same standards of artistry apply now as then.

I can partially assess the current state of country music by listening to the albums I have been sent that fit this niche. I have an album by a songwriter who doesn’t seem to have found her own voice; she seems to be writing for a mass audience, and can’t find the emotion to make her material work. I have another album by a songwriter whose work I really like, but the production on his album overwhelms the delicacy of his songs. And I have Twang, George Strait’s new album.

George Strait is an artist I do not have to introduce. He has established himself as a brand in the world of country. And, as such, he has reached a point where he can make the music that he wants to. And Strait can choose the songwriters and producer he wants. In this case the producer is Tony Brown, a country brand name in his own right.
Twang opens with the title track. This is a song about a man who has worked hard all week, and is looking forward to going out Friday night, putting five dollars worth of quarters in the juke box, and enjoying some country tunes. This could be a statement of theme for the album. It’s almost like Strait is saying that it is time to reclaim country music, to show what it really is. So here are heartbreak songs, songs of new love, good time party tunes, in short a survey of some of the classic country themes from the time when I first discovered this music. There is an outlaw ballad and a Cajun number. It can feel like Strait is explaining a formula for how to make a country record. But mostly, it doesn’t. And that’s because Strait and his musicians believe in this material. Strait’s singing has held up well over the years. His voice has developed a slight catch, and he has learned to use it to good advantage. And the band is first rate. I particularly enjoyed the fiddle playing of Stuart Duncan; he has the sweetest tone I have ever heard, and he can convey a great variety of emotions with his playing.

For the most part, the lyrics here are serviceable; it is the performances that make the whole thing work. But, the are some standouts. Where Have I Been All My Life is a meditation on aging; the narrator wonders how he could have failed to appreciate certain things when he was younger. It’s a theme I’m not used to hearing in a country song, and I found it refreshing. Easy As You Go is a story I don’t want to give away; suffice it to say that the tale is told with great subtlety, and in a nonjudgemental way. I wound up rooting for characters I might have not been able to be so kind to in real life. And Arkansas Dave is the outlaw ballad I mentioned, the kind of song Johnny Cash used to do so well. The song is an original by Bubba Strait. Key details of the story are left out until absolutely needed; this adds an element of suspense that I found very appealing. The Breath You Take is one of those father and son songs that has to be recorded just so; this kind of song can turn into the worst kind of tearjerker. But here, the production puts an emotional lump in your throat, but it is not overdone. Of all the songs on the album, his would have been the easiest to mess up; kudos to all around for giving this one just what it needs.

So Twang breaks very little new ground, but that is not its job. It stands as a solid example of what country music sounds like when done right.

George Strait: Where Have I Been All My Life

George Strait: Arkansas Dave


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