Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Guitar Song - Jamey Johnson

The Guitar Song - Jamey Johnson (2010) 
Rating: A very high 13 
"It might be lonely at the top / But it's a bitch at the bottom" 
Best Song: Playing the Part, Heartache, That's Why I Write Songs...about 7 or so others....
Worst Song: Poor Man Blues 

        What an album. In case you don't know, Jamey Johnson is a modern country artist. However, unlike any country artist with mainstream popularity, his music is "real" country. Fiddles, steel guitars, and the works are the predominant instrumentation, and all of the lyrics are extremely thoughtful. In other words, nothing like "Girl, you make my speakers go boom boom" or "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk". (Ironically enough, Jamey actually wrote "Badonkadonk". Really.) No, these are lyrics that contain gems like "It's hard staying honest in a world that's headed to hell", and other such sentiments.
        "So," you say, "it's essentially an old-fashioned country album. That's just fine and dandy, but weren't all those albums just mediocre at best? Like, they had a few great singles, but the rest was just filler. So why the high rating, Reagan?". It's simple, my reader. This is not your regular country album. No, it's a DOUBLE ALBUM. IN 2010. AND IT'S COUNTRY. (gasp!) And not only is it a double album, it's a CONCEPT ALBUM. IN 2010. AND IT'S COUNTRY. (double gasp!) And not only is it a double concept album, all the tracks segue into each other, Dark Side of the Moon-style. IN 2010. AND IT'S COUNTRY. (triple gasp!) Not to mention that all the melodies and lyrics are first-rate.
        You're interested now, aren't you? You should be. So, let's talk about what exactly this concept is. It's a musing on darkness and light. So, one disc is the "Dark Side" and the other is the "Light Side". Clever, eh? (Fun fact: Jamey actually made a vinyl copy of this record, and it turned out to be a TRIPLE ALBUM. So, folks, this is essentially the length of Sandinista!, and it's filler-free. Oh yeah.) Of course, to keep the mood from getting too dark or too light, some songs don't fit in with the theme of the side they're on. But none of the songs ever feel TOO out of place.
        Jumping headfirst into the songs, "Can't Cash My Checks" is probably the best southern-rock power ballad since the 70s. The tale of a farmer who turns to selling drugs to keep from going bankrupt, "Checks" features an absolute monster of a solo, as well as an insanely powerful chorus. Good stuff. I also like how it grows very subtly over the course of the song, from an acoustic driven, soft song to a monstrous, electric guitar-filled power ballad. "Playing the Part" is another great one, and it has what is probably the catchiest chorus of the album.
        I say probably because this album also has the rollicking "California Riots" and the fantastic, piano-and-choir-driven "Macon" which both feature extremely catchy choruses. "Macon"'s is particularly simple, but good luck getting that "love all night" line out of your head. Also, both guitar solos in "Macon" (one steel, one electric) are among the best on the album. "California Riots" is, as previously stated, extremely catchy, but my personal favorite aspect of the song is that amazingly active bass line. Wow. Not to mention the jam sections. They're amazing, per usual. (If you can't tell yet, while this is definitely country music, it veers towards rock pretty heavily throughout. Not that I mind.) Another winner is the dark, brooding "Heartache", in which Jamey personifies the title emotion. It's....uh....pret-ty creepy, in all honesty. Those ominous organ chords and backing vocals, his deep, angry heck of a song.
        Another slightly creepy one is the swampy "Mental Revenge", but it's more of a fun creepy, as he rattles off the horrible things he wants to happen to his ex-girlfriend and her new lover. It's completely acoustic, and the sudden shift from "Heartache"'s almost theatrical production to "Revenge"'s almost non-existent production is really, really cool.
        The album's emotional centerpiece comes in the form of "That's Why I Write Songs", which is essentially Jamey's mission statement as to why he decided to make a career out of songwriting. He also uses the song's coda to honor his personal songwriting heroes, such as Bob McDill and Harlan Howard. All of these things would make for a very poignant song on their own, however they're made even more effective by the fact that the song was recorded live (with no crowd) at the historic Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. Also, the arrangement consists of nothing more than Jamey and his acoustic guitar. This sparse, live setting creates a simply amazing piece of music.
        .....y'know how earlier I said that "Why I Write Songs" was the emotional backbone of the album? I lied. No, the emotional crescendo of The Guitar Song comes in the form of its final song, the gorgeous "My Way to You". The lyrics are essentially telling the story of how he found his way to the titular "you". It's up to the listener to decide who this "you" is. It could be a lover, it could be God, but whatever it is, it's obvious that this "you" has greatly helped Jamey. Anyway, the melody is great, as is the arrangement....up until the bridge. It is at this point that some SERIOUSLY loud electric guitars are brought in. I have yet to listen to this song once where I didn't turn the volume down during the bridge, and it kind of ruins the otherwise climactic moment. But otherwise, the song's fantastic.
        There are also several covers, the best of which is of Ray Price's "For the Good Times". Oh, you want me to list some flaws? Alright....hmm...."Poor Man Blues" is the weakest thing on here, as it consists of nothing more than a boring chorus and some talking. Sure, it's "threatening" talking, but I like my verses to have melodies, thank ya very much! Some might consider "Heaven Bound" to be a little slight, but I find it to perfectly capture the feeling of a Nashville winter, what with the line "sometimes it gets so cold in the fall on Music Row" and all. Another thing, you definitely wouldn't want to sit through both discs right after the other. Now, you most certainly should listen to the individual halves all the way through, but take a break between the dark and light sides. It might get a BIT same-y if you don't. And that's The Guitar Song, the best album I've heard of the 2010s. If you like classic country, roots-rock, southern-rock, traditionalist country, or good music in general, buy it. So, pretty much buy it unless you hate country with an absolute passion. And heck, even if you DO hate country music, I still recommend it. Heck, I haven't even gotten into the sound effects and interlocking tracks and whatnot! You NEED to hear this album.

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