Question: What do you call a modern country singer whose music owes more to James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, and John Mellencamp than to George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard? Answer: Honest.
The lead single from Kenny Chesney's current multi-platinum platter, "There Goes My Life" is a tale about babies making babies that is so skillfully manipulative that it could crack all but the hardest of hearts (although it might well be a subtle anti-abortion jingle). The second single, "When the Sun Goes Down," is a beach-bum, blue-eyed-soul duet with Uncle Kracker (?!) that you might desperately want to hate, but the song's stolen tip-of-your-tongue melody (Sam Cooke's "Good Times"?) and fully realized it's-five-o'clock-somewhere vibe are so undeniable that resistance is impossible. You wanna know why Chesney has become the biggest male country star since Garth Brooks? This CMT-dominating double-shot tells you: He may be utterly insidious and more than a little creepy, but he's absolutely great at what he does.
He's also tapped fully into a young, modern, suburban, Sun Belt demographic that has become country music's new core audience over the past decade or so. If Brooks' background as a college marketing major came through a little too much, Chesney is a regular guy to the core. He romanticizes his college days like no other country star, but it's not clear if he ever actually went to class.
"I Go Back" is about how songs can sing you back home, but what sets him off is "Jack and Diane" and "Only the Good Die Young." The memories he cherishes are of drinking cheap hooch after a high-school football game and hitting the Carolina coast after graduation. Chesney's vision of paradise can be summed up by an easy shorthand: "A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine."
Drinking is the one time-honored country theme Chesney has down, perhaps too well for his own liver. But his hard-drinking doesn't take place in honky-tonks. It takes place at frat parties blaring the Steve Miller Band, at college bars where he's trying to pick up a "really cute Kappa Delta," at tropical locales on binge-drinking spring breaks, and back at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house at East Tennessee State University, where there was a keg in the closet, pizza boxes on the floor, and a "dog named Bocephus" sleeping in the front yard.
Chesney's betting that contemporary country-music fans identify with these subjects more than life down on the farm or cheatin' situations and that they'd rather hoist their Coronas to a Nashville version of the classic rock they grew up on than to a Nashville version of the mall-pop and adult-contemporary found elsewhere on the FM dial. And he's hit the jackpot.
But the real treat (or trick?) of When the Sun Goes Down is that, even if you don't identify with this background (and I don't), you can still get cultural kicks from taking a guided tour of a culture that isn't your own --sort of like watching a good non-Western foreign film! It helps that the backbeats and riffs go down easier than anything you can hear on commercial rock radio.
Even though Chesney seems pretty proud of not having much on his mind beyond his next drink or the last coed to cross his path, When the Sun Goes Down is spiked with a gem of an inspirational anthem called "Some People Change." The song is as manipulative as "There Goes My Life," but working clearly for the forces of good. In the first verse, the son of a "rebel yeller" breaks free of his received racism, realizing that even though he was "raised to think like his dad," that doesn't mean he has to. I imagine (hope?) a lot of Chesney's fans identify pretty strongly with that idea as well.
Simply put, in a country scene riven by culture wars, Chesney is a uniter, not a divider. (The chorus to "Some People Change" borrows the rhetoric of patriotism for a purpose most country-music flag-wavers wouldn't envision.) Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks may be at odds, just like the pure-country traditionalists and pop-lite careerists perpetually fighting over the soul of music city. But Chesney knows that when the sun goes down, they'd all be happy to just grab a margarita and kick back for a while. -- Chris Herrington
Kenny Chesney performs Friday, May 21st, at The Pyramid, with Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban.
The Cooper Temple Clause
Few musical genres are as disturbingly bipolar as contemporary British rock: It can hit astounding highs (Verve, Radiohead, some mid-period Blur) and unbelievable lows (Starsailor, late-period Travis). We've already had one relative high this year with the fop-pop of Franz Ferdinand, and now we have the corrective low: Kick Up the Fire, And Let the Flames Break Loose, the stunningly disappointing major-label debut of the Cooper Temple Clause.
The album title comes from a Philip Larkin poem, which probably says a lot more about the band's pretensions to art than they intended. Notorious in England for their rambunctious live shows, the Clause trade that rock fury for a fatally wrongheaded notion of artistic maturity.
The 10 songs trudge along slowly, digressing into unconnected codas and shifting styles with no real purpose. "Into My Arms," for example, begins as a blandly romantic lament ("One night, one night is never enough/With you") before jumping abruptly to Nine Inch Nails-style industrial beats in the outro. And the self-absorbed "Music Box" shifts clumsily between Kid A sound effects and Brand X heavy metal riffs. Unfortunately, the ADHD song structures feel forced and self-conscious.
As a result, Kick Up the Fire sounds fatally pompous and plodding, lacking personality and devoid of any spark suggested by its title. --Stephen Deusner
There are some people who seem mysteriously, indefinably likable even if you never spend a moment with them. Call it charm, call it charisma, call it generosity of spirit, call it pheromones, call it Johnny Depp disease, but it's an old gift that plenty of pop-culture heroes were endowed with at birth. In the interest of balancing the universe, however, there are --there must be -- some would-be pop figures who are plenty talented and smart but just not likable. And while this bland curse doesn't explain why he doesn't sell as many records as Eminem, Los Angeles indie rapper Murs falls into the latter category.
Maybe it's his tone of voice. Although flickers of anger (mostly at his dumb friends and dumber bitches) sometimes illuminate his compressed vignettes, most of Murs' vocals exude mercenary professionalism and smarts without heart; the guy can make sex in a doorway sound dull. Maybe it's the vignettes themselves. He raps without shame about hustling for cans and grocery money, and he's relatively honest about his first few couple of sexual encounters, but he's also the first one to warn the fellas that they shouldn't leave him alone with their girls. Or maybe he's just trying too hard to appear sensitive. The album's most provocative and uncompromising track, "And This is For," is a sharp, straightforward critique of hubcaps and white-culture imperialism that is discomfiting enough to provoke debate rather than white guilt or outrage. It's the one time where Murs' level-headed, pedantic KRS-ONE flow clarifies his message. It's kind of a drag as music -- which is a rarity considering producer 9th Edition's skillful production elsewhere -- but it works well as a fishbone in the album's throat. n --Addison Engelking