Originally published at The 9513 in the days preceding the March 2009 album release. The radio release of “Smoke a Little Smoke” – named here as a highlight – in 2010 would give Church his first platinum-selling single and catapult him to new levels of recognition. Now a curious historical artifact, the ranking of least favorite country artists referred to in the opening is here.
With three Top 20 singles to his name, Eric Church still managed to score a spot between The Lost Trailers and Kid Rock on a recent Edison Research ranking of least favorite artists among country listeners. As one of the few from the neo-outlaw class of 2005-06 to have actually retained his original record deal – Bobby Pinson, Ray Scott, and Jamey Johnson all lost theirs – Church has a lot to prove with this sophomore effort. For the most part, he rises to the challenge.
Carolina features some of the more aggressive arrangements you will hear on a mainstream country album this year. Credit or blame goes to producer Jay Joyce, who returns to the hot seat after a winning turn on Sinners Like Me to guide Church even further into rock territory. Joyce manages to craft an elaborate, multi-layered sound that moves with Church’s voice rather than overpowering it. Even some of the stubborn traditionalists among us will have to admit that it’s a combination that often works surprisingly well, especially when married (as it usually is) to one of the singer’s trademark sturdy, infectious hooks. As rock-leaning contemporary country goes, this is pretty good stuff.
Here, as on his earlier album, the greatest challenge Church faces is figuring out how to fill the space around a good idea with compelling details. Although he is one of the better singer-songwriters on a major label today, this album finds him still leaning on easy clichés and familiar poses far too often. In fact, about half of these songs are written from the vantage point of a hard-headed man who splits his time between (a) acting like a tough guy and (b) commenting on the pride that forces him to continue acting like a tough guy. One could probably build lots of fine songs around that conflict, but lining several up in a row doesn’t show off any of them to great effect.
While solid hooks riding on bright, pulsating arrangements allow Church to get by with some occasional lyrical laziness on rocking songs, ballads offer no such cushion. Simple arrangements lay bare lyrics like “Hell yes, I love my truck, but I want you to know/I love your love the most” (from current single “Love Your Love the Most”) or “You’re my refuge from the road, a safe place to go/When I’m out here livin’ on this ledge” (“You Make It Look So Easy,” a wedding song to his wife). Such bits of low-grade, beer-swilling profundity reflect Church’s keen understanding of his audience… and the chief obstacle to his continued development as a songwriter. Too often, he settles for the easiest line.
Sonically, Church would do well to spend more time in the space between hard-edged rockers and earnest ballads, a space that’s home to funky bits of fun like “Longer Gone,” “Smoke a Little Smoke,” and “Without You Here.” The best of these is the first, which sounds like a cross between “Livin’ Part of Life” from Sinners and a folksy Buddy & Julie Miller tune. Although the others aren’t as strong, they too allow Church to show some personality outside the confines of his usual bipolar modes (tough rocker vs. reflective crooner). For all his outlaw posturing, it is on these medium-tempo groove-fests that he seems most transgressive and most willing to reveal new facets of his artistry.
Problems aside, this is certainly no sophomore slump. In fact, it’s an album that shows considerable growth, but the improvement is more sonic than songcraft. The ambitious sound Church carves out for himself on Carolina stands to distinguish him from the hordes of other male artists vying for our attention, few of whom can rock this convincingly. If he remembers to keep growing in the songwriting department as well, he could be around for a good long while. For now, he can rest easy knowing that he has put out one of the finest mainstream country albums of 2009 so far.