Album Review: Brad Paisley, ‘Wheelhouse’

jason stives is country strong …

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Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Country singer Brad Paisley has spent the better part of the decade straddling the lines between the country world and the mainstream. He may have finally broken the pop barrier but at a cost. In the same way Taylor Swift started to make her sound more accessible to Top 40 radio listeners, Paisley’s brand of country has for several records now experimented with pushing the boundaries of what his audience can take and has whistled anyway the wind blows whether its Dixie, pop, or, even hip hop. While there is nothing wrong with reaching a new audience you can’t alienate your bread and butter core audience. Paisley’s 8th album, Wheelhouse, sees Paisley out of his ‘comfort zone:’ experimenting with various genres and subjects that deter greatly from his home grown storyteller appeal.

 

Let’s talk about what works because there are a number of songs that feel much at home in Paisley’s repertoire. The first five tracks of Wheelhouse are bonafide guitar barn burners with a constant presence of irony and observational humor. Much like the title track of his last effort, This is Country Music, the lead single of Wheelhouse, “Southern Comfort Zone,” talks at length about a misunderstood culture. While the former talked about the country music industry, the latter goes deeper discussing the misconceptions of southerners declaring that not all of them drive Ford trucks or know all the words to “Amazing Grace.” This is Paisley creating social commentary in the broadest sense; most of the time his side-bars on life and the world tend to be buried into songs. It’s a speeding train getting closer to its destination complete with a rattling guitar riff, choir, and drums that piston along with the rising sound.

If there is one thing that stays firmly in place, it’s Paisley’s superior guitar work. If you are fan already you don’t a refresher. Sure, there is a standalone instrumental track “Onryo” to remind you, but his best string work is tucked away in the middle of other bombastic tracks like “Outstanding in Our Field” or “The Mona Lisa,” two real standouts amongst this occasionally lopsided record.

The issue at hand is consistency. For the first six tracks the album hurries along beautifully even taking a breath from all the radio friendly songs with a tender ballad in “I Can’t Change the World,” but soon after Wheelhouse goes outside of what Paisley knows and presses firmly against his fan’s expectations. There are the offhand interludes like “Death of a Married Man” (featuring Monty Python’s Eric Idle) and the songs “Harvey Bodine” and “Runaway Train” that feel thrown together.

While Wheelhouse should be an album that will appeal to people far beyond his fan base, the presence of “Accidental Racist” will hurt the album’s momentum. [Editor’s Note: Check out Jason and the staff’s thoughts on this single in April 16th’s installment of The Singles Party.] This is kind of sad but not unexpected either. The song as a whole feels like a blatant push to be different, but it’s mostly just a poor choice. The subject matter isn’t the issue as much as the way it takes Paisley’s hallmarks and makes them laughable. The inclusion of LL Cool J for a free style verse just makes the song unlistenable. If you want a real moment that makes you cringe listen to the domestic abuse track “Karate” which turns a terrible subject into a musical version of the movie Enough. I could wax poetic about these issues for hours but this is a review not a commentary and this record shouldn’t be one either.

 

Sure, the thing that defines Brad Paisley’s unique brand of country music is that he is quick to identify the differences that make up the culture and music he associates with with a bit of sarcasm mixed in. However, considering the glossy and at times over produced nature of Wheelhouse, trying to push a message or train of thought may not have been in his best interest. Still, while a chunk of the album’s 17 tracks languish in obscurity and are forgettable, Paisley still shines as a musician despite a loss in direction. Wheelhouse shows that Brad Paisley is still a solid musician willing to push his sound to the limits and that’s more than a country artist can ask for in a constantly changing music landscape.

Rating: 6 out of 10 (Good not Great)