I went to see Chris Knight about a year ago at a dive here in New York City. It was a great, albeit cozy, show. Once when Knight was about to launch into a song more geared to the tastes of the ladies he stated matter-of-factly “This is a song I wrote to broaden my appeal to the female demographic.”
The new release by Gary Allen – “Living Hard” – co-produced with Allan and Mark Wright, Allen co-wrote six of the album’s 11 cuts – seems to be him doing the same.
No artist has straddled the chasm of Nashville pop-mainstream and gritty Outlaw badlands better than Gary Allen in his career. By the time he made 1999’s Smoke Rings in the Dark Allen had marked his territory somewhere between the Bakersfield sound of his Southern California regional home and the early rockabilly-pop of Johnny Cash and Elvis. Though many times Nashville has attempted to drown Allen’s roadhouse mojo with sick production somehow his talent and spirit has won out.
“Watching Airplanes” kicks things off with a raucous yet lonely song that can only be pulled off on a country music album. Written by Jim Beavers and Jonathan Singleton the song is big and fearless. Mandolins, electric guitars, pedal steel and twinkling piano (!) blend with a string section and build to a point where Allen voice almost seems overtaken by the expanse.
The rhythmic opener for “We Touched the Sun” – written by Allen with Jim Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon is the opposite of the first. In spite of the power of the electric guitar and the lyrics that refer to breaking earthly limits he power of love, the song never breaks from the opening monotonous metronome.
“She’s So California” is where things go bad. Written by Allan with Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna. Sounding like a John Mellencamp ripoff we are treated with clunky lines like “She’s So California, She’s a wildfire out of control headed for ya.” Current natural tragedies aside the song makes me wish he had actually set fire to the song by breaking out with a jangly-pop straitjacket it suffers from. Short of that a match under the song-sheet might suffice.
“like It’s a Bad Thing”‘s lyrics give testament to the rebel Allen can be. “They say I drive a little fast, Say I like to push the limit everyday I’m living my life as if it were my last.” This is a song were Allan and the band really shine. The guitars are big and loud and the drums are booming and tight. The keyboard are right out of a 70’s metal handbook.
With “Learning How To Bend” we’re headed down the road of Grey’s Anatomy pop. Weepy relationship melodrama with strings. I have to admit, this song hurt me to listen to such a man “bend” so low.
Except for the excellent “like It’s a Bad Thing” the rockers on ” Living Hard ” don’t rock (think Bon Jovi) and the country seems watered down (again, think Bon Jovi.) The entire release seems like a pulled punch from an artist not known for timidity. If this were a Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw album, and I accidentally reviewed it, I would give them extra credit for branching out. For Allen, a man that has built his reputation challenges, this is a step back to safety.
Perhaps with everything he’s been through “Living Hard” is a signal that Allen is healing and getting past it all. Maybe this is the sound of his catharsis. If so I’m happy to hear it, I just hope it doesn’t also mean he’s no longer willing to take chances.