Pick: Eric Church's 'The Outsiders'
Eric Church branded himself a country-music outlaw of consequence on 2011's platinum-selling Chief, with the singles "Springsteen" (a Bruce-induced letter to an ex) and "Homeboy" (a tale of hip-hop attitude gone rural), plus riffs that echoed Zeppelin and the Stones as much as Buck Owens. On his fourth studio album, he could have copied the formula, or dialed it back to court uptight country-radio programmers. Instead, the North Carolina singer-songwriter made a record that's weirder, louder – and even more badass.
The title track broadcasts Church's intent: "They're the in crowd, we're the other ones/It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from." Subtle, it ain't: a roughneck-misfit anthem, delivered in a menacing drawl that triangulates singing, speaking and rapping – until the whole thing dives into a prog-metal coda that should remind you Mastodon are a Southern band, too. For an album tilted at country's mainstream, Church takes some serious musical risks. "Cold One" is a Little Feat-flavored swamprocker that wrings emotion out of a boozer's double-entendre and wedges nearly a minute of hot soloing into a three-minute tune. "That's Damn Rock & Roll" name-checks the Clash and Nirvana on a hard boogie jam that few full-time rockers could sell without irony. And Jay Joyce flings vocal processing and digital effects around like someone who actually listens to music made outside of Nashville.
Church is a crafty, ambitious songwriter with a sensitive, rueful side. The understated "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young" is about a hell-raiser saved by a good woman, and the acoustic "Dark Side" quietly flexes leashed machismo. The burnt lovers of Chief's "Hungover & Hard Up" and "I'm Gettin' Stoned" get re-imagined on the arena-scale single "Give Me Back My Hometown," penned with hot songwriter Luke Laird. But Church is at his most heartfelt singing about his buddies. Another Laird cowrite, "Talladega," might be the set's hookiest song – a wistful bromance about an Alabama road trip. Call it NASCAR emo.
The set's most crazy moment is the eight-minute "Devil, Devil," a music-biz takedown in the Beelzebub-y spirit of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Satan Is Real." In a long string of rhymes recited over a disco beat, Nashville is "a tramp, a slut, a bitch, a mutt" and also "a junkie with a limp/The agents are her bookie/And the labels are her pimp." With The Outsiders, Church splits the difference between contemporary country's biggest trends: new-school storytelling (Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe) and check-cashing bro-country (Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan). And why not? His success raises the bar of the possible in an overcautious industry.