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Hail to "Chief": Eric Church’s third release one of Country’s best in 2011

by Ryan Snyder

Eric Church. (photo by John Peets)

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At this point in the year, it’s a safe bet to call 2011 a down year for mainstream Country music. One look at the Billboard Country Albums chart shows several good releases from 2010 still stubbornly hanging around the Top 10 more than seven months into the year, and the No. 1 album for the last two weeks has been Blake Shelton’s tepid Red River Blue, a positioning heavily benefitted by his run on “The Voice.” Even the top-selling album of 2011 is a holdover from 2011, Jason Aldean’s My Kind of Party. There’s yet to be a Fearless or Need You Now to come along and set record sales on fire, and if the country music zeitgeist has been patiently waiting for a different sound to come along, Eric Church has a few options for it on his third album Chief.

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Actually, a few options might be selling it short; Chief is a country album in theory only. The singer/songwriter, an NC native from Granite Falls, is almost chameleonic on the most ambitious effort of his career, and really, the most ambitious country album since Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song dropped last summer. Opener “Creepin’” is a sludgy, swampy crawl out of a clipped, nasally vocal intro that’s met by grungy guitars. Later, he hints at fawning piano pop (“Springsteen”), only here his affection is for the radio gods of his youth. The album is a rollercoaster of sounds, themes and emotions that are expertly woven together to paint a picture of a man who’s accepting of his flaws, deferential to his influences, grateful for his upbringing, and willing to disregard the country status quo. Church has never been shy about flaunting his rock n’ roll side, and producer Jay Joyce (Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop, Cage the Elephant) defines it with a surveyor’s precision before redefining Church’s own boundaries entirely.

Since his debut Sinners Like Me in 2006, Church has shown a knack for incisive storytelling, though he forwent it to a certain degree on 2009’s Carolina in favor of a direct appeal to country radio playability. On Chief, however, he rediscovers and embraces it completely.

You could see hints of Church’s wild hare for exploration on Carolina, but on Chief it borders on unreserved restlessness. There’s no better representation than the album’s lead single “Homeboy,” where Church makes a candid commentary on racial identity in small towns amidst a pastiche of deliberate guitar strums and laconic steel that become littered with hard-rock guitars, synthed-out strings and even some glockenspiel. It’s a sonic frenzy and there’s no confusing how he’s using the term “homeboy” to describe the wayward, working-class white kid in the song’s narrative. What he does well, however, is how he uses the word’s stems to make his plea, and he delivers the final verse to absolutely devastating effect.

Church displays a knack for turning a good phrase throughout, and he plays them beautifully on standout tracks like “Hungover & Hard Up,” where he turns a liquor bottle into a loaded pistol and “ain’t afraid to use it tonight.” He trades metaphors for subtlety on “I’m Getting’ Stoned,” where the hook “She got a rock/ and I’m getting’ stoned” confirms a predilection towards self-medication that Church wields more casually when he’s trying to “fill it up/ and throw it down” (“Drink In My Hand”) or on the losing end of a whiskey beatdown (“Jack Daniels”). The sense that he’s a troubled man or simply — or simply got troubles, man — is always implied, rarely directly addressed. He wants you to have that drink with him, not throw him a pity party.

The working-to-chill country meme has always been an integral part of Church’s music, and here it surfaces in “Drink In My Hand,” a boilerplate country rocker that feels like an in-case-of-emergency single set aside in the event that Church’s grand ambition falls flat. Elsewhere, there’s a tangential relationship between the empathetic pedal steel that lends perspective to Church’s confessionals on “Loves Me Like Jesus Does” and the rolling banjo licks that pace the outlaw revivalism of “Country Music Jesus.” By themselves, they beckon to the core tenets of country, but considered in context, and it’s apparent that they’re the deities on which Church builds the album’s diverse aesthetic. Some might call it a disjointed, even mottled work, and they would have a decent argument. But contemporary country is too often guilty of praising itself for sticking to a formula, and Church is simply throwing in a few more variables.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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