Album Review: Brad Paisley – Play (The Guitar Album)
Only in a strange world where Carrie Underwood’s rock-opera howling would win her the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year award, where Brad Paisley’s tinny tone and pre-fab vocal interpretation would qualify him as country music’s finest male vocalist, and where Kenny Chesney’s pseudo-philosophic tropical-themed “Jimmy Buffet for soccer moms” music (and beach ball stadium tours) makes him the genre’s greatest entertainer, only in that absurd world would Brad Paisley’s Play be considered anything other than a complete disaster.
The idea behind the record is a simple one that goes something like this: “Brad Paisley is a ‘triple-threat’. He can sing, he writes, and he’s a monster guitar player. So let’s cut an instrumental record…uh…and we’ll throw some duets on there…and a couple radio cuts because…ya’know…who cares right?”
When a record is already confused and compromised before the first note is played, it’s bound to be a bumpy ride.
Play is actually perfectly bad in a way. Everything on the record is done competently, but nothing is done well. Brad has all the notes under his fingers, he just doesn’t have any spirit in his hands. “Huckleberry Jam,” the song that kicks off this bonanza of grinning stupidity, exemplifies Paisley’s approach to the guitar–“Play it fast, make it sound cool. Hey, look, a cute girl in the front row. I wonder if I should shave today or go for the three-day stubble. I’m so awesome. What was I doing again? Oh yeah, I was playing fast, hooray!”
If “Huckleberry Jam” typifies Paisley’s approach to guitar–that of a tasteless showoff–the next song on the record, “Turf’s Up,” introduces another element that is a key part of Play, namely Brad as imposter. What’s great is that his approach never changes, it’s all Brad being Brad, but this time it’s Brad being Brad playing surf music!
Awesome right? Brad thought so.
It’s tempting to go through every track, because, truth be told, the artless horror that is Play is kind of mesmerizing, and I think I’m suffering a touch of critical Stockholm Syndrome. I mean, “Kim” sounds like one of the songs that comes out of those wooden jukebox machines at greeting card stores when you press the picture of a meadow, “Departure” sounds like fantasy metal meets country with all the attitude of smooth jazz, “Kentucky Jelly” sounds like the soundtrack a racing car video game would switch to when the player takes a temporary shortcut through the backwoods, and I wont even attempt to write about “Cliffs of Rock City.”
Nowhere, though, is it more clear what’s wrong with Brad Paisley’s Play–and by extension the current state of mainstream Country Music–than when Brad duets with genuine American music legend B.B. King on the blues standard “Let the Good Times Roll.” Aside from being completely outsung and outplayed by an 80 year old man, Brad embarrasses himself by attempting to work in a genre that requires emotional heft when he has none; by flaunting himself alongside a legend that has a gravity Paisley either doesn’t have the shame or wherewithal to realize he should defer to; and by grinning mindlessly through a song that it doesn’t occur to him must be contextualized by real life in order to mean a damn thing.
There was a small part of me that hoped this record would be good. I thought, “Man, Paisley can play, ya’know, and if he’s bothering to do something as bold as an instrumental record, it might be good right?”
It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even bold when all was said and done.
Play is a decadent record and, consequently, an ugly one, but I’m not sure we can place all the blame on Paisley for this. An instrumental record this bad, this un-musical, this disengaged, with this many stupid throw away non-instrumentals…it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Play makes you wonder, “what was Brad Paisley thinking and who does he think he is?” My guess is that he was thinking the guitar work on Play is better than the guitar work on any other contemporary mainstream Nashville record. And, stunningly, he’s right. As for who he thinks he is? He probably thinks that he’s country music’s top male vocalist, one of its top entertainers, one of its best songwriters, and a legitimate torchbearer of its past. If you agree that Brad Paisley is all of those things, then I can tell you that Play is a fine record with blazing fast guitar work, an impressive variety of musical styles, and great songs that range from downright fun to touchingly heartwarming. What’s the harm in lying to the deluded right?
The harm is that it perpetuates the delusion, which is specifically what music is not supposed to do, and Mainstream Country Music has been peddling lies in order to perpetuate delusions for a long time now, with Play as one of the results. It’s an awful “instrumental” record, and exactly the one they deserve.
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