Album Review: Eric Church — Chief

Karlie Justus Marlowe | July 20th, 2011

eric church chiefOn the press release that accompanies Eric Church’s new album Chief, the singer describes his lead single “Homeboy” as an amalgamation of sounds that thematically and sonically could be “three or four different songs.”

The same could be said for the album as a whole, which sounds like it could be three or four different records by three or four different artists. And while Church continues to push his own boundaries, the result here is a disjointed collection that offers little insight into his artistic manifesto, other than loud and tough.

Unlike 2009’s Carolina, which benefited from the strong thread of rambling restlessness that ran through its songs, Chief skips from influence to influence and genre to genre without any clear progression. The listener begins to feel like a ball in a pinball machine, bouncing from country to light rock to metal to bluegrass and back again.

Case in point: “Country Music Jesus” opines a missing country music leader to the sound of a heavy metal guitar riff heavily reminiscent of Collective Soul. Fun wordplay like “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash” transitions into a bluegrass-tinged romp, before ultimately winding down into a missed opportunity. The juxtaposition of the at-odds instrumentation comes off as an off-kilter frame for Church and Jeremy Spillman’s hopeful picture of country music redemption.

From there, a handful of radio-friendly singles are mixed in with an ode to Bruce Springsteen, twangy Deliverance-worthy songs heavy on the “bom bom bom boms” and the lead single’s social commentary strive for diversity but get lost along the way.

Sonically, the result is oftentimes more shoutlaw than outlaw, the dubiously dubbed title often attached to the singer by everyone from press to radio to fans. Church and producer Jay Joyce inorganically rely on studio tricks and over-processed vocals to spice up the singer’s often laser-focused lyrics. His words – like “Hungover & Hard Up’s” potent “Living in the lost and found/Round and round, up and down/I’m tired of this seesaw merry-go-round/So Mary you can go to hell – are overshadowed by the noise.

Still, the one bright side of all the confusion is that the album’s best tracks stand out like gold. “Hungover & Hard Up” offers hard-hitting imagery of a long-dead relationship that’s following the protagonist like a shadow, and showcases the singer at his finest. Similarly, “Jack Daniels” lets Church’s well-honed live performance skills to come through in a jam band that’s powerful and direct without being silly.

And despite its meandering, Chief ends on an oddly charming note: “Over When it’s Over” utilizes repetition against a laid-back, quiet arrangement that make the most of Church’s patented mix of anger and regret. This is where the singer shines most, allowing his lyrics to twist and turn all on their own without novelty echoes or auto-tuning and letting his twangy voice to rhyme “ain’t” and “can’t” to pleasing effect.

Overall, Chief continues Church’s spotty output of brash proclamations mixed in with glimpses of honest stories by someone who holds country music’s past and present in very high regards.

3 Stars

 

  1. Blake Boldt
    July 20, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Definitely enjoyed the musical variety and “unique” arrangements a little more than you did, but I completely understand about the processed vocals and how some of the album could come across as overproduced.

  2. Rick
    July 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I enjoy Eric’s acoustic performances on the Opry which downplays his shoutlaw leanings. Conversely I don’t care for his harder/edgier music when backed by the rocking electrified full band. I would never pay for his music, but when he’s acoustic on the Opry he is well worth listening to.

  3. Leeann Ward
    July 21, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I did not like his show when he opened for Miranda Lambert in October, but I like a few of his recordings. More recently, I really enjoy “Faster than my Angels can Fly” and the cover of “Chevy Van” from the Caldwell County EP. I haven’t heard this album yet, but some of the clips actually sound interesting, though others do just sound like noise.

  4. luckyoldsun
    August 24, 2011 at 2:24 am

    The problem with Church is he’s just not a very good singer.
    I bought this CD and played it all the way through a couple of times. There was one cut that kept me from throwing it in the trash: “Jack Daniels” As I was listening to him sing the line “Jack Daniels kicked my ass again last night,” I thought: “Damn this could be a great single–if it was cut by someone who can sing: George Strait, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, even Brooks & Dunn with a vocal by Kix if they were still together!”

  5. Jared
    September 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    These 4 comments posted are actually very diverse in an interesting way. One complains because his voice recording are too processed, another says he’s too tawangy and not a very good singer. You really cant have it both ways. Nobody has a perfect voice but at least when you show up for the concert he sounds the same in person as on album. Country. Eric Church is the beginning of a trend in country music towards this idea of being an individual. You could say all he does is sing about country stuff, but is he anything like Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean. Not really. He is an outlaw, an outlaw who sells out his shows, had the #1 album across all formats, and as of next year is headlining his own tour without a top 5 or a #1 single. Hmm. Sounds like he must be doing somethin right.

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