Album Review: James Otto – Sunset Man

Brady Vercher | April 8th, 2008

James Otto - Sunset Man James Otto has garnered a few mentions on The 9513 thus far, including making Jim Malec’s list of Artists to Watch in 2008, but even so, his name may not be familiar. Hopefully that will change with the release of his sophomore album, Sunset Man, featuring John Rich and Otto as producers, with Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts taking the reins on a few tracks. In addition, the majority of the songs were written by committee, with Otto’s name appearing on nine of the eleven cuts. By all means, it sounds like Sunset Man is the epitome of everything wrong with modern country music as lamented by it’s detractors, but biases aside, Otto has raised the bar for contemporary country music by releasing a compelling album that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.

The upcoming single, “Ain’t Gonna Stop,” starts the album off with a rocker that pays homage to Otto’s MuzikMafia roots and has him humorously namechecking himself. It’s the weakest song on the album, but it’s a worthy showcase for his voice and was most likely included to give him some familiar uptempo material in his live set as well as mix up the ballads that will be sent to radio. The current single sitting at number three on the Mediabase chart, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” is an easy goin’ love song that bears a resemblance to Josh Turner’s number one hit, “Your Man,” and is more indicative of the remainder of the album full of smooth flowing ballads.

DeMarcus contributes his talents as producer on three tracks, two of which, “For You” and “You Don’t Act Like My Woman,” are among the best on the album. “For You” has Otto telling his woman that she’s found the one thing that he can’t do for her, while he delivers a fantastic vocal performance. In “You Don’t Act Like My Woman,” a couple is on the verge of a breakup as Otto laments “You don’t act like my woman and I don’t feel like your man” before he sucks up his pride and makes the first move to repair the love that’s about to be thrown away. The third DeMarcus cut, “The Man That I Am,” is a love song written by Cory Mayo and Craig Wiseman and suggestive enough to make a grown woman blush.

There are a few solid songs that don’t stand out when compared to the highlights, including “These Are The Good Ole Days,” “Sunset Man,” and “Damn Right,” but they’re all worthy performances that add to the cohesiveness of the album and help cement it’s quality. “These Are The Good Ole Days” is a fairly nondescript song in which the singer shifts perspective and quits living in the past and starts living in the here and now, the good ole days. It’s a solid lyric with a solid performance and it’s a reply to the nostalgia that’s become such a dominant theme in country music, an anti-nostalgia song if you will. The poignant “Where Angels Hang Around” is almost a little too elusive, but it’ll make you think and appreciate the song even more on successive listens as just one nameless word knocks a family’s life off track. “When A Woman’s Not Watching,” fits in with the best songs on Sunset Man as it claims you can judge the character of a man by the things he does when his woman isn’t around.

James Otto raises the stakes with the release of Sunset Man and contemporary country music would do well to take notice and aspire to achieve similar results. It’s a little ballad heavy, but the smart songwriting and exceptional vocal abilities of Otto make this a quality album worthy of praise.

4.5 Stars

  1. Matt C
    April 8, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I wonder how many people will get “Where Angels Hang Around.” I got it on the first listen, but I have the advantage of being quite familiar with the song’s subject, the vaunted St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. I have to say that it’s beautifully done and the first country song about childhood cancer that I haven’t found hopelessly trite and borderline exploitative. I think that’s kind of the theme of the entire album: there aren’t any groundbreaking themes here, but the writing is quite good and manages to bring a fresh perspective to familiar subjects.

  2. Brady Vercher
    April 8, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    When I first really gave the song a listen, I wondered about it for a little bit before I figured it out, but it took me a couple of listens.

  3. Lynn
    April 9, 2008 at 1:55 am

    Oh no, your review nearly compels me to buy the entire album. It’s tough to get a great review around here! Initially, I saw John Rich and Rascal Flatts attached to this and thought I’d run as fast as I could in the other direction. As it is, I’m still having to claw my way back. Maybe, I’ll just start with a song…although previews on iTunes make him sound like a country version of Rascal Flatts. I’m trusting the payoff is in the lyrics. ;)

  4. Brady Vercher
    April 9, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Haha, well if I knew what you were open to, Lynn, I’d be able to make a better recommendation to you. There’s not much of a comparison between Otto and Rascal Flatts, though. So if that’s holding you back, I’d say go for it.

  5. Lanibug
    April 9, 2008 at 7:57 am

    This review might even get me to buy it – as it is a whole $7.99 on itunes….

  6. Jim Malec
    April 9, 2008 at 8:18 am

    I’m just going to offer a brief counterpoint. I thought the songwriting was just mediocre, and the singing a bit dispassionate. I was disappointed that the half of the album I hadn’t previously heard fell short of the half I had heard.

  7. Heidi
    April 10, 2008 at 8:16 am

    I have been taking advantage of free online previews of Sunset Man and it has become a a new favorite. James Otto is definitely a man to watch in 2008. I really enjoy the song “Sunset Man” … probably my favorite on this album.

    Now … Brady, Jim, someone … tell me where I can recommend a review of a new single from a new artist. Thanks! ~H~

  8. Brady Vercher
    April 10, 2008 at 8:26 am

    That’s right, I forgot that CMT has the album up right now, so Lynn and Lanibug, you can give it a listen over there before you buy it if you’d like.

    Heidi, there are a few email addresses on our About page or you can send a message through the Contact form.

  9. Heidi
    April 10, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Thanks for responding so quickly Brady. I wasn’t expecting you to be on so early. (Maybe not early for you but early for me.)

    Back to James Otto … you can also listen to his CD on AOLMusic through the weekend… and … Jim I somewhat agree with you on the songwriting. However, you have to admit that the writing is way better than his 2003/2004 release … or maybe not. That was several haircuts for James Otto ago. ~H~

  10. Mike Parker
    April 10, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I thought it was pretty good, not 4-1/2 stars worthy. Some great songs- “Damn Right” is my favorite. I do think James has come a long way since his last release. I remember seeing him at writer’s nights in the late 90’s and thinking, “if he didn’t sound exactly like Travis Tritt, he’d have a chance.” He doesn’t sound anything like Tritt anymore. Also, he’s from my neck of the woods (Eastern Washington) so I’m pulling for him.

  11. Brady Vercher
    April 10, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I considered giving the album 4 stars, but ultimately, I didn’t find much to dock it for other than the “Ain’t Gonna Stop.” I thought Otto did an excellent job of injecting emotion into most of the songs, although I can understand the dispassionate comment for a couple. Overall, the songwriting, while not truly exceptional, was good and avoided the pitfalls of most contemporary country songs. It’s a solid, cohesive album and 4 stars wouldn’t be out of line, but I think anything lower wouldn’t be fair.

  12. Mike Parker
    April 10, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Yeah, 4 stars is fair. I’d probably throw back “Ain’t Gonna Stop,” which almost seems to be thrown in there just so he’d have a concert opener- and “Drunk Dial,” which is a Brad Paisley-esque concept with (quick, give me the name of a sub-par novelty songwriter…Okay…)Cledus T. Judd execution.

  13. Cindy2
    April 12, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    I’ve been a fan of James for a long time.
    It will be interesting to see how country radio will take to his more Mafia-esque tunes. I do agree that Ain’t Gonna Stop is a weaker song. Its pretty old, too. It had been up on James’ website for a long time. I’m a committed fan and I love hearing it because I love the groove and James’ voice, but I can’t see this getting far on Clear Channel radio.
    A song or two do sound a bit like somebody told him to record them-does Sunset Man really fit the profile of what James does best?
    As for dispassionate, though, I can’t agree with that comment.
    I’d love to see “For You” or “Damned Right” released as a single. Either one would be a nice counterpoint to Sugarland’s “Stay”.. fairly stripped down production, and a powerful voice out in front. That would be a gutsy move.
    All in all, I love hearing a singer that can sing.

  14. diver
    April 24, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” was my first encounter with James Otto. I loved his sound and particularly this song. Your review makes me want to hear more of him. I will be very interested in “Where Angels Hang Around” as there was not the usual criticism of formula triteness and exploitation . Brady has found another new country single that “attempts to tug at the listener’s heart strings and strives for poignancy, but somewhere in all the trying, it falls flat and comes across as overwrought, melodramatic crap.” Obviously , although a song about sensitive issues, it must have passed the critical test.

  15. Buck
    May 5, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    I have to say when I saw John Rich’s name on there I ran the other way. Mostly trite songs with cookie cutter production. Otto deserves better.

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