Kenny Chesney — “El Cerrito Place”
If age is wearing on Kenny Chesney, it’s nowhere more obvious than in his single choices of late. While the stadium superstar hasn’t fully abandoned the boisterous country-rock anthems he’s made a career on – cue his recent collaboration with Tim McGraw “Feel Like a Rock Star” – a pattern of riskier song selections released to country radio has emerged over the past couple years.
Beyond their moodier, sparer sound, these songs also share a strong connection to some of Nashville’s heaviest-hitting singer-songwriters, removed from the current cadre of Nashville hit makers. Cases in point: The sweet, poignant duet with Mac McAnally on “Down the Road” in 2008, followed by the stream-of-consciousness storm “Somewhere with You” from Shane McAnally. He quickly followed those two up with the exquisite “You and Tequila,” penned by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter and buoyed by the sweet harmonies and rougher edges of Grace Potter, and last single “Come Over,” another McAnally co-write. His popular winking man-boy innuendo and island sheen may have been missing, but all of these songs drew from the wanderlust he weaves so successfully through almost all his songs.
That search continues on “El Cerrito Place,” the latest shipment to country radio from new album Welcome to the Fishbowl and next in this string of serious, simple singles. The weighty, world-weary song made its way into the world twice before, on its songwriter Keith Gattis’ 2005 album Big City Blues and perhaps the best-known version via Charlie Robison’s 2004 Good Times. Both of these iterations hang raggedly on their singers’ voices, and both benefit from piano and organ accompaniment.
Unfortunately, Chesney’s version shares only that instrumentation: The song’s necessary grit and gravel are noticeably missing from his delivery, and everything comes off a little too smooth, a touch too neat and tidy. Longtime producer Buddy Cannon goes heavy on the production, ramping up the sound and watering down Chesney even further. Potter’s welcome return is the highlight of the song, injecting a sexy aimlessness to the meandering lyrics that Chesney is finally able to feed off at the song’s soaring last minute.
In the end, it’s an admirable shot at making a great song mainstream. Chesney’s obvious eye for quality as of late continues with partner Potter in “El Cerritto Place,” marred only by his ear for the same type of prettiness derided in the song.
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