Thursday, October 11, 2012
Dwight Yoakam gives three pairs of wishes for everything fans want
My earliest exposure to music was to country, and next to Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam was my favorite country singer growing up. In the early part of the decade, pop country hadn't established the stranglehold it would later. This was the age of Brooks & Dunn, Achy Breaky Heart, and legions of others lost to time.
But an essential and sometimes overlooked component of that battery was Dwight Yoakam. Dwight was always more honky-tonk than traditional country, pretty much Music Row's MO at the time. But having been spurned by Nashville executives in the late 80s, Yoakam was left to blaze his own trail.
Hard rock guitar solos, synth driven 80s pop swingers, and the totally un-country "Thousand Miles From Nowhere" showed he wasn't out to lick Mike Curb's boots. And the great news is, he hasn't changed much. Now signed to the Warner Bros. label, Yoakam strikes back with his first record in seven years, 3 Pears.
I honestly wasn't expecting much from this record. The point of doing the review for was mostly for old time's sake, and for variety. But surprisingly... it's actually pretty good. If you're expecting country, traditional or otherwise, you might be surprised. 3 Pears sees Yoakam sticking to the outer fringes of country music, as he typically has, instead opting for a feel good brand of alt-country/rock.
The album's opening tracks are actually fairly bass driven. Yoakam was always among a rare breed of country artists who got good mileage out of his rhythm section, but it's not hard to see the hand of Beck at work here, who assisted with the album's production. Other than a great sense of groove, opener "Take Hold of My Hand" provides a sweet countryish slide solo, simple romantic lyrics, and some closing sha-la-las. "Tryin'" captures that driving down a dusty desert road vibe he so elegantly brought to life on the aforementioned "Thousand Miles From Nowhere." It is very relaxed, spacious and generally feel good music, like settling into your hotel room on the first day of vacation and anticipating what lies ahead.
He gets a bit more thoughtful on "Waterfall," a song which drifts by at a much slower and pensive pace. The lyrics are simple and goofy but he manages to come off as fatherly, like something he might sing to a young son or daughter. "If I had a big giraffe that tried to dance and make us laugh, every smile and giggle would be free," he sings. It captures a sense of tenderness while also being very catchy.
But he knows how to mix things up. "It's Never Alright" features a gentle piano melody and brassy horns in an aching ballad that urges listeners to keep their heads up. Meanwhile, the vocals on "A Heart Like Mine" are awash in reverb, giving the piece a dingy roadhouse feel, while being propelled by a guitar tone reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"Missing Heart" is particularly notable. Mostly acoustic, the intro throws in a quick little riff that sounds like Charlie Daniels' "Long Haired Country Boy." It sounds like he's trying to emulate Willie Nelson, while also throwing in some spacey steel pedal on the side. Some Duane Allman inspired lead work closes it out.
The album doesn't tend to get too rowdy or aggressive. The sole exception is "Bright Lights, Dim Smoke," a rollicking honky-tonk stomper recalling the aural assault Dwight laid down on albums like "This Time" nearly two decades ago. It's clear he's getting a bit old to be doing numbers like this, but is still a good song.
The title track sees Dwight aiming for a little lyrical trickery, using pears as a homonym for the word pairs. He's singing about wanting, having, or giving away three pairs of various things. Not as clever as he seems to think, but the effort is there. But the song itself is a winner on all fronts. A smattering of loud alternative guitar, a happy uplifting beat, and even a nice drum fill all work together to fulfill all of the wishes a listener could want.
Granted, 3 Pears is not a deep album. There isn't much to discover on a twentieth listen or even a fifth listen that you probably won't pick up the first time. But Yoakam does accomplish something important. Comeback albums often miss the mark because they typically see a fading star going through the motions making one last desperate swing for the fences, but such is not the case with 3 Pears.
It doesn't even feel like a comeback album. There's a sense of diversity. He extends his grasp toward disparate and unlikely musical elements and generally ties them together very well, with the only major miss being the messy harmonies on "Nothing But Love." What's imperative with an album like this is that the listener must see the artist making considerable effort, and it's tough to point out any place where he falters. Carry on, Dwight.