“Southern Comfort Zone”, the lead single from Brad Paisley’s newly-released album Wheelhouse is a fish out of water tale that makes the case that pushing the envelope and venturing outside one’s familiar territory can be a very positive thing. It’s a very appropriate message from an artist who has been pushing his own boundaries, with varying degrees of success, beginning with 2009′s American Saturday Night. Wheelhouse is Paisley’s most ambitious project to date; he wrote or co-wrote all of its songs, and produced the album itself. Unfortunately, the material is very uneven in quality and even the better tracks serve as evidence that up to now Paisley has benefited immensely from the guidance of Frank Rogers, who produced all of his previous albums.
With its references to Billy Graham and Martha White, “Southern Comfort Zone” is a celebration of southern culture, complete with audio clips from The Andy Griffith Show, and makes the case that travel broadens the mind. It’s an appropriate opening track to an album that takes the listener on a long (sometimes too long) musical journey that has a few twists and turns along the way. It is followed by Paisley’s current single, “Beat This Summer”, a feel-good summertime tune with not-too-deep lyrics, that suffers from production that is too cluttered and overwhelming.
Brad is joined by an eclectic roster of guest artists, including Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes, Charlie Daniels, the late Roger Miller, and rapper LL Cool J. Of these collaborations, the Bentley/Hayes/Miller one, “Outstanding In Our Field” is the most interesting, though the inclusion of Miller’s vocals seems gimmicky and unnecessary. “Karate”, featuring Daniels, is about a battered wife who takes her revenge by studying the martial arts. It sounds too much like a party anthem for such serious subject matter. But the album’s true zenith comes with “Accidental Racist”, in which Paisley apologizes to a Starbucks barista for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, as well as all the social injustices of the last 150 years. LL Cool J provides the other side of the conversation, which is an admirable (I suppose) attempt at a serious dialog about race, but instead comes across as pandering.
There is a fair sampling of songs that are more vintage Paisley — such as “Death of a Single Man” and “Runaway Train” (the one track on the album that I truly enjoyed), but even these are marred by overwrought production and Paisley’s attempts to sing at the top of his vocal register. Many of the album’s songs contain background vocals from annoying choruses that mimic the “oohing” and “ah-ing” of area rock concert audiences.
In addition to the standard album, there are two extended versions of Wheelhouse – the Deluxe and Cracker Barrel editions, which each containing different sets of bonus tracks, that I found more enjoyable than most of the songs on the main part of the album. The Cracker Barrel edition, which oddly enough is available for download from Amazon, contains an acoustic version of “Beat This Summer” which is far superior to the original. “Only Way She’ll Stay” and “She Never Quite Got Over Him” both deserved slots on the main part of the album.
It’s hard to fault Paisley for trying to expand his horizons, but by and large Wheelhouse does not succeed on an artistic level, and since his fingerprints are all over the project as its producer and main songwriter, the fault clearly lies with him. After the somewhat disappointing This Is Country Music, I’d hoped for a return to form. I still think Brad Paisley has a lot of good music left in him, but not enough made it into this collection. Here’s to hoping that his next album will be a bit less self-indulgent and more conventional.