Our spotlight artist for March is Eric Church, whose sophomore album, Carolina, is due to be released on Capitol on 24 March. I thought I would use the opportunity to take a look back at Eric’s debut album, Sinners Like Me, released in July 2006. This was one of my personal top 20 albums of that year, and at the time he seemed to be a very promising new artist. How does it hold up two and a half years later?
Eric’s voice is pleasant to listen to with a slightly rough edge, but not that distinctive, so he is one of those artists who stands or falls on the quality of the material. Eric started out as a songwriter, and it seems likely that it was his writing abilities which got him noticed by the record label and signed as a recording artist in his own right. He wrote or co-wrote all the 12 tracks on this album. This is not always a wise decision, and the song quality here is variable.
However, any doubts about Eric’s writing ability are set to rest with the one song here he wrote solo, ‘Lightning’, which is one of the most impressive, as Eric dramatizes the story of a man facing the electric chair. It was released as a single, with video support, but was too somber and/or controversial a topic to reach the top 40. ‘Two Pink Lines’ (co-written with Victoria Shaw) is probably the single most will remember from this release; and although it only reached #19, it is a remarkably catchy number. It makes the potentially serious subject matters of teenagers facing a possible pregnancy and parenthood sound a little frivolous, with its bouncy tune and high-in-the-mix harmonica. The lyric is a little awkward at times – the girl is described as “classic and regal”, all too obviously purely to set up the rhyme for “barely legal”. Depressingly, the best-performing single from Sinners Like Me was ‘How ‘Bout You’, which got to #14, despite a fairly generic lyric, and a boring tune and vocal delivery.
The best song here is the excellent ‘The Hard Way’, co-written with Michael P Heeney and Casey Beathard, two well-established Nashville songwriters. I did find it extremely reminiscent of the work of Bobby Pinson, another singer-songwriter whose debut album in 2005 had a number of songs on similar themes, and whose voice is not unlike Eric’s. This one sees the protagonist excoriating himself for foolish former life decisions; driving fast on a dangerous road resulting in serious injury to a friend, holding off on proposing lets the girl marry another man, and finally never getting around to telling his father he loves him while he’s still alive. It’s not the most groundbreaking of themes, but very well written, and sung with the right amount of understated emotion. It is genuinely moving. Also very Pinson-like, and pretty good, is ‘What I Almost Was’ (coincidentally also written with Heeney and Beathard). This is one of several tracks marred by a slightly too heavy production which doesn’t allow the song room to breathe.
I really liked the title track, co-written with Jeremy Spillman, as the narrator sets his bad behavior in a family tradition. It’s one of the more country tracks on the album, and the melody has a rather attractive almost singalong quality. Although Eric ran out of words in the chorus, resorting to some la-de-dahs which seem rather pointless. Mindy Smith contributes backing vocals on the chorus. I also enjoyed ‘You Can’t Take It With You’, as his ex does indeed take the entire household contents as she departs, but again the production is a bit too rock-oriented.
Some of the online reviews for this album laud it for its traditional country nature, but it seemed fairly rock-influenced to me. Jay Joyce, the producer, was an unfamiliar name to me. His background seems to be in rock and alt-country, which probably explains some of the production choices on this record. He has produced records for Patty Griffin, the Duhks, John Hiatt, the Warren Brothers and various rock acts, and written songs for Shelby Lynne (in her post-country period) and Faith Hill, and was one of the musicians on Lee Ann Womack’s dire venture into pop-country, Something Worth Leaving Behind. His work with Eric Church seems to be Joyce’s first serious venture working with a mainstream country artist. He also contributes acoustic and electric guitars, bass, piano and keyboards to Sinners Like Me.
Eric may have been assumed to be a more traditional artist than this album seems to show by dint of ‘Pledge Allegiance To The Hag’, a song whose title pun makes you marvel no one thought of it before. As a song, it’s entertaining but verges on novelty song status, and the production is a bit rockier than any song referencing Haggard should dare to be, even if it does feature a cameo performance from the man himself.
The opener, ‘Before She Does’, co-written with Trent Willmon and professional songwriter Jeremy Spillman, has Eric rather intensely swearing to various beliefs, culminating in the belief that Jesus would come back before his ex. The lyrics are a little absurd at times, and it sounds more rock than country, but it’s not a bad song.
I much preferred the closing track, the cheerful ‘Livin’ Part Of Life’, where an okay lyric is lifted by quirky instrumentation; this should perhaps have been released as a single, as it would have appealed to those who liked the sound of ‘Two Pink Lines’ without the controversial lyric.
I do think this album revealed Eric Church as a very promising young artist, and I am interested in seeing what his follow-up is like. Singer-songwriters keen on recording their own material sometimes falter if they have used up their best songs on their first record, and Eric will probably also be under pressure to produce a bigger radio hit than he has done hitherto. Personally, I would certainly like to see him rein back the rock influences a bit in the future, but it is also important for him to develop as a songwriter, and perhaps look at outside material occasionally.
Listen to Eric Church – ‘Sinners Like Me’.