A few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.
Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).
‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:
I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in
The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.
‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.
It’s Me I’m Worried About’ is a decent enough song from the usually reliable team of Tony Martin, Mark Nesler and Tom Shapiro, but which feels a little underwritten, with not enough detail about the relationship which has ended. Indeed, I was left feeling slightly unclear whether it was intended to be interpreted as a romantic relationship or a parent-child one, as the protagonist admits,
She’s gonna make it
She’ll be all right
Out on her own
I have no doubt
It’s me I’m worried about
Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson wrote the entertaining ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, a lighthearted song with a drawling bluesy groove about drinking as therapy:
No pouring out your heart to some high dollar quack
Just a flick of your wrist and you’re getting it done
And gettin’ just as messed up and havin’ a lot more fun
It’s cheaper than a shrink
You just pour and drink
I really enjoyed this one, although there’s a bit of a nonsequitur when he notes,
If liquor prices soared as high as gasoline
Then I’d ‘a quit drinking back when I was 19
This just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the lyrics.
The real highlights of this album are two outstanding slow songs, both with perfectly understated vocal treatments. The title track is a really lovely song written by Bill Anderson, Paul Overstreet, and Buddy Cannon, three of the best writers in Nashville. It features Vince Gill on backing vocals (fairly low in the mix), and is about reconnecting with the past on various levels: playing an old Hank Williams record from 1952, calling up old friends, and thinking of an old flame.
‘An Old Friend Of Mine’ is mentioned on the album cover sticker alongside the first two singles, and a video has already been filmed, so it’s a good bet that this is intended to be the next single. This is potentially risky given today’s radio climate, but it certainly deserves to do well, because it is a very fine song indeed. Written by Rick Tiger and Brock Stalvey (both unfamiliar names to me) about giving up drinking, the lyric has an obvious personal relevance for Joe, given his own well-publicized struggle with addiction. The track benefits from a low key production, with just a piano backing Joe’s sensitive delivery as he commemorates the day he gave up drinking:
I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore
This track should have ended the album, but unfortunately instead it closes with two extremely ill-considered ‘bonus’ tracks. The less offensive to my ears is a live version of ‘’Let’s Get Drunk And Fight’ (from Real Things) on which Joe sounds strained vocally and off-pitch at times; if this was the best recording they could find it doesn’t make me want to rush out to see him live. Much, much worse is an utterly horrible remix of his biggest hit ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off’ featuring a rap from Colt Ford. I like the original, but this is virtually unlistenable, and I cannot imagine who thought this was a good idea.
I am not sure if this album is going to re-establish Joe at the top of the charts, although I hope it does. I don’t hear an obvious radio hit here, although the production concedes more to contemporary tastes than Joe’s earlier work.