Blue-Collar Chroniclers Keep On Keepin' On

Eric Church and Randy Montana navigate life

Eric Church spends approximately half his new album—Chief (Capitol), his third—hungover. Generally he's been drinking while watching some gal's taillights disappear, maybe because she's deduced he's yearning to head down the highway himself. In one number, she gets a rock, so he's getting stoned. In another, he's been known to throw a few punches—hell, he just picked a fight with that cowboy hoggin' the filly he wanted to two-step with a few songs before—but Jack Daniel's kicks his ass.

So big deal, right? Scores of country singers have been addicted to their own alcoholism, and most lust for a good woman who'll overlook their wanderlust. "She believes in me like she believes her Bible," the 34-year-old North Carolinan swears in one of two Chief tracks with "Jesus" in their titles. Sinners Like Me, his 2006 debut was called; in the half-decade since, he's reached country's Top 20 seven times, which sounds impressive but still makes him a B-level Nashville commodity.

Chief, like Church's other work, walks the line between hard Southern boogie and softie singer-songster sap, but with plenty of chug. The opener, "Creepin'," really does creep—marsh-gas powerchords thickening as its almost robotic pulse propels, vocals simulating bells, an actual rhythmic breakdown introduced as such. "Keep On," the cowboy-brawl number, swings hard, with Eric channeling the great '70s honky-tonker Gary Stewart in his high register. To an earlier generation, guitars in both that one and "Country Music Jesus" would've passed for metal. And then there's "Homeboy," 2011's most ethically confused and probably best country hit, an incessantly clanking folk-to-noise droner wherein Church advises a Yelawolf-like younger brother to stop dressing hip-hop, and stay on the farm and out of jail. The implication is that an unadventurous life is the good life. Also, that rap is bad news.

Not bad news? "Springsteen," of course! That's a song title—Eric reminiscing Kenny Chesney–style on teen-romance glory days every time he hears "Born to Run." He never gets much Bruce into his music, though—or at least, not as much as seemingly nicer guy Randy Montana gets into the big-drummed Cadillac Ranch thump of "It's Gone" on his new self-titled debut (Mercury Nashville); by song's end, Randy's even lamenting his Shreveport job being outsourced to Mexico. Randy's album's finale, "Assembly Line," wears a bluer collar than Bruce has during the 25 years Randy's been alive, and doubles as a sneaky critique of Nashville's music biz: "building products made to sell, moving on a conveyor belt." Albany-born Randy's dad, Billy, see, was a Northeastern songwriter who moved to Tennessee to peddle hits, which gives Randy precisely the same pedigree as Robert Ellis Orrall's kids in current indie-hypester duo Jeff the Brotherhood. Hmmm.

He's also allegedly a former All-Tennessee quarterback who switched to soccer at football-free Trevecca Nazarene University, weird. And he opened a bunch of non-Southern Taylor Swift dates in June. Whatever ... I've already played Randy Montana more than any other new album in country-deficient 2011, partly for the two songs just named but also for 1) the vertigo verses and round-like layered rhyme scheme of No. 37 country hit "1,000 Faces"; 2) the California duskiness and perfume-induced memories Randy can't drink away in No. 36 country hit "Ain't Much Left of Lovin' You"; 3) the conflicted conscience and charred edges of transcendent temptation lesson "Burn These Matches"; and 4) the freight-train forward motion, Tom Petty 12-string jangle, and expansive instrumental bridges of the stretched-to-five-minutes "It Ain't Hit Me Yet." What hasn't hit Randy yet, naturally, is "her being gone and the alcohol." Hey, maybe he and Eric oughta share some whiskey.

 
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