Blake Shelton – If I’m Honest
I’ve admired his hair for years. Thick, brushed upwards in a moussed coxcomb, it projected a confidence that I heard neither in Blake Shelton’s own material nor saw when he hung from Miranda Lambert’s arm at awards shows; he looked like a pod person in skinny jeans, unworthy of the tabloid coverage. I didn’t believe his songs either, exceptions aside, including the self-composition about Lambert dog. But stepping out has sharpened his ear: the tuneful If I’m Honest is his best album since the Hillbilly Bone EP released in the first year of the Obama administration. He still stumbles. After the frothy opener/bro country concession “Straight Outta Cold Beer,” the third and fourth tracks find him pausing to cry into that Michelob, and it’s a sorry sight. He’s right to praise the “she” who’s got “a way with words” when his idea of wordplay is to note that she put the low in blow and, as Paul Stanley noted in 1987, the x in sex. Matters brighten when the guitars bend and curl their lines like mid-2000s Brad Paisley. On “Go Ahead and Break My Heart” brings conviction to the part of a guy who wants to believe in love and knows it’s going to suck – and his duet partner is co-writer Gwen Stefani, har har.
Dierks Bentley – Black
This messy-haired cutie’s usually good for a single or two per album. I loved 2015’s “Say You Do” enough to stick it in my top ten and should’ve done the same with 2014’s “Drunk on a Plane” and 2012’s “5-1 5-0.” A mild-voiced would-be hellion who gives the impression of drinking steadily even when dribbling his craft beer into the nearest planter, Bentley lets his commissioned tunes simmer in low heat arrangements favoring minor chords. The ballad about his beloved dog and the midtempo one called “What The Hell Did I Say” work. “We drink all day and party all night,” he huffs on “Somewhere on a Beach,” crossing his fingers, proud of what P90X has done for his life. Much better is a Trombone Short collaboration with sighing guitars and tart horns called, of course, “Mardi Gras.” Otherwise stretching his aesthetic limits produces ungainly results. Take the pained “Different For Girls,” one of those lists set to music in which we learn girls don’t throw any t-shirt on and walk to a bar, don’t text their friends to say, “I gotta get laid tonight” (why else would Bentley have written those other songs about picking up girls in bars?), and “can’t just switch it off every time they feel something.” The spacious mix and restrained picking are lovely; it’s a pretty song. Not as good as Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different for Girls,” though. I suppose he thought persuading Elle King, who is, Dierks was told, a woman, gave him cover. I guess co-writer Shane McAnally wanted to forget he’s helped Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves come up with their own refutations.