I’m really not in the business of music reviews, but listening to music is one of my joys and passions in life, and my son Zachary has expressed an interest in my opinion regarding recent new releases. So, there you have it.
I’ve been hearing people talk about Brad Paisley’s recent single, "Ticks," for the past month or more. My wife was the first one to mention it to me, after she heard it on the radio and found it hilarious. Others have also told me about it, because I’m famous for getting the willies just thinking about ticks. Some people get freaked out about spiders and snakes, and I don’t much care to share space with those creatures, either, but the very idea of a tick on me tends to make my skin crawl for the rest of the week. When I was in Russia, several years ago in June, my friend Olga warned me to beware of the ticks there, because, as she put it, if you get bitten by one of those, you will die. That didn’t really help to improve my attitude toward ticks in general. Now that I’ve finally heard Brad Paisley’s song, however, not on the radio but on his new record, 5th Gear, I’m inclined to agree that it’s hilarious.
Brad had a pretty tough act to follow after his last record, Time Well Spent, which thoroughly lived up to its name. I’ve listened to that one a lot, and have found that I consistently go back to it and enjoy it. By comparison, 5th Gear doesn’t really break any new ground, but at least it’s no major disappointment. There’s nothing on this new record that matches or exceeds the best of the best on Time Well Spent, but there are some great new songs nonetheless. If you’ve enjoyed "Ticks," you’ll probably like 5th Gear, as that song is a fair representation of what the record is like.
Actually, I was very excited to begin with, because the first half of 5th Gear is terrific. If it had continued in that vein, I think it would have been a better record overall than its predecessor. Alas, it begins to limp along a bit after the midway point. I do think that Brad was having more fun playing his guitar than singing on this record, and I will say that there’s some pretty impressive country guitar work throughout. He’s included an instrumental track on his past few records, and there’s one here, too, "Throttleneck," which is good fun in the way that some of the old surfing songs like "Wipeout" were. But one of the things that I like best about country music is its more narrative character, and the way that it tends to be more driven by the lyrics than rock-n-roll usually is. Brad and his band are a fine bunch of musicians, to be sure, but I personally think that his greatest strength is in his song writing and selection. He’s had a number of wonderful songs, some of them tender and touching, many of them humorous and clever, and usually weaving a good yarn along the way. That’s how 5th Gear begins, but it clutches down after "Mr. Policeman" catches Brad and throws him in the clink halfway through the record.
No surprise, then, that all of my favorite songs are in the first half of 5th Gear. In addition to "Ticks" (track 2), check out "All I Wanted Was a Car" (track 1), "Online" (track 3), and "I’m Still a Guy" (track 5). Any one of these would have found a worthy place on Time Well Spent, which is saying something as far as I am concerned. There are some bright spots later on, but nothing that comes close to those early highlights. There’s a duet with Carrie Underwood, which is fine, but certainly isn’t the showcase that it could have been. I would have preferred to do without the intrusion of "The New Kung Pao Buckaroos," who are presumably featured for comedy relief, but simply aren’t that funny.
Normally, I like the fact that many country artists are comfortable wearing their Christian faith on their sleeves. They usually aren’t in your face or annoying about it, and they don’t come up with the contrived religiosity of the "contemporary Christian music" pop culture. A number of my favorite country artists have on occasion included a hymn as a concluding track, usually a "hidden bonus," and that has generally not been so bad, either, even if the selections tend to be of the so-called "Gospel song" variety. I’ve yet to hear anyone include a Lutheran chorale, and I’m not holding my breath for that. But Brad has included a hymn, of sorts, "When We All Get to Heaven," which strikes me as universalistic in its theology. I don’t know if that’s what Brad intended, but it would have been better to leave it off his record. It only reinforces the false and dangerous notion, which many Americans harbor, that only the really wicked, evil, mean and nasty people (like crooked politicians and dishonest CEOs) will be condemned (the "bigger fish to fry" of track 14), because Jesus is simply too nice a guy to shut the pearly gates to all the rest of us good folks, who really aren’t so bad after all. Oh, well.