The idea of a post-country record might not sit so easily in a discussion of the genre, but Eric Church's new full-length Carolina comes as close to fitting the bill as you could expect. In many ways an old-fashioned album with two contrasting sides, Carolina feels like a late moment in modern country music in much the same way as Fountains of Wayne's 2007 Traffic and Weather does in the history of pop. The achievement is comparable—the New Jersey band casts a loving eye on hapless, strapped-for-cash suburbanites, while Church writes about ordinary guys romping in the playground of Southern masculinity.
For Church, a North Carolinian who has been working in Nashville for a decade, Carolina represents an advance over his 2006 debut Sinners Like Me. That collection was successful both commercially and critically, with Jay Joyce's elegant production highlighting Church's canny songs. Sinners was cut quickly, but Carolina is the result of three years' work.
"It takes time, especially when you're the sole writer or co-writer," Church says. "I don't think you could do it in a year. And for me, if you give me a month I'll probably write 10 songs. This time we did something a little different, where we cut four at a time. The first record, of course, I'd had my entire life to write these songs, but this time I could see where I needed to go, as a writer, for the record to go somewhere different."
A self-confessed student of both record making and of such American groups as The Band and Little Feat, Church doesn't regard himself as a singles artist, although Sinners produced three top-20 country singles. "I'm a fan of albums," he says. "I feel like we've been given an opportunity here to make some records to put up on the shelf of history. It's something I probably obsess about more than I should."
Carolina features plenty of detail, from the guitar lick that goes, "Uh-oh, uh-oh," and begins "Lotta Boot Left to Fill" to the backbeat and slide guitar on "Longer Gone" that suggests a futuristic, world-music version of Little Feat. "It's very African and very rhythmic," Church says of "Longer Gone." It's superior pop with a massive hook, and hints at country only in its vocal harmonies.
As Church made clear on Sinners songs such as "Before She Does," which turned on a great line about the Second Coming and a failed relationship, he's an infinitely sly tunesmith. "Love Your Love the Most" comes across like a classic Tom T. Hall composition, complete with a list of things Church is fond of. "I love not acting my age / And good barbecue / Yeah, I'm a fan of Faulkner books / And anything my mama cooks," he declares.
Still, "Love Your Love" implies that Church isn't quite the Everyman a cursory reading of the song would indicate. Both Sinners and Carolina contain narratives that are basically escape strategies, and they're usually class-based, with Church striving to marry up and get out of his hometown. Church might be an average Southerner, but he likes "mustard on his fries," reads novels and comes out in favor of marijuana.
As for Faulkner, Church has his favorites. "Absalom, Absalom! is the classic, but The Sound and the Fury is really good, too," he says. "It's different perspectives on basically the same story line, which is confusing. I love [Faulkner's] rhythm, and I love that he tackles social issues—slavery, love affairs between different social classes. Stuff that's part of Southern everyday life."
Carolina falters slightly as it progresses: "You Make It Look So Easy" is a well-arranged piece of banality, and "Smoke a Little Smoke" is pointless—though that might be the point of any self-respecting pot song. Elsewhere, a line like "Your mountains are a canvas for the Maker's hand" has a greeting-card tone that isn't worthy of Church's talent.
Perhaps the finest moment on Carolina, "Where She Told Me to Go" takes country music's manic wordplay and subtle self-pity, and turns it into a pained tale of a man too self-involved to get married. (Church married Katherine Blasingame in 2008.) "It ain't like there was a first resort / In this last-chance-for-gas neighborhood," he sings. Elsewhere, "Those I've Loved" is a tale of missed chances that Church turns into an edifying story, complete with an encomium to songwriting itself.
Like Traffic and Weather, Carolina situates us in a familiar, middle-class milieu. Fountains of Wayne flirt with alienation, but come out in favor of pop culture, which is the only world they know. Similarly, Church gathers up the rowdiness of Southern life and burnishes it. His music is about country music, not of it, and for all his professed allegiance to Merle Haggard and George Strait, Church almost never relaxes.
So what is Carolina? It's art, of course, complete with cool licks and classy string arrangements. That's not to say it isn't about people we all know, but that Church remembers on which side his bread is buttered. "For me, it's always been about the songs," he sings. "You see, they're my best friends / They're the life I lead / And I hope they put a smile on your face."
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