No genre has mined the vocabulary of 1970s rock more fruitfully than country music. The sense of modulated heartbreak, the air of formal constraint, the obsessive concern with surfaces—modern country returns to the sound again and again, and with results that can be as interesting and disquieting as ’70s touchstones from Exile on Main Street to Pretenders.
You could argue that country is now in its second or third New Wave, with a splash of the casual irreverence of pub-rock thrown in. If New Wave heightened form and pushed the beat to unheard-of extremes, and the pub-rock of ’70s British groups like Brinsley Schwarz rejected the excesses of the ’60s in favor of small-scale excursions into pop, soul and country-rock, then modern country does all that and more—just glossier, and with far less irony.
The result is that a record like Jace Everett’s self-titled debut gets going in half the time it would’ve taken an arena-rock band to churn through its opening guitar flourish. “Everything I Want” begins with the Southern-rock cliché of banjo over acoustic guitar, then shifts to an ascending guitar figure straight out of Aerosmith or Big Star, rocks a blues riff into a standard three-chord middle section, and fades on a simulated wolf whistle. And the lyrics contain a fairly sophisticated idea: the singer has been beguiled by the “radio singin’ ’bout an endless kind of love,” and will neglect the advice of his preacher and his mother.
While “Everything I Want” is as compressed as pop music gets, and a bit airless, the opening track of Radney Foster’s This World We Live In works as a gloss on the most casual-seeming pop. Its groove never lets up, but it’s blurry around the edges, as befits a song called “Drunk on Love.” The electric-piano figure echoes Nilsson’s “Coconut,” the female backup vocalist recalls the twisted gospel of Jim Dickinson, and the rhythm guitar vamps the fade as the singers repeat, “hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo.” Foster has a sense of humor. “I can see well enough to know,” he sings. “Baby, you’re my favorite kind of intervention.”
Both Jace Everett and This World We Live In work as small-scale genre statements of the kind familiar to adepts of ’70s pop. But what genre, exactly? Certainly singer-songwriter: Everett wrote or co-wrote six of the 10 songs on his record, and Foster all 10 on his. (Foster also plays acoustic guitar on Jace Everett, and both records feature a version of Foster and Bobby Houck’s “Half of My Mistakes.”) And both records represent a kind of normalized pop that performs the neat trick of avoiding total domestication.
Take, for example, Foster’s “Big Idea,” which is reminiscent of a Nick Lowe or Rockpile track from around 1980. The song’s conceit is almost worthy of Lowe: falling in love is an even bigger idea than “When the atom split / I’m talking bigger than an Elvis hit.” It’s a classic stop-time rocker, and all one could wish for is a dirty joke worthy of Lowe’s “Switchboard Susan.”
Foster works off received ideas of natural, “roots” rock ’n’ roll, soul and country. Everett is far more avaricious, even as he skips out on work to be with his woman, blows two tires and tears up his “$400 rims” during “That’s the Kind of Love I’m In.” Musically, the song features the kind of minor-key riff that has powered innumerable compositions. It’s a perfect example of how modern country updates the old forms: everything about “That’s the Kind of Love” is slightly foreshortened, for maximum effect.
Everett does his own Rockpile imitation—or is it the Fabulous Thunderbirds circa 1982?—on “I Gotta Have It.” He plays some nice harmonica, but sounds merely professionally crazy here. “I’m a lifetime chain-smoker, I’m no quitter,” he sings. Roots-rock imitations don’t really suit Everett, but “Gold” is an amazingly concise compendium of ’70s turns that takes 30 seconds to parlay a post-Hendrix, post-Skynyrd guitar filigree into irresistible mock-gospel fluff. When he sings, “Just keep on doing what you’re doing / It’s gold,” you don’t believe him for a second, but it doesn’t matter.
Neither Foster nor Everett makes their big ideas signify; Everett is proud to be a “daddy” in “Between a Father and a Son,” and declares, “I just kept it simple and took it one day at a time / And followed in the footsteps / Of the men who came before me.” As philosophy, this claim has merit, and as a description of the album’sworking method, it’s half-correct. As a pop artist, Everett (and producers Mark Wright and Greg Droman) indeed follows in the footsteps of those who came before him, but keeping it simple doesn’t always enter into the equation, as the brilliant and useless massed guitars of “Between a Father and a Son” prove.
Similarly, when Foster sings about a broken man who visits a goodhearted prostitute, in “The Kindness of Strangers,” the effect is disconcertingly arty, and on “Never Gonna Fly,” Foster seems as sententious as Everett: “You want to feel the wind / You’ve got to take a ride.” Where This World succeeds is “New Zip Code,” which swings like California pop—it’s absolutely first-rate songwriting, and stands along with “Big Idea” and “Drunk on Love” as the record’s most enjoyable music.
If neither of these records stands as a masterpiece, there’s something to be said for the reassuring nature of the readymade forms Foster and Everett employ. “Half of My Mistakes” might be a somewhat overstated song that defeats both singers, and “Between a Father and a Son” the latest installment in a series on parenting Nashville ought to retire. But the songs where the two men just cut loose like it was pop heaven, ’70s style, prove yet again how deeply significant inspired imitation can be.