Album Review: Eric Church – Carolina

C.M. Wilcox | March 20th, 2009

Eric Church - CarolinaWith three Top 20 singles to his name, Eric Church still managed to score a spot between The Lost Trailers and Kid Rock on a recent list of least favorite artists among country listeners. As one of the few from the neo-outlaw class of 2005-06 to have actually retained his original record deal–Bobby Pinson, Ray Scott, and Jamey Johnson all lost theirs–he has a lot to prove with this sophomore effort. For the most part, he rises to the challenge.

Carolina
features some of the more aggressive arrangements you will hear on a mainstream country album this year. Credit or blame goes to producer Jay Joyce, who returns to the hot seat (after a winning turn on Sinners Like Me) to guide Church even further into rock territory. Joyce manages to craft an elaborate, multi-layered sound that moves with Church’s voice rather than overpowering it. Even some of the stubborn traditionalists among us will have to admit that it’s a combination that often works surprisingly well–especially when married (as it usually is) to one of the singer’s trademark sturdy, infectious hooks. As rock-leaning contemporary country goes, this is pretty good stuff.

Here, as on his earlier album, the greatest challenge Church faces is figuring out how to fill the space around a good idea with compelling details. Although he is one of the better singer-songwriters on a major label today, this album finds him still leaning on easy clichés and familiar poses far too often. In fact, about half of these songs are written from the vantage point of a hard-headed man who splits his time between (a) acting like a tough guy and (b) commenting on the pride that forces him to continue acting like a tough guy. One could probably build lots of fine songs around that conflict, but lining several up in a row doesn’t show off any of them to great effect.

While solid hooks riding on bright, pulsating arrangements allow Church to get by with some occasional lyrical laziness on rocking songs, ballads offer no such cushion. Simple arrangements lay bare lyrics like “Hell yes, I love my truck, but I want you to know/I love your love the most” (from current single “Love Your Love the Most”) or “You’re my refuge from the road, a safe place to go/When I’m out here livin’ on this ledge” (“You Make It Look So Easy,” a wedding song to his wife). Such bits of low-grade, beer-swilling profundity reflect Church’s keen understanding of his audience…and the chief obstacle to his continued development as a songwriter. Too often, he settles for the easiest line.

Sonically, Church would do well to spend more time in the space between hard-edged rockers and earnest ballads, a space that’s home to funky bits of fun like “Longer Gone,” “Smoke a Little Smoke,” and “Without You Here.” The best of these is the first, which sounds like a cross between “Livin’ Part of Life” and a folksy Buddy & Julie Miller tune. Although the others aren’t as strong, they too allow Church to show some personality outside the confines of his usual bipolar modes (tough rocker vs. reflective crooner). For all his outlaw posturing, it is on these medium-tempo groove-fests that he seems most transgressive and most willing to reveal new facets of his artistry.

Problems aside, this is certainly no sophomore slump. In fact, it’s an album that shows considerable growth, but the improvement is more sonic than songcraft. The ambitious sound Church carves out for himself on Carolina stands to distinguish him from the hordes of other male artists vying for our attention, few of whom can rock this convincingly. If he remembers to keep growing in the songwriting department as well, he could be around for a good long while.

For now, he can rest easy knowing that he has put out one of the finest mainstream country albums of 2009 so far. He better soak it up while he can; with a slew of major releases set to hit store shelves in coming weeks, the distinction isn’t likely to last long.

3.5 Stars

3 Pings

  1. [...] spotlight artist, Eric Church titled Carolina.  CM Wilcox (of Country California fame) recently reviewed the album over at The 9513.  So rather than make a futile attempt at following a fabulous writer like CM [...]
  2. [...] This is one of the records I’ve come back to the most over the course of the year, ever since I reviewed it for The 9513 back in [...]
  3. [...] The 9513 says its a "funky bit of fun" | Country Standard Time doesn't think it can be accused of being too country [...]
  1. Pierce
    March 20, 2009 at 8:37 am

    This is a really fair review… couldn’t have said it better myself.

    What did you think of “Where She Told Me To Go”? I’ve got to believe that song will be on my year-end songs list.

    The only thing I can find fault with is that last sentence. In the coming weeks we got Jason Aldean, John Rich, Rodney Atkins, Emerson Drive, and Rascal Flatts…haven’t heard all of those, but I’d say Church is safe for a while.

  2. Pierce
    March 20, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Also, typo alert in the headline! Church is missing a “u”.

  3. Brady Vercher
    March 20, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Pierce: “Also, typo alert in the headline! Church is missing a “u”.

    That’s deep

  4. Lance
    March 20, 2009 at 8:51 am

    I think this guy is following me around with his guitar. It’s amazing that someone can write such simple lyrics and make turn them into unbelievable songs. I love your love the most has got to be one of my all-time favorites. Wish he could get the recognition he deserves.

  5. Kelly
    March 20, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Brady – I love your love the most.

  6. Brady Vercher
    March 20, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I agree with Pierce, it’s a fair review, CM. The album starts off pretty rough, which makes it hard to get into. But it does pick up–with only a few more bumps–around “Where She Told Me To Go,” which is a good song, but I think a couple of lines keep it from being as good as it could be.

    In addition to the albums Pierce mentioned, Martina McBride, Keith Urban, and Billy Ray Cyrus should have albums released. They mainstream hasn’t given us much this year and it doesn’t really look like they have much to offer for awhile.

  7. Caroline
    March 20, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I’ll keep it simple.
    Love the energy and variety of tunes.
    I like it.
    A lot!

  8. Marco
    March 20, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Excellent album. Eric is a really underrated singer and songwriter. I hope Carolina gets the recognition it deserves.

  9. Rick
    March 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Here’s a tasty tidbit lifted from Chet Flippo’s latest “Nashville Skyline” at CMT.com:

    “Another Current Favorite Song: Eric Church, “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” (from his second album, Carolina, due March 24):
    Church is often erratic, but when he’s good, he’s very good. With “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” he rocks out and invokes the spirit of Hank and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to indict certain current musical trends.”

    Gee, I don’t recall Hank, Waylon, or Cash “rocking out”. The current musical trend in Top 40 country I’d like to see indicted is the genre’s overthrow by rockers like Eric….

  10. Casey
    March 21, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    “Carolina” kicks ass! Enough said!

  11. patrick
    March 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I think this is the best album that will come out in 2009. For sure

  12. Patti
    March 21, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I think Carolina is amazing – start to finish!

  13. Bobby
    March 23, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    “Eric Church still managed to score a spot between The Lost Trailers and Kid Rock on a recent list of least favorite artists among country listeners.” Where is this list, may I ask?

  14. Jon
    March 23, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    You don’t recall Waylon rocking out, Rick?!

  15. Chris N.
    March 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm
  16. Creek
    March 24, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Jamey Johnson Likes Churchs Music, ENOUGH SIAD…
    Its Rocking Country, a whole lot more country than most of this garbage on the radio today

  17. SW
    March 24, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve been excited for this album since the9513 put up the clip of Eric Church on “The Mountain Stage” singing “Without You Here.” Really happy with the album, and thing this review is pretty spot on.

  18. Creek
    March 25, 2009 at 8:48 am

    For the most part I like the album, the only beef I really have is with the songThose I loved along the way, for me when the song picks up it kind of kills it, really dissapointed with what that song could have been, to what it is. The song starts out great then gets iffy and returns to great…

  19. Double-L
    March 25, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I can’t get enough of this CD. I love the production… so intricate. I love 2, 4, 6 and 10 the best. If you haven’t fallen in love with 10, you haven’t listened to it enough. :-) Thanks for rockin’ my country, Eric Church!!!!

  20. Occasional Hope
    March 25, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    The production’s a bit too rock-heavy on this for me – it seems particularly inappropriate on Lotta Boot Left To Fill which is a very good lyric made almost unlistenable. I do love Where She Told Me To Go, though.

  21. Mike Parker
    March 25, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I really enjoy this one. Finally some songs that are more than just a clever hook with a chop shop treatment. Finally a mainstream album that doesn’t seem to be phoned in. I didn’t listen to the first album, but I’ll go back and do it now.

  22. Scott J.
    March 30, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    This is a fair review. I must say, I really like this album, however, the first album is tough to follow-up on. I like the Sinners Like Me is a better album all around, but Carolina is good non-the-less.
    I did have the opportunity to see him live and he puts on an incredible show. He just has great energy and the rest of the band is top-notch. If anyone has the opportunity, please go see him perform!

  23. Scott J.
    March 30, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    sorry for the type, meant to say I think Sinners Like Me is a better album all around…

  24. ARH
    April 1, 2009 at 7:49 am

    How could anyone put Eric on a list of least favorite country artists? Is there an actual list that he was listed on? Give me a break. This guy stands for everything that is good about country music. He’s a guy that’s true to his roots and writes songs that actually have feeling and heart. Sinners Like Me was the best country album I had heard in quite a while. It was backed by raw emotion and lyrical talent mixed in with the pride and country boy attitude that is true to the artist himself. It was a relief to hear something genuine and meaningful when I first gave it a listen three years ago. “Carolina” is another one of those albums. It has songs that provide meaning and tell a story about his life that most listeners can relate to. Instead of saying this album is too rock-heavy maybe you should take a step back and look at the point he’s getting at in his songs. The foundation of country music was built on songs like “Smoke a Little Smoke”. Good time lyrics mixed with a powerful beat and clever guitar sounds. Eric Church is a risk-taker and has revived the outlaw feeling of country music. He is exactly what country has needed for years. If you dont believe me….go to one of his concerts. Simply unbelievable! In the meantime, check out the youtube videos of him singing to fans on the tailgate of his pickup truck. Simply put, Eric Church deserves more respect.

  25. Karlie
    April 1, 2009 at 7:55 am
  26. ARH
    April 2, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Very interesting Karlie. I’m with Mr. Church himself on this one when I say “I just don’t give a damn, cuz they still got a lotta boot left to fill.”

    I really enjoy this list though. I guess I’m more about what these people stand for. Example, Toby Keith sings about puttin a boot in the ass of terrorist-filled nations and then says he’s a Democrat and not pro-war?!? WTF is that?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/08/19/toby-keith-praises-obama_n_119930.html

    Oh wait, i know…it was an opportunity to sell records through the most shocking event in modern US history. Hypocrite. He’s a real patriot. He might as well stick to the big screen where he’s really making an impact. Dont even get me started on Trace Adkins. Two words. HONKYTONK. BADONKADONK. His most well-known song (crap), that he did not write. Kenny Chesney needs to put a shirt on and hang up the board shorts and flip-flops before i’ll ever even consider him to be a country boy. Then there’s Rascal Flatts… Bob Your Head???? The title of that song speaks a million words.

    Well, my opinion probably doesn’t matter to anyone but myself (according to the provided list), and I’m content with that. But if I was to cut an album and make it available to everyone in the world to hear…it’s gonna be something REAL and from the heart. About my family, friends, passions in life, and our creator. I think you’ll find at least one of these in ANY Eric Church song.

  27. Jon
    April 3, 2009 at 12:45 am

    Carolina is one of the best all around c.d.’s I’ve listened to. I thought the last album was great but this one is amazing. I would rank it as one of my favorite c.d.’s right up there with It Just Comes Natural – George Strait

  28. Dude
    April 21, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Just bought this album, and am really dissapointed he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, this should be album of the year next year, it’s that great, every song on it is ether good or great, and he sounds the same live as he does in the studio, what more could you ask for Nashville?

  29. Matt
    August 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    As Billy Currington says in his latest song….”People are crazy”! This album is FANTASTIC! I keep seeing these “reviews” about how empty and souless his songs are and constant comparisons to the old school guys. Look the old school guys were considered “rebels” or even “pop” compared to their predecessors. Hell, Johnny Cash was considered Rock in his day. I love his sound because it’s been a long time since we have had some real “outlaw” sounding music in country. I love all sorts of country from Hank Sr. to todays guys, but don’t tell me that Church’s songs are amateur. Is “Ring of Fire” really “amazing” songwriting? Come on, this is COUNTRY music not Oxford/Cambridge music. Holy people are crazy Batman!!!. P.S- “A Lotta Boot To Fill” F’ing ROCKS!!!

  30. Matt
    August 1, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Oh and on Toby Keiths “fake” patriotism…I have been in the Army for 11 years and he came and played for us at Fort Sill, OK the summer of ’99. He was entertaining troops BEFORE 9/11

  31. Justin
    September 28, 2009 at 1:55 am

    To start off i really enjoy Eric Church his music is real and down to earth all though Carolina was not as good as Sinners like me hes still a great singer-songwriter…But Brad Pasiley is the worst g-Damn thing in music i though i was sick of hearing Garth Brooks on the radio i am more sick of BP just get it over with and suck obamas juke his song welcome to the future is just crap he tries to be funny in his songs get f-ing real brad who did they poll how is he listeners favorit artist this just blows my mind i would not care to hear one of his songs ever again this just goes to show who listens to country music radio

    ps I dont think waylon done it that way brad

  32. Jessica
    February 20, 2010 at 11:42 am

    I just saw Eric and his band in concert last night in Knoxville, and like always, they DO NOT disappoint. His song lyrics are fun and energetic, but his ability to write a serious song and really sing it is what makes him a good artist. The band truly is a good band, and they put on a fantastic show! He is relate-able and very appreciative of his fans, which you don’t always get with the bigger STARS…. Eric is a rising star himself and I absolutely love his music!

  33. BadReligion
    May 14, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Eric Church is a total tool. Get him off the radio and ship him off to Branson or wherever old country singers that are no longer wanted have to go to end their careers.

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