Gary Allan – “Living Hard” (MCA/UMG Nashville – 2007)
Gary Allan has lived through some major peaks and valleys in his dozen years as a major-label recording artist. He’s lived through a label trying to make him something he’s not (a couple of times) and lived life so much that his albums reflected his moods, particularly the stunning “Tough All Over.” That album was the ‘healing’ that Gary needed after his wife passed away unexpectedly. Perhaps one of the most stunning moments of his career is tied to that record and how he took a pedestrian alternative rock song and (“Best I Ever Had“) made it into a modern country classic. All of those experiences have informed Gary as he set about to record his post “Greatest Hits” album, “Living Hard.”
The first single, “Watching Airplanes,” presents an interesting, if a bit abnormal for country, lyric about a guy who stares at airplanes to contemplate why he’s not loved anymore. While melodically all over the map (and perhaps over produced), Gary’s whiskey-soaked vocals save it and make it a nice introduction into the CD. “We Touch The Sun” is the first ballad on the record and it too has the sound of a “Nashville hit.” And I mean that in the best possible of ways. “Sun” is one of those songs (co-written by Allan, Jim Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon) that builds and builds and gets stuck in between your ears for days on end.
With the two big radio ready tracks outta the way, Gary is able to slide into his honkytonkin’ rocker mode (as befits a guy who literally grew up singing in the honky tonks of California). “She’s So California,” written with Jon Randall and Jamie Hanna (former member of Hanna McEuen), the song serves a strong lyric about California girls over a delicious steel-guitar led melody. “Like It’s A Bad Thing” is a delicious slice of 80’s inspired rockin’ country. The mix of b-3 organs with metallic guitars and powerful distorted guitars makes me feel like I’m listening to a long-lost track from the decade of excess. Hey Gary, Bon Jovi called and they want their hit back. All joking aside, it’s a fun song that could be a radio hit if radio gives it a shot. Gary has managed to hit a few falsetto notes on the power ballad “Still Learning How To Bend” and it’s a nice departure from the ‘typical’ bombast and roll of recent country power ballads. Traditional country, it’s not but the nice fiddle leading the melody keeps the song out of the mundane and middle-of-the-road that is often found on major-label albums these days.
It was inevitable that there would be an outright country rock track on the record but “Wrecking Ball” is so bad lyrically and such a retread melodically that Gary’s vocal cannot even save the song. Imagine every rock cliche, wah-wah pedal, female to construction equipment comparisons, cow bells, more B-3, and some Big & Rich like ‘screaming’ and you’ve got a horrible song. “Yesterday’s Rain” is the only ‘all-out’ ballad on the record and that in itself may make it a contender for contemporary radio. It’s not my favorite of tracks but it is still miles better than many artists can muster and one still has to wonder if Gary is still singing about his late wife. Radney Foster co-wrote “Half Of My Mistakes” with Bobby Houck, front man for the Blue Dogs, and it’s previously been recorded by a couple of artists (including Foster and the Blue Dogs) and my hope was for an artist of Allan’s caliber to get a chance to record the song. It’s a brilliant country rock song that actually goes towards the blues more than I’d anticipated it to.
Most artists will tell you, even without asking them, that their latest album is the best of their career and that cliche is actually true in Gary Allan’s case. Actually, he’s gotten progressively better with each album released since “Smoke Rings In The Dark.” Gary Allan is one of country music’s finest artsts. While he most likely will never reach the level of artists like Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw, he has created a solid catalog of work that probably will stand the test of time better than either of those artists have.