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Blake Shelton

Red River Blue

(Warner Bros.; US: 12 Jul 2011; UK: 25 Jul 2011)

As a celebrity, Blake Shelton has cultivated a sense of humor and a friendly but slightly naughty playfulness through interviews, Twitter, and as host/mentor on the TV singing program The Voice. That side of him occasionally shows on his albums – you don’t name an album Pure BS completely seriously – but more so on last year’s Six-Pak (EP) releases, which yielded three #1 singles in a row, starting with the bawdy “Hillbilly Bone” and night-on-the-town anthem “All About Tonight”. He always throws a few goofy party and backwoods good-ol-boy songs into his act, but love and heartbreak ballads have dominated. Of his four straight #1 hits, only one was a straight ballad. The fourth, “Honey Bee”, is a love song, but a somewhat jokey one, an excuse for faux-rural poetry that pokes fun at a supposed male inability to express emotion.


“Honey Bee” is the leadoff single and opening track for Shelton’s sixth album, Red River Blue, which has a looser atmosphere than any of his previous ones. He’s worked his ‘likeable, smirking goofball’ persona more fully into his music. Occasionally, that means songs that are good-natured fun. I like how “Ready to Roll” sounds like a nothing-but-a-good-time party song, complete with a catchy bassline that screams “Summertime!”, but the man in the song is entreating his lady friend to spend the day with him sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, burning up time “like it’s something to smoke”.


Other times the songs are “fun”, like the purposely stupid party number “Hey”, where he plays word connection games with the title word, following it from farms to picking up chicks to the donkeys at baby Jesus’ crib to the homosexuals he encounters in the big city, who apparently say “hey” a lot in a fey voice (something he’s OK with, he swears). He covers all the bases. In a similar category, but more likeable (just because it’s more clever) is “Get Some”, which again follows word chains. This time it’s through the essential cause-effect relationships of life: getting high to eating fast food, getting off work to getting drunk, getting the girl to getting married and then getting divorced. There’s a cynicism to this that represents the dominant tone of the album. If you listen to the album with a clear mind, Shelton comes off sometimes like a crank, sometimes a creep. “I’m Sorry” isn’t an apology but a refusal of one. In “Drink On It”, he meets a girl and gets to know her over a drink, always trying to get towards that next step (one guess what it is).


Red River Blue’s songs generally feel both cynical and overly familiar, whether it’s the love songs (the goofy one, the faith-based one, the baby-pleas-get-with-me one), the party songs, or a would-be rural life anthem like “Good Ole Boys”, which follows up Eric Church’s “Homeboy” with the idea that rural/white/conservative necessarily equals polite/caring/responsible and young/urban/diverse means the opposite. Shelton sounds more comfortable with what he’s doing this time around (as comfortable as that pothead on the couch), but the album is more scattered in approach, like he’s still trying to figure out his best approach to the album format, to his audience, to his genre. In other words, it sounds a lot like country has in general so far this year: comfortable and unfocused.

Rating:

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine ErasingClouds.com, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


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