Now with 100% more lap steel.
Questions of authenticity often arise when established artists in one genre shift dramatically and improbably to another. David Bowie’s plastic soul outing Young Americans comes to mind, as does Chris Cornell’s bungled 2009 collaboration with Timbaland. Surely Ringo Starr raised a few eyebrows when he jetted to Nashville to record 1970’s Beaucoups of Blues. Much like the former Beatle, Staind frontman Aaron Lewis insists his foray into the country music arena isn’t mere dalliance.
No matter how suitably Southern fried the New England native may claim to be, the truth is Lewis has been doing this sort of thing for years, minus the lap steel of course. Strip off a few pesky layers of grime from a nu metal power ballad like “It’s Been Awhile” or “Outside” and you’ll find a country song hidden at its core. Indeed, Lewis shifts effortlessly from Staind’s emotive construction rock to sincere country on his full-length solo debut The Road.
It’s convenient to flick punchlines like so many used toothpicks at an easy target such as Lewis. Staind, having made quite the career out of rewriting Pearl Jam’s “Black” over and over again, haven’t exactly insulated themselves from criticism. An inconvenient truth, Limp Bizkit mouthpiece Fred Durst wisely bet on the band in the late 1990s, and that stink by association never quite came off.
Still, the booze n’ broads vacuousness that often defines contemporary hard rock radio never really sat well with depictions of Staind, Lewis accustomed to pouring his heart out even as it perilously crossed the line at times into schtick. His sulking self-seriousness became a creative crutch by 2008’s The Illusion of Progress, which undoubtedly led to the overcompensation of its preposterous eponymous follow-up.
From the get go, The Road largely covers credible subject matter for both Lewis and his recently adopted genre. Embedded journalists on Rihanna’s recent 777 stunt tour learned firsthand the appalling truth that so many artists know all too well: Tour life is frequently awful and boring. For Lewis, the downtime between shows has borne fruit, as on the title track which is conveniently vague enough to also be relatable to long-hauling truckers who may very well be the record’s key demographic. Brooding six-minute opener “75” recalls both the speed of his tour bus and a certain north-south interstate. He gets misty and wistful here for his daughters, who appear as key characters in happier times on “Endless Summer”, an ode to fishing, swimming, and other wholesome family friendly activities.
The Road falters in that it exposes Lewis’ glaringly limited vocal range. Formerly hidden behind post-grunge squalls of sound, the singer’s low-register comfort zone discomfits out here in the great wide open. To make a crude comparison, when Darius Rucker of adult alternative also-rans Hootie And The Blowfish crossed over, it was hard not to acknowledge his chops. Conversely, there is an ever-present monotone thinness to Lewis’ tone that no amount of layering or studio tricks could mask.
Such a shortcoming puts further pressure on the songwriting itself, which notably and regrettably sags in the record’s wide middle with hackneyed hardscrabble patriot-isms (“Red, White & Blue”) and sentimentally mechanical storytelling (“Grandaddy’s Gun”). Closing number “Party in Hell” adds a bit of badly needed levity, Lewis’ sense of humor delightfully welcome even at this late stage in the record and his career. A humanizing way to finish after one too many tracks of millionaire’s melancholy, it might be the most authentic one in the bunch.