In the press release for Big Shiny Cars, the new album from Nashville trio Pinmonkey, their music’s genre is labeled: “Alt-country”. This term implies a certain indie scrappiness that simply isn’t anywhere on this disc. Instead, Big Shiny Cars is a very slick, yet tastefully arranged, album that slyly blends together elements of pop-country, vocal bluegrass, and Americana rock. This could be a blueprint for success. Instead, Pinmonkey seem tentative, like they’re hedging their bets. It all comes across as a little contrived.
Perhaps the first clue comes from the CD cover. The three men who comprise the band stare into the camera, each one dressed and groomed in a noticeably different fashion. Although not as strikingly and calculatedly distinct as, say, the Spice Girls, the members of Pinmonkey are clearly meant to include the could-be-an-alt-rocker pretty boy, the cowboy hat-sportin’ country traditionalist, and, riding a cozy middle ground, the straggly-haired roots rocker, who would fit in just as comfortably on stage with Neil Young as he would Shelby Lynne.
Of course, you can’t judge a CD by its cover. No, wait, that’s books. Oftentimes, you can discern something about an album from its art. This is certainly the case with Big Shiny Cars. One quick listen will tell you that it is designed to attract everyone with its pastiche of rural touchstones. The record also aims to offend no one, working within a safe range of tempos and moods, all of them fairly tepid. “That Train Don’t Run” kicks it all off with a sweetly plucking ditty that will only rev you up enough to get you absentmindedly tapping your steering wheel and gently bobbing your head. A few other tracks, scattered throughout, follow roughly this same guideline.
Then there are the pensive ballads, like “Coldest Fire in Town”, to cool things down a bit (from lukewarm to room temperature?). A dobro weeps, the drums shuffle along. The arrangement is a little too perfect, the performances canned, the recording itself a tad too glossy. What rescues this song and makes it the album’s highlight are the guest vocals of Elizabeth Cook, whose sweetly nasal, Dolly Parton-like singing offers an injection of emotion into the lyrics, “And it won’t be long before this flame burns out / We both know / We got the coldest fire in town”. It’s a well-written song, a new tune penned by Sean Locke and Billy Montana. When lead singer Michael Reynolds tries his own hand at writing, the results are a little clumsy and cliché-ridden, although the sentiment feels genuine. In “Living Proof”, he says: “We keep hurting ourselves / Goin’ through hell / Dying a little more each day / Ain’t you tired of living this a-way”. Unfortunately, the accompanying music is merely nice, utterly belying the heartache spilling out in the song’s lyrics.
Pinmonkey, consciously or otherwise, have made their artistic concession with Big Shiny Cars. Instead of going for a brash, twangy pop sound, they played it safe. Rather than aim for something gritty and hazy (a truly alt-country sound, in other words), they again decided to compromise. Roots rock? Too rocky. Bluegrass? Too much of a niche market. Instead, they extracted the essence of each genre and delicately mixed them into a mellow tincture, palatable to all. Light, clean, and with the illusion of refreshment, Pinmonkey’s latest album is perfectly pleasant, but is so safe that it makes no inroads into the listener’s mind, body, or soul. Instead, Big Shiny Cars just wafts on by.
Pinmonkey - That Train Don’t Run (By Here No More)
// Notes from the Road
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