Candy-coated sugar country: much derided, always selling. Rascal Flatts’ new Me and My Gang has been on shelves for nearly two months, and in that time has sold roughly a billion copies. Chart- and sales-wise, these guys can do no wrong. This is further evidence by their previous record, Feels Like Today, complete with sappy and wonderful mega-hit “Bless the Broken Road”, still hoofing around the Billboard Top 40 a year and half after its release.
That I think the record is all right means little to the existing Flatts juggernaut. Also, that the band has yet to make a particularly bad record is of no real shock when peering behind the screen to the host of major talents doing much of the string pulling. Dan Huff produces, and Nashville’s best songwriters deliver the band its catchy and lovable country melodies. They can’t go wrong because the formula remains so consistent. Where Feels Like Today ends and Me and My Gang begins is purely for experts to pinpoint. It’s safe country pop. No one’s rocking the boat, so it’s not tipping over. Damn, I wish it would—or at least wobble slightly.
The real question here isn’t why the band is doing so well, but why its members continue to resist outward demonstrations of musical growth. Three songs on this fourth record were penned by members of the group, but it’s the already huge single, “What Hurts the Most”, and the Nashville-constructed single-worthy “Stand”, “I Feel Bad”, “My Wish”, and “Yes I Do”, that give the record its strength. It’s the addictive melodies of those songs that beg repeated plays. “What Hurts” is a lament about a guy unable to communicate his adoration for a girl. It’s choppily-delivered verses blended with a standard big-ballad, big-voiced chorus give the song the feeling of newness even if the sentiment is typical. “Stand” is similar—a great song, with a big chorus, this one about overcoming (yawn) adversity. “I Feel Bad”, same again, but with some cutesy wordplay as its hook: guy breaks up with chick, realizes “I feel bad that I don’t feel bad”. “My Wish” and “Yes I Do” both follow the formula. One song is about love, the other absolute devotion. Both are charming and ebullient; perfect examples of the best of this band. Lovely, sing-able, safe, standard.
The not-so-good songs are only so because they deviate from this norm. “Backwards” fails at some Montgomery Gentry dirt. It’s a riff on that gag about spinning a country song backwards and getting the singer his house back, his dog back, his best friend back, etcetera. It’s almost clever during the first verse, unduly forced the rest of the way through. House, dog, and best friend work, but DVD, washing machine, and big screen TV? I don’t remember Willie singing about those. The title song further demonstrates what not to do when you’re Rascal Flatts. If the bad rip-off of Richie Sambora’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” voice-weirdifying weren’t bad enough, there’s this prominent line: “We’re gonna rock this thang, cock this thang”. Only the Gentry, or Ronnie Dunn, could get away with that. As a matter of fact, if you gave it to either of those guys and simply cut the opening, it would absolutely rule. Gary LeVox’s vocals somehow just aren’t suited to songs about playing in dives, drinking beer, and checking out chicks in Daisy Dukes.
In all fairness, the boys have given their own writing a good go, with all three putting together one of the nicest songs here: “Pieces”. Bassist Joe Don Rooney proves himself capable of a classy love song with “Cool Thing”, and guitarist Jay DeMarcus handles broken-hearted lament sincerely and with style on “Words I Couldn’t Say”. These tracks are clear indicators that the guys can write songs matching the production line congeniality of their corporate writers, but what’s below that safe surface? Four albums along, and we should have well cracked that candy coating. Not so. What were those words, Mr. DeMarcus? What happened on that front porch late one June? Dig, for heaven’s sake. Give.
Me and My Gang delivers hints of the band’s potential should they ever decide to break from the corporate mould, but—catchy tunes and all—it falls well short of proving the too-soon release anything more than a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot cash grab. They don’t have to rewrite The Silver Tongued Devil and I—just something that singes the heart, cuts it a little, aims to burn rather than melt. It’s a great album to listen to, but Hallmark has said it all before.