Southern Californian singer-songwriter returns with a solid set of somber and rockin’ tunes, but without the support his first record enjoyed in producer Ry Cooder.
Many of the accolades attributed to Sam Outlaw’s 2015 debut Angeleno focused on the production work and playing of Ry Cooder and his son on the album. It wasn’t a bad record either, setting up Outlaw with an early if not substantial boost and the impetus to chart his own path on the follow-up Tenderheart. The songs featured on Tenderheart follow unconnected stories that reflect on chance encounters and missed opportunities that frequent life, at times too relaxed in the quiet atmosphere that sparse instrumentation provides across many tracks.
The album starts as though Outlaw needs to shed off its predecessor and dig his own path out of the notability Angeleno enjoyed. The opening three tracks immediately pale once the louder, stronger, title track plays, and Outlaw incorporates a nice but brief guitar solo across the bridge between two verses. It’s this style of songwriting that perfectly blends Outlaw’s southern California roots to the country-and-pop combination he has blended on two albums now. While “Tenderheart” is equally as reflective and ruminates on loss and redemption like opener “Everyone’s Looking for Home”, the louder instrumentation marks far more notability and repeatability. The track is followed by the even louder “Trouble”, which ditches the quiet instrumentation altogether and showcases a stronger vocal performance by Outlaw. There’s a rocky guitar solo that introduces the song's dance worthy outro, highlighting a different mood: this song is loud and moving on.
“Tenderheart” and “Trouble” are strong tracks, demonstrating Sam Outlaw’s keen ability to take a southern Californian relaxed attitude and beat it up with a country mentality. Followed by “She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of)” and “Two Broken Hearts”, Outlaw demonstrates his affection for traditional country, with slide guitars, drinking, and lost loves permeating across these tracks. If these opened the album in place of the quieter tracks, Outlaw could have better documented the story of a tenderhearted man, one strong enough to face loss, but equally affected by it and longing to fix mistakes.
Across Tenderheart, Outlaw makes subtle musical and lyrical references to the Eagles. As the songs progress, not only do they get faster and louder, but his vocals additionally calm down to evoke the relaxed, “easy-feeling” mood of 1970s rock -- a style Outlaw is clearly at home with. The second track, “Bottomless Mimosas”, references a peaceful easy feeling, but “Diamond Ring” brings out a musical ode to the Eagles. Despite hardship and loss, Outlaw is relaxed in his strongest vocal delivery on the album.
There is a lot to like in this album as it progresses. By “Say It to Me”, Outlaw has found his own vibe and attitude, and while it does not shed itself from the accolades granted his debut album and connections to Ry Cooder, the album stands on its own. He sticks to a middling combination of the up-tempo rockin’ tracks in the middle of Tenderheart and quieter vocals from the opening songs on the final few inclusions. Traditional country stylistic cues are far more present as the album concludes, too, as Outlaw incorporates steel guitar freely. The songwriting and performances on Tenderheart pop when he integrates up-tempo and driving qualities with soft and steady vocal deliveries, aspects presented by both the excellent title track and the out-and-out rocker single “Trouble”. But, Outlaw closes the album similarly to its opening: quiet, subdued, and largely opposite the feelings he creates in its middle.