Jamey Johnson's "Living for a Song" dips into country's… (James Minchin )
Jason Aldean and Jamey Johnson are both country singers who were born in the mid-1970s. Both hail from the Deep South. And both men have new albums out on Tuesday, in each case the anticipated follow-up to a profile-boosting 2010 disc.
But that's about the extent of what these two share: With "Night Train" and "Living for a Song," respectively, Aldean and Johnson are positioning themselves at opposite ends of the current country-music scene; their records reflect vastly different ideas about the meaning (and the usefulness) of roots.
For Aldean, a focus on his music probably comes as a relief. In late September the married Georgia native — whose "My Kinda Party" sold better than any other country album last year — was photographed apparently kissing a former "American Idol" contestant at a bar on Sunset Boulevard; the pictures quickly exploded online. He has since apologized, writing on Facebook that "he had too much to drink" and "let the party get out of hand."
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Honky-tonk business as usual? Perhaps. But Aldean's induction into TMZ's hall of shame demonstrates how deeply he's penetrated pop; these days his indiscretions are cataloged alongside those of Chris Brown and Lindsay Lohan.
Though it was recorded well before that incident, "Night Train" sounds designed to engage listeners outside Aldean's country core — folks introduced to his name, perhaps, by an Internet gossip item. It's full of big arena-rock guitars ("Feel That Again") and driving drums ("Drink One for Me"), with little to distinguish it at times from a record by Daughtry or Nickelback; the shimmering, strings-enhanced "Talk" even has a touch of Coldplay in it.
The album's best songs shamelessly (and effectively) replicate Aldean's two crossover hits from "My Kinda Party." With "I Don't Do Lonely Well" he's in soft-rock power-ballad mode, nursing a broken heart that hasn't healed since "Don't You Wanna Stay," his killer duet with Kelly Clarkson. And in "1994" he raps like he did in "Dirt Road Anthem," promising some lucky lady "a night to remember and a fifth of Goose" before shouting out to the journeyman country singer Joe Diffie.
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As that insider-y hat-tip suggests, Aldean compensates for "Night Train's" rather low twang factor with an abundance of small-town signifiers: tractors, rivers, porches, plows. "Anyone from the heartland is gonna understand what I'm talking about right now," he sings in "Take a Little Ride." Yet the tightly crafted music looks beyond those limits; it utilizes country as local flavor, not as primary nourishment.
Johnson, in contrast, fixes his gaze firmly backward on "Living for a Song," which arrives two years after "The Guitar Song" made him a favorite of roots-music connoisseurs. That expansive double-disc set complemented tunes by Johnson, a former Marine Corps reservist from Enterprise, Ala., with a number of savvily selected country standards; here he forgoes the originals entirely with a full-on tribute to the late songwriter Hank Cochran, whose many vintage hits include "I Fall to Pieces" and "Make the World Go Away."
The project is an unabashed throwback, with guest appearances by old-timers such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as by younger archival types like Lee Ann Womack and Alison Krauss. In the closing title track Cochran himself makes an appearance in a spoken-word passage about life among Nashville's "rhyme runners and word hunters."
But with its intimate vocals and sumptuous country-politan arrangements, "Living for a Song" is staggeringly beautiful too, a warmly heartfelt celebration of the way country music was made in the era before hip-hop, arena rock and TMZ. Crucially, Johnson isn't making a case for that earlier era's creative or moral superiority; there's nothing smug or reactionary about his renditions of "A Way to Survive" and "She'll Be Back," the latter of which features an atypically tender Elvis Costello.
He is, though, presenting a distinct vision of country music, one grounded in the persistence of tradition rather than the vagaries of taste. The album opens with Johnson and Krauss harmonizing sweetly on "Make the World Go Away," and though you can imagine any number of good marketing-related reasons to begin that way, the tune also feels something like a mission statement. "Say the things you used to say," they sing together over dreamy steel guitar, "And make the world go away." Sometimes the past can provide a pretty safe escape.
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