“Set You Free” marks Gary Allan’s return to the top of the charts, and gives fans his best album since 2003’s “See If I Care.”
Before I get started, let me set the record straight: I am biased. I’m not an objective blogger who gets sent CD’s for my non biased opinion. I’m an artist who loves to write about music, and as such I write about things that I am already passionate about, things that move me to write. That being said, I am more critical of the things I love than the things I couldn’t care less about. That’s not entirely a revelation, but it’s the truth. So when I tell you that Gary Allan’s newest album is “awesome”, you can believe me or disagree with me (if you disagree, I especially urge you to comment), but know that I bought Mr. Allan’s record knowing full well that in my mind he has one of the coolest voices in country music. Period.
All right… now that that’s out-of-the-way, let’s get to the reviewin’.
1. “Tough Goodbye”
“Set You Free” kicks off with the high-energy tune, “Tough Goodbye“, written by Josh Thompson (“Way Out Here”, “Beer on the Table”) & Tony Martin (“Just To See You Smile”), which gets the record off to a fun start, even if the hand claps and chugging rhythm aren’t necessarily my style. I will say that I enjoyed the song the second time around more than the first, and really dug the drum work. So overall, decent song, but the next three tracks kick off the high point of the record in rapid succession.
2. “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”, the first single off the album, is Gary Allan’s first number one in almost a DECADE! Seriously country radio, what the hell? Hit or no, the song is slickly raw (that’s right) and the production top-notch. Hillary Lindsey, who co-wrote the song with Allan and Matt Warren, provides stellar harmony, and Michael Rhodes’ bass line should be required learning. If you’d like to read more on the song, check out my last article: Why You Should Download El Cerrito Place (And Other Nashville Produced Songs)
The next song, “Bones”, is the melding of Gary Allan’s voice with Keith Gattis’ gritty, swampy, and just plain cool songwriting. It’s sung from the perspective of a man hell-bent on retribution, and Allan does so with such character; you can hear his wicked intentions from the get-go, and the outro is as menacing as it is awesome. Basically, it’s the best thing to happen to music in this admittedly young year.
I’ve been out here digging a hole… the madder I get, the deeper I go – (Excerpt from Bones)
4. “It Ain’t The Whiskey”
Completing this three-track high is the old-school by way of new school, “It Ain’t The Whiskey“, which is the kind of song “old farts and jackasses” used to listen to, but with a modern-touch. The lyrics paint a picture of a man pleading to an Alcohol Anonymous type group, wanting answers and asking what to do since, “It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me“. It’s passionate and honest, with a crackling organ that feels reverent and sobering.
5. “Sand In My Soul”
The next three songs might not hit as high of a note as the previous, but they’re still above-average songs for a genre that puts most of its focus on radio singles. This set starts with “Sand In My Soul“, which sounds like an alternate, dark version of all those Kenny Chesney island songs. It all grooves along quite nicely, and the fiddle – which seemingly comes out of nowhere – is quite possibly my favorite instrument part on the album. (The harmonica on “Bones” gives it a run for its money)
6. “You Without Me”
One minute and twenty-five seconds. That’s how much time “You Without Me“ spends as just another love song. But once you hit the end of the chorus, you should get an a-ha* moment, like I did. I won’t spoil it for you (if you haven’t figured it out), but the lyrical twist makes the song refreshing and gives it serious legs.
7. “One More Time”
You’re standing at the pearly gates, reflecting on the life you lived… all the mistakes, the heartbreaks, the “scars”, the wonderful moments; would you want one more chance to do it all again? That’s the set-up to “One More Time“, an atmosphere-heavy song about a man looking back on his life. It has a nice sense of romanticism, and Allan sings it with the perfect amount of longing, without being too heavy-handed. Also, I love that they let the melody play out at the end. More of that, please, Nashville.
8. “Hungover Heart”
I like this song, I do, but compared to the rest of the album – with the exception of “No Worries” (more on that in a second) – it feels pretty average. I think I would’ve liked it more coming from Billy Currington or Josh Turner, or if Frank Rogers produce it, maybe. As it stands it’s a pretty good song with a clever hook, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
9. “No Worries”
I have mixed-feelings on this song, a feel good, Rastafarian-esque tune about having no cares in the world. Part of me feels like after “Sand In My Soul” Gary should have saved this one for either the next record, or just a different artist. I have to give credit where it’s due, though: his phrasing is great, and the chorus is infectious and fun to sing along with.
Definitely the sexiest song on the record, “Drop” is about a man and a woman dropping everything for each other, and I do mean everything. From the killer guitar part to Allan’s fun vocal (love the falsetto on the outro), the whole thing slinks and grooves along the way it should. But seriously, if you’re alone in a room with someone of the opposite-sex, unless you want to have a baby with said person, don’t put this song on. Consider yourself warned.
Producer Jay Joyce does a bang up job on “Pieces”, a song that might be radio bound, judging by the early promotion I’ve seen for it. It’s about the fragments of ourselves and our lives that all add up, essentially picking up and giving pieces to those we meet and care about in life. It’s a nice sentiment, bolstered by a melody that lends itself to driving around with the windows rolled down.
12. “Good As New”
I can’t imagine that there was any doubt what song would end the album, at least, not after they recorded “Good As New”. It’s a perfect play-us-out kind of tune, and marks the redemption, healing and self-awakening that the rest of the record, thematically, has been about. And in the end, that’s what I love about Gary Allan. He came by his hard life honestly, not pridefully, and it shows in every song he sings.
The moral of the story
Gary Allan doesn’t have a fake crack in his voice; he doesn’t go on and on about how he’s the epitome of country music, a bad-ass, or any of that male-posturing so many “country” artists do today. He’s honest, heartfelt, and he deserves to sit on top of the charts. It’s comforting to know that the real deal still makes it, and country fans should consider Allan’s success as a big coup in today’s digital, Pop country environment.
Now go forth and support Gary Allan, you won’t be disappointed… and if you are, you can leave a comment and I will disagree with you vigorously.
Follow Clint on Twitter: @ClintTomerlin