REVIEW: Chase Rice – ‘Lambs & Lions’

The last couple of years have been tough on Chase Rice and so it’s no surprise to find a number of defiant and redemptive songs on ‘Lambs & lions’, which can easily be seen as his comeback album. Rice famously co-wrote ‘Cruise’ with the guys from Florida Georgia Line and went on to produce a major label debut album, ‘Ignite the Night’ for Columbia in 2014 that soon got tarred with the negativity surrounding the ‘Bro-Country’ movement. Sure, songs like ‘Ready Set Roll’ and ‘Gonna Wanna Tonight’ were very redolent of the particular sound that FGL popularised back then but for every one of those songs there was a ‘Jack Daniels and Jesus’ hidden away behind it and whilst ‘Ignite the Night’ can be seen as being very much of its time, there was definitely something more to Rice than just ball caps and muscles.

2016 saw Rice begin to release music from his next project but the Country world had moved on, so songs like ‘Whisper’ and ‘Everybody We Know Does’ fell flat on their face as people like Chris Stapleton took Country music in one direction and whipper-snappers like Maren Morris took it in another, leaving Rice isolated, without the luxury of a back catalogue or massive fan base to ride out the storm. He left record label Columbia and all seemed lost but like a phoenix from the flames he rose again, signing for Broken Bow records and producing the anthemic comeback song, ‘Lions’ and so here we are now, on the cusp of a new year with Rice starting all over again, a lamb no more but now a lion, full of redemptive fire and bullish attitude.

The album opens with the aforementioned, ‘Lions’, a massive anthem of a song if there ever was one. It opens with the Lord’s Prayer and a ton of electric guitars wailing away yet it is immediately clear that this is not Bro-Country anymore. The structure and melody of the songs have left that faux-rap approach behind in favour of a more traditional rock outlook. A huge, haunting choir as backing on the chorus gives the song a feel very reminiscent to that of ‘Cry Little Sister’ from the Lost Boys soundtrack and whilst the song is dripping in defiance, bravado and machismo it seems authentic given the turbulence Rice has been through in recent years with his career rather than adopted or fake.

The songs on ‘Lambs & Lions’ are still very much modern Country sounding songs, don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t gone all Stapleton or Isbell but what has changed is the structure and the programming. Out goes that Florida Georgia Line influence and trippy vocal structure and in comes a much more traditional, rock-orientated approach. That modernity works well. On songs like ‘Eyes on You’ or ‘One Love, One Song’ he tries the Sam Hunt approach, in which he delivers the verses in almost spoken word form and sings during the chorus and in songs like ‘Unforgettable’ he channels his inner Thomas Rhett, using that kind of Jason Mraz style vocal delivery against a backdrop of smooth sounding, 70’s Country, however it is when he keeps it simple and straightforward that he really succeeds.

Both ‘On Tonight’ and ‘Saved Me’ could have been lifted from Dierks Bentley’s ‘Riser’ or ‘Black’ albums and that is a compliment not a nod towards plagiarism. The former has a simple guitar melody that kicks it off before it breaks out in a huge chorus made for FM radio whilst the latter is a ballad that sits somewhere between Bentley and Jason Aldean in style. Another redemptive song, of which this album has a few, about the power of a good women, it builds to an anthemic chorus as Rice sings, ‘Ain’t too many bridges I ain’t burned, ain’t too many reasons you should be here’, as a thank-you to the woman who has saved him.

The heart and soul of ‘Lambs and Lions’, however, is the last four songs and a better consecutive ending to any Country album released this year will be hard to find. All four songs share a commonality of theme as they exhibit a step back towards more traditional rock-orientated Country music for Rice.

‘Jack Daniels Showed Up’ begins with a loud slide guitar introduction and goes on to have an extended guitar solo that features what I can only describe as a hoedown-tinged banjo moment! It sounds like something the Brothers Osborne would have cooked up and is all the better for it, re-positioning Rice in that part of the Country Venn diagram. “I was supposed to get a bit of a buzz from a cold beer but then Jack Daniels showed up’, he sings in the chorus, Country proud and whiskey strong!

‘Three Chords and the Truth’ follows, a sensitive ballad that employs steel guitars to good effect. In this one he sings about familiar Southern lyrical tropes like trucks, steel guitars, beer, Friday nights and church but he does it in such a way as to be authentic – I believe in what he is saying rather than it just being a crutch or a device. “All I need is you, three chords and the truth,’ he sings, heart on his sleeve in a way that he only did in fleeting glimpses in his earlier career. ‘Amen’ follows, the penultimate song on a nicely sequenced 10 track album. There is no filler here, no bloated use of the 80 minutes that compact disc allows, and the album works all the better for it. ‘Amen’ is another ballad. It opens with a dramatic use of piano and strings as once again Rice sings about the things that have saved him. That feeling of redemption runs all the way through this album and a gospel choir, that kicks in towards the end of the song, really lifts it to another level and differentiates it from the other songs on offer.

Then we come to the final song on the album. The Marmite moment. What Rice has done here is incredibly brave and will send websites like Saving Country Music into an apoplectic frenzy because we then have a cover of Chris LeDoux’s ‘This Cowboy’s Hat’. LeDoux was a Texan legend back in the 80’s and 90’s, most famously referenced by Garth Brooks in ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) and his songs and his legacy resonate to this day. ‘This Cowboy’s Hat’ is probably his best loved song and any cover of it will lead to scrutiny and debate across the whole genre. Maybe that’s what Rice was after, I don’t know. For my two-penneth I think it’s a great move considering the times we find ourselves living in. LeDoux begins the track with a spoken introduction:

“There’s always been groups of people that never could see eye to eye. And I always thought if they ever had chance to sit down and talk face to face they might realise they got a lot in common.”

Genius – can you see what Rice is trying to do? Think about how divided America is at the moment – the times they don’t change!! This is a call for unity, a call for the Country music family and wider world to pull together.

Rice takes over from LeDoux in a beefed up, rockier version of the song that I think will go down a storm with the younger generation of Country fans who are unaware of LeDoux and what he stood for. The family give this version their stamp of approval and authenticity by having Ned LeDoux feature on track. Ned, a musician in his own right, started playing with his father’s band in 1998 and now tours playing a mixture of his and his father’s music.

Of course, older fans and diehards will hate it but then they always do, don’t they?  I love the guitars: the wailing electric guitars that usher in the ending of the song after a redneck stands up to a bunch of bikers teasing him about his hat. I also love the bravery exhibited by Rice in taking on this song and I applaud him for doing a damn good job at putting his own mark on it.

This album is bookended by two huge songs, ‘Lions’ and ‘This Cowboys Hat’ and it works superbly. There is a flow, a narrative to it, that brings an opening and a closing that is rare to find in this ‘shuffle’ orientated, playlist based world. The last four songs are simply awesome and there are a couple of potential hit singles hiding amongst the rest so all in all this might well be the perfect album for Chase Rice to return from the wilderness with. A December UK tour of smaller venues tells me he is not afraid to get his hands dirty and that his team know that building a fan base over here in England can work wonders for the buzz back in the States, just ask Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris about that! 2018 is going to be a big year for Chase Rice – he needs some traction, some buzz and a damn good tour placement but if Broken Bow can secure all or at least some of those things there is no reason why ‘Lambs and Lions’ cannot find a little niche for itself amongst all the other things happening in Country music right now. Amen.

James Daykin
@rockjames