For those of us heavily involved in the writing, reviewing and analysing of Country music, it seems like the barometer may well be swinging back towards a more traditional sound, or at least, there seems to be some shifting of the emphasis in song writing and production away from the R&B, snap-track dominated Country ‘chart’ or ‘radio hit’ sound right now.
Why is this happening? I’ve got two words for you. Luke Bloody Combs.
Well, I guess that was three words in the end but you get the gist. Luke Combs’ chart success and raging popularity is single-handedly changing or, at least, re-aligning certain sections of the Country music industry. Imagine a car teetering on the edge of a cliff, the car has been ominously tipping forward to what would, ultimately be, a drop and it’s doom for a while now, but Luke Combs, the re-emergence of Brooks and Dunn and a growing love and reverence for everything 90’s in Country music has slowly started to help the car level off a little and with the arrival of ‘Heartache Medication’, the new album from Jon Pardi, we may well even be able to pull that car away from the edge a little and get some stable chocks back underneath the wheels.
To put it simply, Pardi’s third album is nothing short of a coming-of-age triumph. In the good old days, well, the 70’s and 80’s, musicians, bands and singers used to be given three albums in order to prove their worth, to grow into themselves and blossom into the artists that the A&R men from the record label always hoped they’d become. Check it out, the history of the music industry is littered with examples of bands who peaked, or came of age, on their third album. The Clash (London Calling), Metallica (Master of Puppets), Radiohead (OK Computer), Bon Jovi (Slippery When Wet), Green Day (Dookie) and The Smiths (The Queen is Dead) are artists worthy of a mention when it comes to talking about third albums – and now we can add Jon Pardi into the mix because ‘Heartache Medication’ is easily good enough to be mentioned alongside such lofty and august names.
It is clear, that in Jon Pardi’s world, Country music is fiddle, steel and Telecaster guitars. When talking about ‘Head Over Boots’, one of the biggest hits from his second album, ‘California Sunrise’, Pardi goes as far as explaining the genesis of ‘Heartache Medication’. ‘Head Over Boots’ was one of the countriest songs on that album and one of the biggest hits……so it led us to feel like we could go in this direction. Boots, straw hats and saying ‘Ma’am’, that’s not a thing of the past to me.’ And so, the commercial success of artists, like the aforementioned Combs, Brooks and Dunn, the critical acclaim for groups like The Highwomen, the re-emergence of 90’s icons like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood and the chart success of singers like Justin Moore have given Jon Pardi the confidence and inspiration to nail his colours to the mast and declare that this is his version of Country music and his version of the truth.
That declaration is reflected on much of ‘Heartache Medication’ but nowhere stronger than on opening track ‘Old Hat’. Powered by a breezy, almost beach-inspired riff, the song declares openly, ‘when did old fashioned become so out of fashion?’ We get to hear the first of a whole bunch of fiddle and guitar on the opener, setting the tone, perfectly, for what it is to come.
Similarly, buried deeper towards the back end of the album is one of my personal favourites, ‘Call Me Country’. Pardi extends the sentiment even further on this track by giving the genre of Country music a first-person voice, all of its own. ‘Call Me Country’ is probably the most serious and most interesting song on ‘Heartache Medication’ and, probably, should have been the closing track, instead of the blander ‘Starlight’. That way, the album could have been bookended by the two songs that speak most strongly about the genre, bringing some gravitas and symmetry to the album as a piece of art, ‘I’m a ghost on the radio,’ the genre declares, ‘my heart’s down in Tennessee……..they used to call me Country.’ Powerful stuff and expertly delivered.
Speaking of being expertly delivered, there’s a three-song run of ‘leaving songs’, involving the title track, ‘Nobody Leaves a Girl Like That’ and ‘It Ain’t Always the Cowboy’ that could well be the strongest consecutive set of songs that I’ve heard on any album this year. ‘Heartache Medication’ is all fiddle and 90’s Garth Brooks-esque, commercially driven but traditional leaning Country joy, whilst ‘Nobody Leaves a Girl Like That’ turns the trilogy of leaving songs on its head, casting Pardi, the narrator, as the idiot this time, for walking away from something that was so good. ‘Nobody…..’ is a clear contender for radio single in my eyes, being, as it is, probably the most commercial track on the album, with its chugging guitars and long, sing-along chorus. Mind you, the third and final song in the ‘leaving trilogy’, ‘It Ain’t Always the Cowboy’ might well have something to say about that. Riffing on the George Strait, ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ idea, this time we see Pardi as the injured party, nursing his emotions after being left alone by the love of his life. Big harmonies and big ambitions are writ large across the song, leaving it the final part of the trilogy and the biggest moment on the entire album in some respects.
Mention of ‘big moments’ brings us neatly around to ‘Blame it on the Whiskey’. This track, another radio smash in waiting, sees Pardi dueting with long-time friend and current ‘Dancing with the Stars’ competitor Lauren Alaina. Imagine the joy you used to get in the 90’s when Garth and Trisha would sing together, well, Pardi and Alaina have re-captured those feels perfectly on this track. Alaina, particularly, is a revelation, bringing a tenderness and a rawer quality to her vocals that we don’t often hear on her own, more bombastic, pop leaning songs. ‘Blame it on the Whiskey’ is a tender, fiddle driven ballad the likes of which we rarely hear today with all the noise and ‘whistles and bells’ of modern production and is a definite contender for the acclaimed ‘Duet’ or ‘Musical Event of the Year’ categories once award season rolls around in 2020.
No 90’s leaning Country album would be complete without some good-time songs and ‘Heartache Medication’ has those in spades. ‘Me and Jack’ sees Pardi channeling his inner Dwight Yoakam on a real bar-room, honky tonk romp. I can imagine that this song will slay live. If I’m being honest I don’t think the production has truly captured the joy of the song, it being a little tinny and boxed in but from the stage, in the live setting, with all the guitars, the solo and the extended rock ‘n’ roll outro, I think it will be awesome.
‘Tied One On’ starts with a slow, bluesy ‘Friends in Low Places’ feel before it explodes into something more akin to ‘Ain’t Going Down til the Sun Comes Up’! I’ve deliberately referenced two Garth Brooks songs there because this song, more than any on ‘Heartache Medication’ reflects the 90’s influences that birthed it. It’s a joyous, good-time romp of epic proportions that deserves to be played every night for a long time to come in Pardi’s live set, as does ‘Tequila Little Time’, which, as the title suggests, is Mexican-themed in its sound and lyrics. That beachy, Islands-vibe is one that Country music and artists like Jake Owen, do very well, but here, Pardi makes it his own. Clever wordplay and catchy, infectious melodies leave ‘Tequila….’ standing proud as one of the best tracks on the album.
Pardi also experiments a little towards the end of the album with a slightly more mellow, 70’s / 80’s kind of West Coast sound. ‘Just Like Old Times’ and ‘Love Her Like She’s Leaving’ have more of George than Garth about them. Infact, Strait’s presence is almost palpable on the latter, which sees Pardi still incorporating the fiddle to great effect but going a little lighter on the guitar in favour of some smoother, Strait-esque sounds.
At 14 tracks, ‘Heartache Medication’ suffers from that modern ailment of being 2-3 songs too many. There are a couple of songs towards the end where you feel like Pardi is going through the motions a little. No, that’s a touch harsh. Not going through the motions, just that the songs concerned, ‘Buy That Man A Beer’ and album closer, ‘Starlight’ (not a cover of the deep-cut genius song by Taylor Swift, unfortunately) offer anything new or bring anything different to an already crowded and high quality table. It would have been better for the flow of the album if they’d have been saved for a future ‘delux’ release and ‘Call Me Country’ would have shut down the album, bookending the narrative and the message of the album with opener, ‘Old Hat’, but that feels like nit-picking at this point.
‘Heartache Medication’ is Jon Pardi’s third album and ‘coming-of-age triumph’. It’s a triumph of style, of quality and of production. Pardi has showed the world that he is capable of stepping into the big leagues and this album should do the same for him that albums like ‘Riser’ did for Dierks Bentley and ‘My Kinda Party’ did for Jason Aldean. This is a future, award winning album, and that’s not over-exaggerating it in any way – it’s almost a shame Luke Combs is releasing his second album in November because I would hate for that release to suck the oxygen out of the room and deny Jon Pardi his moment in the sun. Let’s hope the label release the right songs to radio, get Pardi on the right tours (including a long overdue appearance in the UK, please!) and give ‘Heartache Medication’ the push that it deserves. Imagine the scenes if Combs and Pardi went out on tour TOGETHER!! Now what an idea that would be!! The message here is simple – Country music is alive and kicking and is safe in the hands of artists like Jon Pardi. Climb on-board and receive your own version of some good, old fashioned ‘Heartache Medication’.