There’s an affectionate clip of Jake Owen performing live on the radio for Bobby Bones, singing a piece of his song Barefoot Blue Jean Night in the light vibrato of Joe Nichols before launching into the song proper. Jake isn’t mocking his fellow star so much as lovably singing in homage of an act who was a huge star in the mid-2000s with songs like Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off and The Impossible.
This twelve-song set reintroduced Joe after four years away which shows Joe not to have lost his magic voice or his way around the genre. He bookends the album with covers, the first of them being Stapleton-penned Dierks Bentley album track Diamonds Make Babies (‘babies make mamas!’). A song about being faithful, it’s also faithful to the original version.
The final track is a cover of Baby Got Back, which at least proves Joe has a sense of humour. He enlists the help of Darren Knight for a comical intro and outro (which has traces of Baylen Leonard’s accent!), and in between transforms the huge Sir Mix-a-Lot hit into a hoedown, full of fiddles and fun. After a hard day at the office, it raises a smile and points to a whole project of hiphop-goes-country covers. Perhaps that’s where Florida Georgia Line should go next…
The title track, in the rich key of D-flat, is a gentle love song about a girl’s touch being ‘like sunshine or Amazing Grace’. Time goes on like a ‘broken record’ but with her around doing some kissing and holding hands, everything’s a-ok. The lyric isn’t shouted but crooned, and the arrangement pushes the tenderness of the message into the foreground. It’s an adult love song, with a whisper of accordion, and is pitched at people who have been pushing ‘a rock up that big ole hill’ and find comfort in their life partner.
This Side of the River is also a thinky-think song, with suitably soft instrumentation to mimic the babbling of the river by which Joe sits, ‘toes in the dirt’ with a lady who is ‘heaven on earth’. You can’t listen to the chorus without hearing the influence of Zac Brown Band, not just because of the lyrical nods.
More up-tempo is Girl in the Song, which opens with a series of colourful similes:
Lips as red a Key West sunset
Eyes as green as a Gulf Coast ocean
Hair as black as a midnight sky
Joe then details what it was like to hear a series of Tom Petty songs, all namechecked in the verses, while ‘getting lost with the girl in the song’. He also waxes philosophical: ‘Love doesn’t care if you’re ready or not…’
I’d Sing About You is a self-effacing tune which namechecks as many songwriters as Old Dominion’s Song for Another Time: ‘Since I’m just me, I’d sing about you,’ Joe sings of his lady, ‘even when I’m out of tune.’ It’s gentle and contains a lovely steel guitar part which helps a couple move around the dancefloor. I don’t think he references any of his own tracks, though, which would at least point new fans in the direction of his Best Of.
You can file this album with Josh Turner’s latest one, as well as Josh’s mellow tunes like Why Don’t We Just Dance. Joe and Josh are two understated singers who do what they do, without chasing trends or getting loud. The producers trust that people will connect with the words and their voices.
We All Carry Something is the most sombre track on the album. ‘Deep within our hearts, therein lies the pain,’ Joe sings as strings rise power-balladly. The verses reference a victim of domestic abuse, a policeman in Chicago who sobs when witnessing inner-city strife, a veteran was has ‘shrapnel in his arm’ and Jesus, the man who carried the sins of mankind. It is a well-written country song with a message that is as religious as you want it to be.
Billy Graham’s Bible (found on some versions of his last album Crickets) refers to the man who convinced Johnny Cash and other famous folk to star alongside him in spiritual Crusades which would attract thousands. There’s also ‘Willie’s old guitar’, and for them both ‘the Good Lord had a plan for them the moment they were made’, and Joe feels the same way in the arms of his girl. Or can the ‘you’ be Joe’s fans?
Hostage begins with a nice lick before Joe sings about spending time with his lady: ‘Baby I’m all yours…Take my heart hostage!’ he suggests. Breathless, which uses the on-trend programmed drums of contemporary country, could have been on Michael Ray’s last album. Boy loves girl and boasts of his prowess, a reverse of Hostage.
I wonder how many songs on this theme get turned into publishers’ offices every week on Music Row. That is not to put down the quality of the song, which is perfectly serviceable and is almost a musical joke: Joe’s breathless voice, never mind his sensuality between the sheets, is sure to leave a listener wanting more. Unlike some other country chaps, you wouldn’t mind him taking you to bed either…
So You’re Saying is a singalong about the ‘one-in-a-million shot’ of getting together with a girl. The instrumentation is a mix of contemporary and traditional, with a soft-rock drum pattern and a little bit of slide guitar, and it creates a timeless mood which, naturally, makes it slot into a playlist full of music from the last twenty years.
Tall Boys is a drinking song with extra twang, the sort Blake Shelton would have put out before he got serious and sad. Joe confidently sings about ‘short shorts’ in the chorus, and it’s all very fun without being too over the top.
For that, see Baby Got Back!