Album Review – Cam’s “Untamed”

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I want to congratulate Cam on the release of her debut album and recent Grammy nomination, but I would be patently lying to everyone if I let on that I have any clue what’s going on with this artist or her music. I frankly find the entire thing utterly confounding. Why, and how is Cam’s “Burning House” one of the biggest breakout country music singles in 2015? I can’t tell you. I can barely even tell you what the song is about, and I’m not alone. There’s plenty of singles that make it to the top of the country music charts that we can complain about, but it’s not particularly curious why they’re there. Uneducated consumers will buy into whatever they’re fed. But it’s not the worst of Bro-Country that bolsters this theory. “Burning House” might be be the greatest example of this yet.

Why is Cam doing so well, when the country music industry has already put an artist like Ashley Monroe out to pasture, despite Ashley being two years younger than Cam, significantly more talented and qualified in the country realm, and has quantities more name recognition from her friendship with Blake Shelton and her affiliation with the Pistol Annies? Ashley is even married to a star baseball player. Kacey Musgraves, despite tons of awards show hardware, can’t catch a break on country radio either. She may never have a charting single the rest of her entire career. She was done at 26. Yet the 31-year-old Cam is just getting started. And Kacey has a clearly definable style all of her own; a personality. And she’s made an indelible mark on country music history already.

I see Cam, and I see a blank page. There’s nothing here. What’s her sound? What’s her style? What is she trying to say? What role is she fulfilling in country music? Is she a one-of-a-kind singer? Is she a critically-acclaimed songwriter? What is her contributions to the music at large? She’s got frizzy blonde hair, and likes the color yellow. And that’s about all the character information I’ve been able squeeze out of her, even after listening to this record on repeat over and over. Untamed didn’t help define Cam and her sound, it makes her even more ambiguous, and all the attention she’s receiving that much more curious.

cam-untamedDon’t misconstrue this diagnosis as saying Cam or Untamed is bad, or wrong. I wish I could get more of a grasp on what was going on so that I could make that accusation if it was necessary. If anything, I would concur with many of my fellow members of the country music critic corps and say that she’s better than most other mainstream options. But that doesn’t necessarily make her good. Being unable to take a measure of her and her music makes me suspicious, and speculative to buy in when she could change to any direction so easily since she’s not established herself in any specific style or approach. We’ve been let down way to many times by promising artists in country music, especially in 2015. Meanwhile Cam’s hanging out with Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini, covering “Uptown Funk” (like pretty much every mainstream country artist), and boasts a recent Miley Cyrus songwriting credit, making it even harder to buy in.

Untamed starts off with the title track, which is basically Bro-Country sung by a girl. The album generally gets better from there, but it never gets particularly great. There’s a song on the album called “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” that might be the best on the record, and the most country. I would love this song performed by a host of other artists. But emanating from Cam, it doesn’t work. Here she is, very pretty with platinum blonde bleached hair and completely dolled up, with an album cover that looks like it was shot in the lobby of a swanky hotel in L.A., singing about how today’s country girls are too scared to get dirty and are getting by on their looks alone.

Wait, I thought we weren’t supposed to judge books by their covers, and that Cam was helping to lead the female resurgence in country. And here she is turning the poison pen against country’s female fashion plates. I appreciate that Cam grew up on a farm, but hearing this song from her is tantamount to hypocrisy. You don’t think Cam’s good looks didn’t help get her here? Her entire image is groomed to hit the bulls-eye on the daytime television stay-at-home mother crowd who are all about glamour and perfectitudes, not songs that say “shit” four or five times.

Beyond “Untamed” and “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty,” Untamed is, well, kind of undefinable. There’s a couple of songs in “Cold in California” and “Half Broke Heart” that sort of reminded one of 90’s Patty Loveless or Trisha Yearwood in just the vibe of the song, but “Half Broke Heart” doesn’t pay off lyrically like it thinks it does.

Two other songs that are somewhat intriguing are “My Mistake” and “Runaway Train.” They’re sort of like techno EDM songs, yet cut with enough of a balance between organic and electronic that it hides this fact and make you think you’re just listening to pop country. One thing Cam and the producers deserve credit for is making a very modern-feeling record, but avoiding patently obvious use of electronic drums, even though there’s no doubt some of the rhythm tracks were sequenced here. The low end frequencies on this album are incredible, and I can’t emphasize this enough. Cam’s Untamed is the most bass heavy record I’ve listened to in the entirety of 2016, including hip-hop records, and the cracks in my sheet rock can attest. You turn this record up more than half way, and you’ll blow out some subwoofers. The bass is so pronounced, it’s worth marking strikes against this album for the mixing and mastering. And by deftly walking the line between digital and organic, modern and classic, Cam may broaden her appeal, but she can’t define herself as either fish or fowl, bad or good, new or old. What is the Cam sound? What makes her singular in country music?

“My Mistake” became curiously fetching for me after consecutive listens, and it probably helps that it’s familiar since it also appeared on Cam’s four song EP. The final track, “Village,” is where Cam finally impressed me with no qualifiers. The writing is wise, sweet, and Cam probably is best presented when she’s understated, similar to the approach of “Burning House.” There’s also some ambient, organic moments between some songs that were added superfluously, that the producers probably deserve a little credit for and help set a pleasant mood for most of the record. But then you hear songs like “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” and “Runaway Train,” and you just don’t know where she’s going with any of this.

Untamed is also one of those albums, like were seeing more and more of especially from female artists, where there’s a male producer who also walks away with songwriting credits on the majority of the songs. His name is Tyler Johnson, and I can’t give you a who lot of background info beyond that, but he could be a big key to Cam moving forward.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m criticizing Cam just because I don’t understand her. Cam has got something. But what her challenge is, is to take that “something” and push it to the forefront, and prove that she’s worthy of a Top 5 song on country radio, and a leadership position for country’s new generation of women. What I’m seeing so far is too basic, and too ambiguous to get excited about. That doesn’t qualify as “bad,” but it’s not particularly good either, and even at its best, it’s still pop country. So the attitude remains “wait and see” from this country listener.

One Gun Up (5/10)