I like the idea of Lindsay Ell. A badass guitar-slinging chick that can play her own leads and write her own songs is something that could really spice up the boring mainstream country music scene, and add a shot of adrenaline into the effort to give more women artists attention in the top reaches of the industry. Any woman who is willing to put herself out there and play leads immediately has my undying appreciation and undivided attention.
The problem with Lindsay Ell is the idea is not as good as the execution. It’s a very similar experience to Frankie Ballard in my opinion. You see Frankie in his plain white T-shirt and James Dean haircut with a guitar slung over his shoulder and think, “Well now maybe this is a guy I can dig in the mainstream.” Some songs may even show promise. But ultimately it’s the same bland mono-genre R&B proffered as country primarily because the performer is white.
There just isn’t any space for guitar players these days in the mainstream or independent realms of music to stretch their legs, country or otherwise, male or female. This is the age of the song, and the singer. Nobody cares if you can shred lead guitar. Guitar Hero bred an entire generation of master guitar players. That’s one of the reasons the rock format is dead, and nobody knows the names of all the faux hawked guitarists in pop country outfits playing licks to arenas. Perhaps fans appreciate the noise, but their attention is on the hunk at center stage singing hip hop-style verses through the Auto-tuner. Keith Urban may be one of the most proficient guitar players around, but you’d have no clue from listening to his last record and seeing him live.
Lindsay Ell has the chops, but that’s not what anyone’s looking for. To get her first official major label debut record The Project out through her Broken Bow imprint, she had to mostly sheathe the electric guitar, and act like she’s auditioning for a spot on The Voice instead, with R&B songs specifically. You still kind of want to root for her because she’s cool, and there was also that controversy where radio stations were canceling her appearances because of her relationship with Bobby Bones. Nobody should be discriminated against just because they have bad taste in men (I kid Bobby, I kid). Hell any artist without a pair a testes would be an improvement for country’s patriarchal arrangement these days.
But despite sincere efforts to want to relate or enjoy the songs of The Project, it’s just not that interesting, especially as you’re trying to digest it as country music. It’s similar to Maren Morris. Yes, there’s some catchy moments. But all the humility and homeliness of country has been replaced by urban sass and saucy drum loops. It really is just another mainstream country record. No, it’s not a record of songs that you writhe in pain from when they come on the radio in your cousin’s car like Sam Hunt inspires. It’s not offensive. It’s just mislabeled, and pretty generic.
That said, there are some moments where Lindsey Ell steps out and The Project does become a bit more interesting, like in the elongated 2-part song “Wildfire.” See now, this is what Lindsay Ell should be. It still isn’t country; it’s more rock than anything. But ‘Wildfire” highlights what makes Lindsay Ell unique and cool in music. The song was co-written by Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame who also produced the record.
Kudos are also deserved for the last song of the album, “Worth The Wait.” One rule of thumb is that if you want to find the best song on a major label country release, listen to the last track. Co-written with Travis Meadows—whose name often appears on the mainstream’s better tracks—it give a more intimate moment for Ell’s voice and guitar playing to shine. There’s an emotion here that gets lost in many of the other songs of The Project. “Always Kiss The Girl” also has something interesting about it, though I’m not sure about the wisdom of the advice. It’s about as smart as the maxim, “When in doubt, whip it out.” This song could have nerds with no game leaning in inappropriately for years to come if it’s released as a single.
The ultimate failing of mainstream country is not allowing artists to flourish as themselves, and expecting them to conform to a safe ans stylized version of what the industry feels will be the most commercially acceptable, as opposed to leading the public to what they think is the best at a given time. It gets to the point where artists feel lucky if they get to truly step out on at least a song or two. I don’t just want to see the guitar slung over Lindsay Ell’s shoulder, I want to hear it out front in a majority of her songs. I want to know what she’s all about. The Project shows some of Lindsay Ell, but just enough to get frustrated at what she could be as opposed to what she is, which is just another mainstream country singer belting out R&B.
1 1/2 Guns Down (3.5/10)
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