Album Review – Shooter Jennings “Family Man”

So here comes a new album from Shooter Jennings called Family Man, his highly anticipated, slightly-delayed return to his country roots after a foray into the industrial side of music with his last offering, Black Ribbons. Though Shooter’s sonic style may not always be predictable, I’ve found his last few albums to be that very thing in the respect that they will have their moments of greatness, balanced by moments of sheer weirdness and ill-advised content, and when you’re done you’re left with a mixed bag.

Family Man starts off very country, and very good with the song “The Real Me”. A very fun structure and wording, this song allows Shooter to show off his use of dynamics. The second song “The Long Road Ahead” is a good one too, and may be the “hit” of the album, though it is retarded significantly by an out-of-place guitar wank by former Rage Against The Machine axe man Tom Morello lunging at you unexpectedly like a crazy ex-girlfriend wielding rusty scissors.

The guitar solo would work in the context of Zach de la Rocha of Rage whipping his dreads around like a cat & 9 tails and screaming about “taking the power back”, but in a country song, this wild-assed accoutrement goes over like a fart in church. Then again, “The Long Road Ahead” really isn’t a country song. It has a pop rock heart, and the first two offerings on Family Man set you off on a stylistic wonkiness and lack of direction that besets this album from stem to stern.

As I said in my song review of “The Deed & The Dollar”, it is just okay, and I’d lump “The Family Tree” and “Born Again” in this same category. Like Kevin from the TV show The Office, these songs are remarkably unremarkable.

At the fourth slot on the album, “Manifesto No. 4″, Shooter shines doing what I’ve always felt fits Shooter best: not rock, not country, but Southern-fried soul. This song is one of Family Man’s standouts.

“Summer Dreams” and its similarities to so many John Denver “gee get me out of the city, I’m a country boy” songs make it feel eepish, and this leads into what I fear is an outright mistake on the album, “Southern Family Anthem”. When this song was originally released somewhat quietly on a compilation, I received more emails and requests for my opinion than ever before from irate listeners. My ruling was it was unfair to judge this song without the context of the Family Man concept. Well now we not only have the picture, we have the frame, and I’m sorry to say that “Southern Family Anthem” possibly comes across as even worse and more offensive and confusing than it did autonomously.

Is Shooter trying to offend Southern people in this song? I would vehemently say no, but I can’t say that from the content of the song itself, only from the back story and Shooter’s insistence. Shooter swears the song is all “true” and don’t think for a second I don’t believe him, but it is silly to think that songs can come with lengthy explanations of back stories to coincide with a listener’s initial reactions. This song isn’t just dark, it is disturbing, and not in a good way. And it is done even one shade worse by a horrifically-predictable chorus.

How in the world could a song like this, that is so ripe for misunderstanding, and that could (and in some cases has) boiled over to outright anger make it on this album and an excellent song like “Outlaw You” not?  Is it worth it? Shooter Jennings is given credit as the producer on the album, and I’m all for artists calling their own shots, but someone needed to talk some sense into the man. He didn’t necessarily need a producer, maybe just a friend to say, “Dude!”

“Cause momma’s on crank, daddy’s got Hep C. Yeah we all die together we’re a family,” is the line that seems to hold elements of ultra-harsh stereotyping and judgement that just doesn’t need to be on this album or any other, regardless if it was intended. It would seem out-of-place even from some angry, hardcore country metal slasher band.

The madness of “Southern Family Anthem” dumps you into “Daddy’s Hands,” the best song on the album from a songwriting perspective. Sincere, impactful, and honest, this is where the Family Man concept comes to fruition and feels right in mood and spirit. This sweet soliloquy to Shooter’s father has the ability to send deep chills through men from its use of memory, and Mickey Raphael’s harp magic takes it over the top.

The last song to mention is “The Black Dog”, and utterly confusing, lengthy, coal mine tragedy song that meanders absolutely nowhere, droning and virtually senseless. Is this a harsh take? Probably, but it is also true from this bear’s perspective. At least “Southern Family Anthem” keeps you engaged, waiting for the next shocking turn of offensive language. “The Black Dog” is just painful.

In the end I’m just surprised at the sheer lack of direction with this album. I guess there’s a “Family Man” concept here, but it almost seems a burden to the music instead of a compliment. I really expected great things from this album. I thought Shooter would come out hungry, fighting for redemption from the mainstream country crowd, looking to prove his critic’s wrong. This album really isn’t that country though, any more than it is anything else. It seems to want to be country, with it’s easily-identifiable but sonically shallow Waylon beats at times, but it seems to be striving for mainstream sensibility and acceptance as well.

There’s a very “one foot in” feeling to it–no purpose–flat vocals ferried by excessive reverb from someone who can be a very soulful singer. And no binding agent to hold these songs together in any meaningful anatomy.

However I would be lying if I said Family Man didn’t have any moments. And yes, Shooter is a nice guy, but that is not a sonic element you can measure in music. What this album may have needed more than anything else was honesty of perspective. Removing two songs and Tom Morello’s solo would have dramatically improved Family Man‘s destiny. Instead, they will distract people from the positive elements.

One gun up for Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, Keith Neltner’s art design and concept, for “The Real Me,” “Manifesto No.4,” “Daddy’s Hands, and “The Long Road Ahead” sans Tom Morello.

One gun down for all the rest.

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