There’s something about being a Texan that makes you regard what happens in Texas as being the most important thing in the world. It’s the center of the universe, so to speak. For Texans at least.
So when Josh Abbott felt the need to pronounce his infidelity to the world in February of 2014, the little hamlets that harbor the support network for Texas music were sent reeling. The “why” and the “how” of Abbott’s announcement seemed to play right into the hands of some of his critics who say he’s sort of the Texas music drama queen and needs to be the center of attention at all times, even when announcing he cheated on his wife. It was good old-fashioned Texas music chili pot stirring of the highest order if there ever was one.
And here Saving Country Music was, recently declaring the video for Josh Abbott’s version of “I’ll Sing About Mine” the best of 2013 and specifically citing the values the song and video entailed, wondering if I should be feeling buyer’s remorse. Generally speaking, it’s not uncommon to hear about the average musician having a broken home life. What made Abbott’s situation so different was how public he’d decided to make it all, almost forcing fans to play the whole People Magazine gossip game.
Many months later, Josh Abbott announced a new album called Front Row Seat where it was said he would unflinchingly face his infidelity and the fallout in song, resulting in his most personal work to date. Yeah, okay. And compounding the concerns that Josh Abbott was parlaying his indiscretions into marketing copy and even more attention for himself was the fact that over his career he’s become the poster boy for how music doesn’t have to emanate from Music Row to be considered country pop. Abbott has been one of the kings of incorporating “sensibilities” into his softcore style of country. He’ll cut a song from one of the best songwriters in Texas on you, but the result will make sure he doesn’t ever have to worry about missing any car payments.
So all of this is the backdrop when Front Row Seat comes across the desk. Oh, and let’s not forget the unprecedented shift in 2015 for artists and bands sitting right around Josh Abbott’s shelf life that are all of a sudden are deciding it’s time to start running with the young dogs and begin cutting country EDM songs like his buds in the Eli Young Band. Shane McAnally’s name was also associated with the project, so who knows where it could lead.
Sometimes cynicism for a project going in can kill your chances of ever giving it a fair shake and finding something you enjoy, and other times it can set the table for being pleasantly surprised and connecting with music you otherwise thought you would never appreciate. In the case of Josh Abbott Band’s Front Row Seat, it was the latter. Though still very much the classic late night Saturday Cinemax version of country, it’s not too terrible.
Josh Abbott said this would be a very personal album, and this wasn’t just table talk. Segmented into five acts, Front Row Seat takes the listener on a journey through the various phases of human emotional development as it coincides with the courtship of the opposite sex. Each song is like a hue in the emotional spectrum, and though that means at times you move through the sort of adolescent-feeling or douchebag sectors that young adults invariably go through, the album touches on some very real emotions and moments that you can’t help feel are bred directly from Abbott’s near-term experiences and realizations.
Abbott set out a goal for himself to unburden his heart, and he does so. Aiding in this experience is really juicy melody and chorus development that will be too saccharine for most leathery-skinned country listeners, but for others will be ear candy.
Just as much as the depth Abbott pursues in this record is surprising, so is the re-connection to the country foundations of the band. While everyone else seems to be leaning on songs with drum machine opens and electronic accessorizing, Josh Abbott puts the banjo and fiddle right out front in Front Row Seat. Granted, they’re usually more texture than leading the charge or taking extended breaks, but that’s more within the established style of the Josh Abbott Band to begin with. Rock guitar still gets its licks in plenty, but the country-ness of this album was a bit surprising for the Abbott legacy.
Though Shane McAnally’s name is used as a big splash in the promotion of this record, he only shows up in ostensibly one song. It’s folks like Brent Cobb, Radney Foster, and William Clark Green who come in with assists for Josh Abbott’s songwriting. There are a lot of songwriters on this record, but a few of the songs are from Abbott himself, and even when they’re not, you feel his vision is still the impetus of what made it on tape.
The first two “acts” that comprise the first half of the record are very sumptuous in a sort of 2005 radio country manner. All of the first six songs could be singles. “Live It While You Got It” is like a late 90’s one hit wonder radio anthem, “Wasn’t That Drunk” explores how inhibitions in many ways are only clever illusions, and each song in the first half of this record has a lyrical hook that works devilishly well.
Moving to the second-half, this is when the heartbreak sets in, and the song “Born To Break Your Heart” really hits home. It wasn’t written by Abbott, but it slips right into the track list like the rest of the record was written around it.
One issue with Front Row Seat is it stretches out to 16 total tracks. You start to get tired of the same approach to virtually every song. It’s the same band, the same basic setup, and virtually every song sits down in the same mid-tempo section until your mind just starts to wander. This album could have used either some fat trimming or a little more spice. Abbott had a lot to say, but at some point you get tired of listening. And though the songwriting is solid, and the music is more country than you anticipate, this is still significantly within the borders of radio-friendly pop country, more aimed toward the girls who flock to the front of the stage at concerts as opposed to the folks listening for something more real than corporate radio offers.
But hey, hats off to Josh Abbott for having a vision, seeing it through, and accomplishing what he set out to do. Front Row Seat is Josh Abbott and The Josh Abbott Band pushing their limits, saying something, yet keeping within their realm of wanting to entertain fans first.
We can all sit back and second guess Josh Abbott’s judgements, actions, and indiscretions, but as he accurately portrays in this album, love and night life is not all the endless party represented in mainstream country. It’s a knock down, drag out fight that gets very lonely at times, very-emotionally charged in other instances, and tends to get the better of even the most emotionally-steeled individuals. Temptations lurk around every corner, the human brain is designed to trick itself and entice one into doing wrong for extra rewards of passion that we pay for negatively and in double fold for on the back end. We’re all emotional wrecks until we find someone else to latch onto and hold on for dear life, and even then there’s a 50/50 chance it all goes south at some point.
So we do our best, and sometimes music helps us get through it all.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Up (6/10)
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