Album Review – Randy Houser’s “Note To Self”

photo: Rachel Deeb

Whether you’re an adventurous traditional country music fan willing to cross enemy lines to seek out some of the best of the mainstream, or the mainstream country fan who insists on seeking out the country music of substance that the radio and awards tend to ignore, both paths will lead you to Randy Houser’s new album Note To Self. Picking up where his 2019 album Magnolia left off by affording more quality in the songwriting, more soul in the vocals, and more country in the sounds, Note To Self is one of mainstream country’s better releases of 2022.

There was a bit of a “screw it” mentality behind Magnolia, where Randy Houser gave up chasing country radio relevance, and just made the album he wanted to, resulting in one of the best of his career. Note To Self has some of that aspect as well, but it is also a bit more sensible as a mainstream country release in how the songs are written to be more receptive to mainstream audiences. This is simultaneous to mainstream country also being more receptive to quality songs these days, as well as the sound of the steel guitar, which is slathered all over this album.

The result of all of this is placing of Note To Self in a sweet spot. Not only are critics and distinguishing country fans praising the album, it’s also putting Randy Houser back on the radio, with the title track climbing the radio charts (currently #32), and looking to become his biggest single since 2015. The album is full of pragmatic, but patently country songs that are similar to the ones Houser built his career upon in the late aughts.

Note To Self is definitely a country album, but some of the writing leans on the list-style of composition to give a commercial aspect to otherwise quality songs. “Country Round Here Tonight” could have been cut by Jason Aldean at the height of the Bro-Country era with the way the lyrics go down the checklist of things a country radio single must reference like long necks, tans, and four-wheel drives, even if it sounds way more like a traditional country song overall. The MIDI-programmed introduction to the song “Call Me” also leaves some to be desired, even if that’s what lures average country radio fans in.

But after the introduction, “Call Me” is one of numerous songs on Note To Self that hit you in the country feels. “Still That Cowboy,” and even the single “Note To Self” are examples of mature country songs written and sung by a 46-year-old that we’re not used to hearing on major label releases. We’re used to the likes of Luke Bryan and Keith Urban singing about themes for audiences half their age, hoping to cling to their relevancy with younger audiences.

Note To Self is also full of songs with affirmations about the country lifestyle and the American way of life—songs like “Workin’ Man” and “American Dreamer” that paint the blue collar worker and rural life as honorable and almost idyllic, even if they’re hard fought, and forgotten by the rest of the world. These songs might also remind some of elements of the Bro-Country era as well, but the difference is that Randy Houser and his co-writers add just enough maturity and truth to make them more palatable to traditional country audiences too, while the music of Note To Self co-produced by Houser insists on landing on a strong country sound.

This is an album full of rich tones and expressive moments, and best of all is the vocals of Randy Houser himself, which seem to have only been enhanced with age and maturity. Exploring the richness of his tone and writing songs to his strengths, Houser sells you on this album through his singing if nothing else. It’s crazy to ponder that Houser started out purely as a songwriter, but he comes from an era when to be a country singer, it required you to actually be able to sing in a distinctive way.

Note To Self just proves why you shouldn’t put that old pair of blue jeans or that printed pearl snap shirt in the pile for Goodwill. In country music, all your favorite styles come back around, and when they do, you’re always cooler when you’re sporting stuff from the original era instead of the retro imitation. Randy Houser did his time chasing trends, and later shirking them with his last album Magnolia. But now his original soulful country sound and the appetite of the mainstream are aligning to make an album like this one that can live in both the mainstream and the more traditional world of country music.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.2/10)

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