Album Review – Tyler Childers – “Take My Hounds to Heaven”

The album Purgatory by Tyler Childers will go down in history as one of the most important and successful releases by any country music artist in the last ten years, and perhaps in history. Over five years removed from its release, it’s still a regular in the Top 20 of the country albums charts, well above releases from mainstream performers released much more recently, and all from an artist that has never received any significant mainstream radio play or attention.

But now it’s time for Tyler’s Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? to attempt to grip our attention. And to hopefully increase his odds, Tyler has presented this release in a three-act, three-disc, or three-lp set, depending on your preferred method of music consumption. This expanded format release is not especially uncommon in country music these days. In fact, it’s kind of the fad. It worked out swimmingly for Morgan Wallen, who is affixed at the very top of the Billboard Country Albums chart with his 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album, and with no signs of relinquishing that position anytime soon. Right beneath him is Zach Bryan with his 34-song behemoth American Heartbreak.

But more tracks don’t always translate into more success. Eric Church released a triple album while he was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year called Heart & Soul. It petered out rather quickly compared to Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan. Cody Johnson’s Human: The Double Album also had a valiant run, but is nowhere near the top 20 on a perennial basis like Tyler’s Purgatory is.

But Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? is a bit unique because it’s three albums of the same eight songs. Well, its two albums of virtually the same songs, and then “something else” that will be addressed in due course. The other disadvantage is that of those eight songs, one is a cover of “Old Country Church” by Hank Williams, another is a new rendition of Tyler’s own song “Purgatory,” two are instrumentals (at least in their initial incarnation) that also feel more like interludes as opposed to truly original tracks, and one track is the title song of the album, which anyone who’s been listening to Tyler Childers at this point has heard half a dozen times either live or in videos.

This leaves the Tyler Childers listener with really only three truly new tunes on a 3-disc, 24-song album. These include “Triune God,” which Tyler has also been featuring in concert for a while, “Heart You’ve Been Tendin’, and the lead single, “Angel Band,” which we also heard before the album was released. So really, when you crack open this package, there is only one song you’ve never heard before … in a 24-song set.

Furthermore, the second versions of these songs that appear on the second disc of the album called “Jubilee” aren’t totally separate renditions of these songs. They’re basically the same track as on the first disc that’s called “Hallelujah,” just with extra overdubbed production add-ons, such as horn sections, or sometimes ambient dialog from vintage recordings. So as you continue to parse through the tracks of this release, it’s like whittling a walking stick down until all you’re left with is a toothpick of truly original, novel material. Meanwhile, Childers has featured songs live such as “Percheron Mules,” “Luke Chapter 2 Verses 8-10,” and his version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” by Bob Weir that could have better completed this effort into a cohesive expression.

With that cold reality out of the way though, what you do get on this album is a selection of eight very tasty tracks well worthy of the public’s attention. Take My Hounds to Heaven comes at a time when Tyler Childers and his long-time backing band The Food Stamps have gone from a gritty, Appalachian-inspired folk-oriented country band, to a sweaty, greasy, groove and thump-based country funk outfit indicative of peak Jerry Reed.

Instead of “The Professor” Jesse Wells primarily playing fiddle, and steel guitar player James Barker sitting down behind the console, they’re both part of a double electric guitar attack, with the newest Food Stamp CJ Cain now handling acoustic guitar duties. Embellish this with strings and keys in certain spots, and the music of Take My Hounds to Heaven rises to the inspired aspect of the material.

The band’s live cover of the Charlie Daniels Band “Trudy” and “Tulsa Turnaround” by Kenny Rogers have become the anchors of Tyler’s live performances. Taking that same tact to these new tracks, and interweaving it with the Gospel-esque approach to the material, Tyler Childers and The Food Stamps turn in a very sumptuous set of mid-tempo tunes that raise the spirit, satisfy the heart, and entertain the soul.

This is not a “Gospel” record per se—meaning material that adheres to the New Testament account of the life of Jesus Christ at a 51% level or above. The instrumental tracks disqualify if from that distinction. The album also presents a somewhat unusual dichotomy for some listeners, and on both sides of the religious divide. For the devoted, the sentiments shared here will be nowhere near pure enough, despite songs like “Triune God” and “Old Country Church,” because a song like “Angel Band” presents a universalist message. Meanwhile, those turned off by religious sentiments entirely may also find a disfavorable view toward the album due to the presence of devoutly religious material.

This “neither fish nor foul” aspect in some ways neuters the attempt here by Tyler Childers to either present religious notions to an agnostic audience in a way that illustrates the beauty and promise Christian teachings can confer to individuals aligned with Tyler’s own evolved beliefs, while also failing to open the hearts and minds of more religious listeners to a more universal notion of God and Heaven.

Then there is the third disc of the set, named “Joyful Noise.” Though some, or perhaps many listeners will say this is an envelope-pushing and inventive approach to music, they do so in the same way you act elated whenever someone presents you with a gift due to social behavior norms, even if the gift in fact repulses you. In a word, the third installment of Take My Hounds to Heaven by Tyler Childers is rank bullshit, and insult toward the audience, and irredeemable as anything aside from filler and/or file 86 material.

Despite the track titles, these final tracks are not third renditions of the initial songs, though a couple of them like “Way of the Triune God” do employ samples from the original songs. Instead, they are extremely novice and elementary attempts at sequencing and sampling that result in inhospitable noise that in no way could ever be characterized as “Joyful,” if for no other reason than the dark aspect of the material’s mood.

Eerily similar to the opening tracks of Tyler’s last album Long Violent History with its very rudimentary fiddle playing on traditional tunes, this third disc stuff is truly unfit for human consumption on a commercial level. Granted, on Long Violent History, these tracks more of a setup for Tyler’s social commentary, and so it was forgivable. But in this instance where it’s being used to bolster an album project that vinyl purchasers are spending upwards of $60 to acquire isn’t just abusive to the audience, its a borderline grift.

Granted, plenty of proponents of Childers will pipe up, saying this opinion is one of uncultured country fans who don’t want their favorite artists to evolve. But working with samples and drum machines is not an “evolved” state of music in 2022. It is the most conformist thing you can do. Refusing to allow your music to be corrupted by 1’s and 0’s, that is what is on the bleeding edge, that is what is revolutionary in 2022. That is also the reason Tyler Childers has become one of the most popular and beloved artists in all of country music, because he embraced the authenticity people were hungry for, and that the mainstream was dramatically underserving.

The only way to justify whatever is happening on the third disc of this album is if in six months Tyler Childers grants an interview where he states he just wanted out of his contract with RCA Records, and this was the way to deliver them the fifth record of a five record deal, and to basically tell them go fuck themselves in the process. It’s not even good in any justifiable argument of what modern, laptop-based music creation can achieve these days.

Then when you consider that Tyler’s 2019 studio album Country Squire also left some feeling short changed with only nine songs—along with the eight elementary traditional tracks of Long Violent History, and the reproductions of songs on disc two of this release—you’re left with so much chaff from this artist, it’s starting to become overwhelming, and constitute the majority of his output. It leaves the audience with mixed to negative emotions about the individual who is supposed to be leading the charge for independent country music and Appalachian authenticity.

It’s not that Take My Hounds to Heaven does not have some good songs on it. It most certainly does. And the streaming consumers who won’t even make it to disc 3 will be curious about what any hubbub is about. They’ll just listen to the version of the songs they like, and move on. If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s that Tyler Childers fans still get a small, but valiant selection of new-to-them tracks to enjoy. This should not be overlooked, or undervalued.

But as a triple platter album with 24 songs and a hefty price tag, you have to consider the entire package as a whole, the amount of original material it includes, the fairness to the consumer, and judge it among its peers. September 30th was an extremely busy release day with 10 to 12 song albums of all original material from artists who put their souls into their efforts, and many who will be overshadowed by this three-album monster released by Tyler Childers. If you want to listen to innovation in the country music space, go listen to Ashley McBryde Presents: Lineville, with 13 original tracks, taking the notions of what country should be and turning them on their head, while remaining country, and entertaining, and delivering more than what the audience expected instead of less.

Why can’t Tyler Childers just release an album of ten original songs like he did with Purgatory? Simply recording ten songs straight from the heart resulted in its own revolution in country music that has entirely rewritten the possibilities for independent artists. There would be no Zach Bryan if it wasn’t for Tyler Childers and Purgatory. It was Purgatory that gave birth to the first Certified Gold single from a non radio-supported country artist in the modern era, then the first Platinum one, then the first Double Platinum one, while the album itself has been Certified Platinum too.

Sure, maybe Tyler Childers doesn’t have the same songs within him that will resonate like all of those Purgatory tracks did, and expecting him to is the unreasonable expectations an audience can put on him, not wanting him to remain exclusively country, and being incensed by disc three. Tyler Childers is overthinking this, and falling for the fallacy that to be innovative as an artist, you have to do outlandish and unusual things, and piss off part of your fan base because that somehow proves your “artistry.”

All of these critical observations are shared from a place of love and belief in this artist, because we know what Tyler Childers is capable of. And though Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? illustrates some of those possibilities in the initial songs—and again, this shouldn’t be overlooked or discounted—this album should have been an EP, or fleshed out with a few more original tracks instead of whatever this marketing and packaging monstrosity of an album turned out to be.

1 1/4 Guns Down (4/10)

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