Country, I think, is the marmite of the music world. The pineapple on pizza of genre. Some people like it – love it, even. They will defend it to the death. Meanwhile, the rest of us happily scroll past the Hawaiian option on the Domino’s website and avoid country like the plague. It wasn’t always like this: half a century ago, icons like Springsteen, Nelson and the goddess amongst women that is Dolly Parton made some of the best songs ever written. But nowadays, country is a genre overwhelmed with generic, pop-style production that strips away any of the soulful sentiment that made its predecessors so successful.
Enter Lauren Alaina. Road Less Traveled is the sophomore album of the 22-year-old, who came second in the 2011 series of American Idol to Scotty Mcreery, another country singer. Since then Alaina has debuted at number five on Billboard’s US album chart, toured with veteran of the scene Alan Jackson, and written the theme song for the penguin attraction at Seaworld, which is a talking point if nothing else. Having done some research before listening to the album, I must confess that I was sceptical, to say the least. The combination of American Idol and Seaworld had put me on edge.
The album’s opening was exactly what I expected: not great. It was, to return to an earlier motif, excessively pineapple. The first four songs, including the titular track Road Less Traveled, passed in a haze of excessive banjo twanging which, although I am sure some people enjoy it, was most definitely not to my taste. The banjo must be used sparingly, like a fine dusting of Parmesan on top of your ravioli. In this case, it was like at the PearShaped Christmas dinner when I didn’t realise that I had to say “when” until the waitress started laughing, and got through a third of a block of cheese.
Things start to look up with Queen Of Hearts, as there has never been a bad song written from the perspective of an angry Southern woman. The quality picks up still further with Think Outside The Boy, which manages to escape the unnecessary intensity of the first few tracks of the album. This song is a glimpse of Alaina’s songwriting talent, accompanied by a softer melody than previous songs which allows her to shine both through her lyrics and her voice. What also helps to set this song apart is that it’s not stereotypical angst about a lover or faith or anything else that’s a common subject in the genre, but an ode to a teenage girl that is gently begging her to look beyond “the boy”. It’s clear that this is a deeply personal matter for Alaina, which is what helps make this track stand out so much. It feels real, as opposed to factory-produced.
Painting Pillows is just as slow and whimsical as Think Outside The Boy, but with none of its charm; Next Boyfriend is too pop to be good country and too country to be good pop; Crashing The Boys’ Club is a good concept poorly written. Same Day Different Bottle is… Amazing, actually. Written about Alaina’s father and his alcoholism, this song’s only downside is that its arrangement is too ornate – listening, I can’t help but wish that it was just her voice and a guitar, as anything else is just a distraction from the power of the lyrics. The penultimate track, Holding The Other, is sub-par on its own, but putting it after the album’s highlight makes it seem shoddy by comparison. The record closes with Pretty, which is Alaina writing to past self more than her listeners. It’s clear how much this song means to her, which is what saves it from mediocrity.
The Road Less Traveled is an album with a few good hits and some spectacular misses. It’s a shame that Alaina so clearly has talent, and at points it shines through, but for the most part this is hidden behind unnecessary showiness in the production of the album. If you are a fan of the country genre as it is today, then I’m sure that you’ll love it. If not, Same Day Different Bottle is the only one worth listening to, and if you don’t like it then there’s no point trying the rest. And if you ever happen upon her recording studio, please remove any and all banjos from the premises.