Tuesday, December 22, 2009

#10. 'Clinging to his picture for dear life'

Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss "Whiskey Lullaby"

I keep returning to that rant I made against the insipid nature of modern country whenever another Nashville production rears up, but I don't think it's ever been more apt than here. It's not just that - spoiler - this is the highest ranking country single on the list but the fact that it's made by someone who rarely seems like anything more than another in the line of ever changing yet never changing pieces of the modern country machine. Brad Paisley is a frustrating artist for me; half the time I really like his work but the other half is horrible, too reliant on gimmicky songwriting and playing against what I see as Paisley's strengths. The results of that opposition within his catalog means that despite having made a few of my favorite singles of the decade he'll never come to mind as on artist I'd recommend above the others of his ilk. That's a shame really, because when he's on his game he can pull out some truly sublime work, trading in on his slightly weathered but still expressive voice, his skill as an instrumentalist and his genuine relatability to knock out a few truly stunning numbers.

"Whiskey Lullaby" wasn't the most successful of these, only peaking at #3 on the country charts and must missing the top 40 on the pop side, but it's the one that I keep coming back to any time that Paisley releases a dud like "Online" or "Ticks" to remind myself that there's a genuinely great artist in there somewhere. It doesn't matter that the song wasn't his or that his duet partner kind of mops the floor with him by virtue of being Allison Kruass, this stands as Paisley's most resonant performance. You could argue that songwriters Jon Randall and Bill Anderson had handed Paisley a guaranteed winner and all that he had to do was not fuck it up too royally and it'd still be massive, but it's not like he phoned it in here even though he could have. Just listen to his performance here compared to any of his other songs; outside of maybe "Mud on the Tires" I can't think of any other time that he hasn't seemed to be consciously performing when he sings. It could just be the stripped down production bleeding into the vocals, but he sounds more genuine here than anywhere else in his discography and that certianly gives the song a bit of a boost.

However, once Allison Krauss opens her mouth the song was all but guaranteed to win me over. It's one of those disarmingly pure voices that I can't get enough of, a haunting lilt that stood out even back in the mid 90s when women on country radio were allowed to have personalities. As much as Paisley brings his A-game to the first verse, her entrance manages to raise the rack to that next level. It's not that she gets better lines - though the one alteration to her chorus, changing the rather maudlin 'with a note that said "I'll love her 'til I die"' to teh much more subtle and haunting image of her 'clinging to his picture for dear life' does give her a bit of an edge there - or that the song changes at all to give her a showcase, but her mere presence and that voice, dear God that voice, just manage to take what was already shaping up to be a great song and turn it into a phenomenal one. Any other duet partner and the song's nowhere near this good, though I've had it bad for Krauss since hearing her turn The Foundations' "Baby Now That I've Found You" into the most hauntingly spare thing I'd heard on country radio back in 1995 so that's probably more my bias than anything. Still, I try to imagine anyone else, even my favorite country ladies tackling her part here and none of them have the right quality to sell the song the way Krauss does.

Then there's the song's production. Now, this part could have been "Whiskey Lullaby"'s downfall, but instead of going big and maudlin as would befit a song this tragic the decision to strip it down to little more than guitar and dobro outside of the chorus and that great final instrumental break makes the song so much more palatable to my ears. I wiosh I could say more than that but my brain is going into shutdown right now. Might finish this in the morning but don't count on it since I've got a post-rock watershed album and some shamelessly retro Spector warship to dissect.

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