Brad Paisley Moonshine In The Trunk

[Arista Nashville; 2014]

Rating: 1.5/5

Styles: new country, accidental ahistoricism
Others: Dierks Bentley, Kenny (Vaughan/Chesney), Luke Bryan

In the video for “River Bank,” we join a good ol’ waterfront party replete with tequila shots, cold ones, and happy white folks in cut-off jorts and bikini tops. The camera catches flares from the bright summer sun and splashes of river water. We’re with Brad Paisley strumming and smiling in the back of a speedboat painted metal-flake-red like the pure and simple album cover (where his barely-there reflection is a soul buried in the gloss). All the while, there’s a lovable outsider among the gang: Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel. During a technically impressive but obligatory guitar solo, the video cuts between POV and tracking shots of the wet squirrel’s voyage through the parted legs of an anonymous bikini-topped babe.

This is part of the gimmicky spirit of Paisley’s fun-loving New Country, and it’s in these pop moments when Moonshine in the Trunk succeeds. “Crushin’ It” opens the album with an ear-catching, finger-picking guitar riff that carries into a memorable singalong chorus. “River Bank” and ode to backseat-lovin’ “4WP” (four-wheel park, lol) are plucky, catchy summer songs. The title track begins with a revving engine that’s pitch-shifted to match the chorus’ guitar lick, and lightning-speed picking drives the song home.

But whenever Paisley sets his sights on anything more than Fun throughout the album, he gets it twisted. The male gaze in the “River Bank” video is at odds with the supposed uplift of vanilla-pseudo-feminist ballad “Shattered Glass.” The major-label video’s requisite sexist stock imagery betrays the record’s complicity with exploitative, normativizing scenes and politics, just as Paisley’s lyrics continually thwart his blindly optimistic vision of the United States. On “Country Nation,” he sings of patchwork solidarity, “We’re Mountaineers, we’re Volunteers/ We’re the Tide that rolls, we’re Seminoles,” maybe forgetting that Tennessee volunteers assisted in an 1812 East Florida campaign to kill Seminoles who sheltered runaway slaves.

If that sounds like harsh nitpicking, how about the retrospective “American Flag on the Moon”: “Oh, in 200 years/ Think about all we’ve done so far/ I don’t see any reason why tomorrow can’t be ours.” Who is the “our” here? And can you think about anything “we” have done in those 200 years that maybe warrants a reconsideration or suspicion of what the next 200 years could bring along? It’s easy to get caught up in Paisley’s substantively ignorant, good-natured ahistoricism, because there’s not much to chew on elsewhere. Small retreats from the “low life” are promised in girls sweet as Skoal, crushed cans of Bud Light, and Polynesian sauce at Chick-fil-A.

Forgettable melodies and arrangements abound on the mid-tempo tracks that comprise the bulk of Moonshine. Guest stars (Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris) add the slightest touch of personality to otherwise by-the-numbers songs. The low-points raise eyebrows: Hammond organ on second single “Perfect Storm” fizzles into a re-arranged Coldplay B-side, and the giggling children’s choir at the end of “American Flag” beats us over the head with Hope.

It’s clear that the superstar is still self-conscious about his accidentally racist misstep with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist.” Talking about message-carrying songs “Shattered Glass” and “American Flag,” Paisley says, “they are positive, and they aren’t things that people are going to get mad at me for.” This safe sentiment leads to middle-of-the-road pandering throughout the album, with music to match. Debuting at #1 on the Billboard country charts, it seems like he struck a chord.

It’s not an unpredictable one. Last week at Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago, Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes spoke gloomily between songs about militarized police terror in the West. He concluded with the twisted glint of a half-smile, “Every day, the nightmare seems more like every day. But let’s have a Bud Light or whatever.”

Moonshine in the Trunk follows the all-American (not all Americans) formula for success: a melting pot of reproductive futurist family sentiment (the girl God made for him, the inspiring naivety of his son), whitewashing nationalism, and summer fun in the sun.

Links: Brad Paisley - Arista Nashville

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