by Derek Payseur
Brad Paisley’s latest album, Play: The Guitar Album, is an obvious departure from the rest of his mainstream albums. There are sixteen songs and only five have vocals. The rest is a combination of mainly fast finger-picking instrumental jams that have more in common with bluegrass, jazz, and rock than the popular radio-friendly CMT hits and a few slower tranquil tracks that could be used as the background music for a serene cinematic setting. I predict that most of Paisley’s fan-base will not be open to this type of experimentation and thus long for the type of work that he has done in the past. But, one thing his fans will recognize is the same studio-polished sound. The main complaint I have about the album is that it begs to be stripped down from its glossy pristine quality to a rough, basement one or two-track recording. It may be Paisley’s attempt to move away from the stereotypical mainstream album, but aesthetically, it’s really not too far off the mark.
The opening track, “Huckleberry Jam,” shows off Paisley’s skills and displays that he can play the hell out of a guitar. It is two-minutes and fifty-three seconds of fast playful turns from a guitar, a violin, and a banjo, and, for an album showcasing an artist’s ability to play the guitar, it is a great opening track. With the second song, “Turf’s Up,” Paisley nods to Dick Dale’s classic surf rock. And then, we get the first vocal track. “Start a Band” is the stereotypical popular country tune complete with a catchy chorus and comprised of a hokey lyrical hook. The song attempts to represent the quintessential coolness that comes from learning to play the guitar with the help of Keith Urban: “Just get you a guitar and learn how to play / Cut up some jeans / Come up with a name / When your living in a world / That you don’t understand / Find a few good buddies and / Start a band.” It is as if Paisley (I guess not thinking that his audience would get it) wants to reinforce the idea that this album is the guitar album.
The twelfth-track is by far the best song on the album and deserves to be named something better than “Cluster Pluck.” It features Steve Wariner, Vince Gill, James Burton, Albert Lee, John Jorgenson, Brent Mason, and Redd Volkaert rocking away for three-and-a-half minutes in a fast-paced, solo-intensive, electric-bluegrass jam. Paisley’s instrumentals also include blues (“Playing with Blues”), jazz (“Les is More”), eighties-sounding rock (“Cliffs of Rock City”) and an Esteban-esque classical piece (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). The album also features artists, such as the late Buck Owens, BB King, and Andy Griffith.
While I am not particularly enamored with the album, it is refreshing to hear someone with obvious talent move outside of the norm and offer up something different. With the exception of the Buck Owens track, the instrumentals have far more to offer than the lyrical inclusions, since it’s these songs that Paisley playfully shows off his versatile talent more freely. If you’re looking for the stereotypical popular country album, then Play is not for you, but if you appreciate someone’s mastery of an instrument, then Play should definitely be worth considering.