At the end of a year where Big & Rich seemingly had a hand in every other record coming out of Nashville -- and when their past was dredged up in the form of Big Kenny's ignored 1999 album Live a Little -- the gonzo country duo unleashed Comin' to Your City, the highly anticipated follow-up to their surprise blockbuster 2004 debut, A Horse of a Different Color. Their omnipresence in 2005 illustrates just how thoroughly Big & Rich, along with their protégée Gretchen Wilson, changed the course of contemporary country in the ...
At the end of a year where Big & Rich seemingly had a hand in every other record coming out of Nashville -- and when their past was dredged up in the form of Big Kenny's ignored 1999 album Live a Little -- the gonzo country duo unleashed Comin' to Your City, the highly anticipated follow-up to their surprise blockbuster 2004 debut, A Horse of a Different Color. Their omnipresence in 2005 illustrates just how thoroughly Big & Rich, along with their protégée Gretchen Wilson, changed the course of contemporary country in the middle of the decade, helping to usher in music that was bigger, funnier, rowdier, and looser than what was on country radio in the wake of Garth's retirement. Everybody wanted a piece of Big & Rich, including such mainstream divas as Faith Hill, and they had their own pet projects like inept country rapper Cowboy Troy, and they didn't turn down an opportunity to work, so they just flooded the charts. And while such success is a vindication in and of itself, it also raised the stakes for the duo's own record -- a challenge they embrace with their trademark goofball humor on Comin' to Your City. Opening with a perhaps inadvertent salute to Shel Silverstein on the careening "The Freak Parade," the album immediately delves into territory that's weirder than anything on the debut, and the duo continues to push its music to extremes for the rest of the record. This doesn't mean that this is all a freak show -- the stranger moments are stranger, often exhilaratingly so, but the ballads are slicker and the pop tunes are less apologetic than before. Since the gonzo rebel shtick was always an act put on by two Music City pros, this pursuit of the weird and the normal in equal measure benefits the album since they can pull off both attitudes with slick flair. And it doesn't get slicker than "I Pray for You," a slice of anthemic MOR pop that would sound by-the-books in the hands of another act, but the duo gives the song an insistent, assured arrangement that not only places it above most contemporary country-pop of 2005, but makes it better than nearly all adult contemporary of its year, as well. It's not the only straight-ahead moment that works here, either -- "Never Mind Me" has a sweetness straight out soft rock's late-'70s/early-'80s peak, while "Leap of Faith" is underpinned by a genuine melancholy ache that's a little surprising coming from this pair of pranksters. These moments don't dominate the album, however: they anchor a record that's otherwise a pretty wild ride. Sometimes, the partying is a little obvious -- as on the travelogue title track -- but that doesn't mean it's not effective; Big & Rich have the hooks and the studio smarts to make the formula sound infectious. Besides, when there are songs as mind-bending and odd as Big Kenny's old-timey mariachi "20 Margaritas" or his country-psychedelia excursion on "Blow My Mind," it's hard to complain about the occasional glimpse of formula -- and that's not even taking into account such gems as the silly, self-referential "Filthy Rich," the absurd "Jalapeno," or the gleefully annoying "Soul Shaker," nor does it quite convey how the awkwardly jingoistic military tale "8th of November" (proof that every mainstream country album in 2005 needs a patriotic anthem) is subverted by "Our America," where Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, and Cowboy Troy cut-and-paste American tunes, slogans, and clichés into a freak-pack national anthem. It's things like this that make up for the lack of a flat-out stunner along the lines of "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." After all, when an album has so many hooks, good and bad jokes, real and affected weirdness, it's hard to complain: it's better just to sit back and enjoy the show, especially since, for better or worse, there are no better showmen in country or pop in 2005 than Big & Rich. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi