Country Jukebox Jury – Riley Green and Keith Urban

Riley Green – If It Wasn’t For Trucks

Riley Green is another country star who looks pretty, with Big Machine’s money behind him. He previewed some songs from his new EP on the Opry stage the day after it came out. He may have been a little intimidated by the space but he’s a very contemporary singer: trucker hat, denim jacket over a white vest, gentle strumming of a guitar.

We have so many of these that it’s hard to distinguish between them but I loved Riley’s debut hit There Was This Girl. I’m less keen on his smash I Wish Grandpas Never Died and so I went into his follow-up album with intrigue. Who is Riley Green and why should I subscribe to his world view so that Big Machine can earn some money to funnel into his career?

If It Wasn’t For Trucks is a five-track EP and we know where we are by the titles alone. I love the punchy Jesus and Wranglers, co-written with Randy Montana who helped Luke Combs have a smash with Beer Never Broke My Heart. I think the riff that runs through the song is terrific. The people behind Riley’s career have definitely looked at Luke Combs and Jon Pardi and sought to create a similar product. Riley is some way behind them both, but well done for trying.

If I Didn’t Wear Boots and If It Wasn’t For Trucks are essentially the same song: ‘I am only with you because I grew up in the country and have experience with farming and small towns.’ It’s a bit silly to put two identical songs on a product, even though they have both have suitably country instrumentation rather than processed beats.

Better Than Me is better. It includes Randy Owen from Alabama, in which Riley sings how ‘the good Lord’ knows where his life is heading. I like the line about the grass looking like Augusta, the pro golf course. Riley himself is from Alabama so this is a lovely collaboration full of heart and a lovely fiddle solo.

Behind The Times is basically Waiting on a Woman by Brad Paisley or People Are Crazy by Billy Currington, as Riley is the youngster being spoken to by a chap with the wisdom of an old timer. The man sits reading a paper and wants ‘another Reagan’. The chap tells Riley to ‘trust the Lord, buy a Ford’ and find a girl to love, just like he did. It’s sentimental and gooey and very country, and it’s good product. Three out of the five tracks are ace, which is why this EP gets 3/5.

Keith Urban – The Speed of Now Pt 1

The Sunday Times reviewer loved the country vibes of We Were and God Whispered Your Name, less so everything else. I agree with this professional opinion.

We heard much of the album before it came out: Polaroid and Superman were both heard on Radio 2 where Keith presented four hour-long Playlist shows where he showed off his love of all kinds of music, including country, rock and r’n’b. He also popped up on Radio 2 on the day of release, in his role as mum’s favourite country star. His brand is Keith Urban: experienced musician who can play good guitar solos and write fine country songs, but who has excelled as what Bo Burnham calls a Stadium Country star.

Keith Urban is not country. He’s Keith Urban. You know how Prince is Prince and Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder? Columbia music bet the house on making Keith Urban a star, and a star he duly became. Keith has given up on genre, having started out in the 2000s as ‘that country guy from Australia’ and the 2010s being ‘Mr Nicole Kidman’. In 2020, in his fifties, he has a huge fanbase of fans of what the late Tom Petty called ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. As shown on his patchy last two projects – Ripcord and Graffiti U – the Keith Urban brand is a bit pop, a bit rock, a bit dance and a lot of stadium-sized anthems. It means he can afford more guitars and more school fees for the kids.

Credits on those last two albums include Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, Ed Sheeran, Shy Carter, Jeff Bhasker, Benny Blanco, One Direction co-pilot Jamie Scott, JR Rotem (producer of Jason Derulo’s best stuff), MoZella (who wrote Wrecking Ball), Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. And yet he remains country enough not to be called a pop star, working with the A List writers in Nashville where he has his own studio.

The Speed of Now opens with a hiphop beat and a funky bit of banjo-guitar. Out The Cage may make people spit out the CD but we know what Keith Urban does by now. It’s pop music with Nashville approval; here, Breland adds to his growing reputation and Nile Rodgers pops up with his patented guitar line. I had to listen to it twice to catch all the nuances (‘white men’?? No, ‘wild animals’!) but this will be an astonishing set opener if he dares open with it. The chorus is syncopated as hell and Keith really wants to be let out of the cage.

Soul Food, which I reckon kicks off the album’s second side, is another song co-written with Breland and it harks back to the Keith Urban of the 2000s. It’s got a lovely melody and gentle production, as well as mentioning ‘Friday night’, ‘little slice of paradise’ and how ‘nothin sparks my appetite’. It’s very light and fluffy and it perked me up after a quite awful first side, where songs are pleasant but unmemorable.

One Too Many, a dull song with a fun chorus featuring Pink, was previewed at the ACMs. I have no idea why Keith is drinking in the bar and wants his designated girl to pick him up. Live With is wretched while Superman (track four) is all production and is ‘country’ because Keith is Johnny in the Ring of Fire.

Say Something – with the lines ‘intimacy’s so hard for me’ and the awful ‘I wanna live my truths wide open’ – rhymes mama with karma and there’s another processed beat with those annoying digital hi-hats and some fun harmonies on the chorus but it’s all very blah, showing off vocal and production rather than song. Who wants a fiftysomething father-of-two wanting to sound like a cool, hip star? Answer: Keith’s fans. I won’t begrudge them.

There are rock songs here, like the Cadillac Three gift Tumbleweed, which is all action and no talk. Forever, also written by Jaren from TC3 along with songwriter Brent Cobb, is a rootsy track set over a looped beat that reminisces about tattoos, cigarettes, sunshine, cars and ‘this Podunk town’. The production is a bit muddy, as you would expect when you put Keith Urban guitar solos over a processed beat. The message is to remember the days when life was easy and free…and that Keith is country music’s guitar hero.

There are ballads here, as there always are. Change Your Mind sees Keith in Brooklyn wanting to speak to the girl who dumped him. Better Than I Am is a plea to ‘fall at your feet and let you in to where you can so damage me’. Keith likes to be Vulnerable Man, even if it’s ‘more a truce, less a surrender’. Interestingly Keith wrote this with Eg White, still best known to me as the writer of Leave Right Now for Will Young, a wonderful pop song that Keith should cover, as well as You Give Me Something for James Morrison and Chasing Pavements for Adele. This one, even with some OTT production, ranks up there too, with a proper middle eight.

Ain’t It Like A Woman sounds a lot like a John Mayer song and it’s another song from Now That’s What I Call I Love Nicole Kidman: Keith’s woman has stopped a ‘runaway train’, taken the reins and tamed ‘a wild horse’ with ‘her strong and her sexy’. I like the line in the chorus about how she has her hands on the wheel at ‘ten and two when I would’ve wrecked me’. Grady Smith, my favourite country commentator, won’t like the vagueness of how ‘she do the thing oh so well’. It’s just a very blah song and he’s done this before.

With You does the same thing: ‘If I was more like water I’d surround you like the tide’ is a good lyric but it is wrapped in tedious production that makes it scream ALBUM FILLER. Far, far better, in spite of its unnecessarily long outro, is God Whispered Your Name, which is a fine showcase of Keith’s vocal skills. It is one of many tracks given to Keith, whose pitch sheet for The Speed Of Now must have detailed specific requirements for songs which will fill out an album, like With You and Live With.

I don’t know why we need both the Eric Church duet and the solo versions of We Were but I think it’s because this is an album to be cherrypicked and made into playlists. There is no narrative cohesion to this album, which ticks off the elements of a Keith Urban release and will provide him with some tunes to stick into his hit-packed set. None of these songs, except perhaps We Were, Better Than I Am and God Whispered Your Name, will be played in 2030, when Keith will be over 60 but still out on the road because that’s what he does. He’s better on stage than on record, but at least he enjoys his job.

2/5 for The Speed of Now, Part 1, but it’ll be a 4/5 if it lost five tracks.  

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