Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Niko Moon and Larry Fleet

Niko Moon – Good Time

Niko wrote Homegrown for Zac Brown Band, was one-third of Sir Roosevelt and has emerged from Atlanta to become a solo star. The first track is called No Sad Songs, which means Niko has done me a favour and reviewed his own album. Positivity can be grating but Niko really does feel great to be alive, as evidenced by his closing cover of the renowned Travis Tritt standard.

This is an album primed for playlists made by pop fans. The production is full of skittering digital cymbals to underscore some fine melodies which are very sticky. Good Time struck me the very first time I heard it, ‘like a bobber on a wet line’. These are songs about life in the country sung with so much character which Niko wrote with his wife Anna and recorded in their home studio.

Paradise To Me, a beach jam and follow-up single to Good Time, sounds a bit ‘in the box’ (made by machines) to fully reflect the glories of ‘pina coladas down in PCB’ (Panama City Beach in Florida) and I’d like to hear this track done with acoustic instruments. In fact, Niko has released six songs from the album as part of a Campfire Sessions EP which is merely a set of alternative mixes rather than any live band interpretations.

There are love songs like the evocative Diamond which could be a Backstreet Boys hit (‘you’re timeless, I’m talking priceless’), the slinky Dance With Me (‘you and me together, spinning like a record’), the midtempo Good At Loving You – on which Niko says he’s having trouble learning Spanish and managing money but at least he’s good at being a partner – and Last Call, which compares a girl who ‘got that top shelf’ to several alcoholic drinks. It’s not unusual for a couple to write love songs but Niko treats the ladies in the song with respect and humanity, rather than lust and horniness. More of this would be welcome in contemporary country music, where there are far more blokes than ladies in the writers rooms.

Reminiscin song Way Back is driven by a two-chord loop and another fine chorus, while Let It Ride is a song about wanting to do nothing, like Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song. She Ain’t You reminds me of Flo Rida’s work: it makes your head nod, your mouth sing and your heart gladden, and includes a bridge featuring some hiphop delivery (‘she got…she got…’). In a rare sad moment, Drunk Over You masks Niko’s mournfulness with a poppy melody and lots of alcohol (‘the more I drink, the more I find getting drunk over you is just wasted time’).

The album’s best chorus comes on Small Town State of Mind, which repeats the title six times and is an ideal campfire singalong, but it’s a relief when the percussion drops out and Niko’s voice can come through on Without Sayin A Word, which praises Niko’s dad who by his very existence taught him how to be a good, humble person. That humility is all over the debut album, which I hope is the first of many.

Larry Fleet – Stack of Records

Jake Owen took Larry Fleet on tour with him last year, having met him in 2017. In that timespan Luke Combs has sold squillions of concert tickets that make this year’s hottest trend ‘authentic, heart-on-sleeve’ music. Thus do Combs fans have much to enjoy on this album, Larry’s second.

On the album cover, the singer sits in front of shelves of vinyl. Helped by Eric Paslay and Ben Hayslip, the title track opens the album: ‘If you wanna know me, you gotta know what’s in my soul’, he sings, namechecking Muscle Shoals Alabama, Waylon Jennings’ theme to Dukes of Hazzard and Midnight Train to Georgia.

The minor radio hit Where I Find God was written with Connie Harrington, who is best known for I Drive Your Truck. It deserves to be heard and Larry’s vocal reminds me of Lee Brice, unsurprisingly given Lee won awards for interpreting that song. It is a shame that such drek has been nominated for CMA Song of the Year when songs as good as these are hiding in plain sight. Larry has plenty of help from top writers which his label, Big Loud, has put him together with. It is nonetheless impressive that Larry was in the room for every track on the release. Producer Joey Moi continues a renaissance by pivoting from Florida Georgia Line loudness to sensitive country-rock.

Brett James was there for Lifetime Guarantee and A Life Worth Living, which are both found on the album’s first side. The former, where Larry compares himself to a Timex watch, is the best song Luke Combs is yet to write about life and how to live it; the latter is basically A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville, full of humanity and lessons on how to live a country way of life. Church Parking Lot is a great reminiscin’ song about learning about life in an unusual venue for a song, while God gets a mention too, as the title suggests.

The Warren Brothers were there for the ballad Hurt Feelings, whose chorus begins ‘you can punch me in the face’ and contains a lot more violence as well as a terrific middle eight. Jeff Hyde was there for the ruminative Heart On My Sleeve (‘from a chip on my shoulder’), which is a slowburn track full of emotion that reminds me of Jeff’s buddy Eric Church.

There are fun, quick songs to leaven the impact of the slowies. Jon Pardi pops up to add vocals on In Love With My Problems, a putdown of a song where the punchline is that if the protagonist ‘fell in love with my problems, maybe they’d leave me too!’ I also like the country rocker Quittin Ain’t Workin and the smooth Different Shade of Red, another song about how a lady brings out a different side of the protagonist, with the image of rose petals on the bed in the chorus.

For a Proper Song, try Three Chords and a Lie, which hooks you from the opening line, or Never Wanna Meet Another Woman, which is the album’s token wedding song. Suitably the album ends with the chugging blues harmonica-assisted rocker One For The Road (‘long way to go’), although the physical CD has a bonus track which features Jamey Johnson and Bryan Sutton called Highway Feet, a very quick track full of banjo which reminds me of Alabama.

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