Of all the albums I missed covering at the beginning of the year, this one has bothered me the most. I finally did feature Lauren Alaina when her current single “Doin’ Fine” was released, and a host of behind-the-scenes factors kept me from talking about her before that, when “Road Less Traveled,” this album’s title track and first single, hit #1 on Billboard Country Airplay basically out of nowhere (although admittedly with help from On the Verge). I tried to satisfy myself with that because it just seemed too late to give her an album review, but now that I’ve finally got time–plus the inability to write anything new–I’m taking the opportunity to do what I should have done months ago and feature Lauren Alaina’s second album, Road Less Traveled.
So why the urgency to cover this, especially given the rating? Because it’s an example of good pop country, something being done right in the mainstream, and though Lauren’s gotten her fair share of praise for this album, she’s also received a lot of unfair criticism for it from people who dismiss it as too pop. That assessment in and of itself is fair; some of this is straight pop, about half, and the country-leaning half is pop-flavored, but Lauren Alaina’s not RaeLynn or Kelsea Ballerini either, churning out meaningless pop music and then labeling it country, and I think too many have dismissed her as such. IN fact, I’d argue that she’s exactly the kind of artist we should be supporting in the mainstream even if her music may not be your personal taste.
Why? Because Lauren Alaina did something very few mainstream artists–pop, country, or otherwise, can claim–she made a very personal record. Not only that, much of it is personal to her in a way that will relate to the very demographic the mainstream tries to target, and rather than release fluffy Disney material, she’s trying to say something. Sure, the style is pop country, or perhaps in her case country pop would be more accurate, but this album is an example of good songwriting eclipsing concerns of style. In the current single and album opener, Lauren Alaina tells of her parents’ divorce, even saying in the first line of the whole record, “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend.” “Pretty” might not work if sung by another artist, but when you know that Alaina herself had an eating disorder, lines like “all the other girls are thinner, so you skip another dinner” ring with authenticity and empathy rather than patronization. “Three,” which also fits in the more country pop half and features some nice piano, is achingly honest about Lauren’s struggles to get onto country radio, saying that she spent “six years of missing home” for only three minutes of airplay. And I haven’t even mentioned the pretty much universally accepted standout, “Same Day Different Bottle,” the beautifully sung story of her father’s alcoholism. Incidentally, this one is also the most country and showcases some really nice steel guitar.
And let’s not overlook the fact that Lauren Alaina is an incredible vocalist. True, singing talent is not everything, and as someone who knows her fair share about music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. Too many times, we see people who no doubt have amazing voices win some singing competition and then fade into obscurity partly due to the fact they’re just spectacularly clueless about everything else relating to the business of music and being a musician. It also takes far more than vocal ability to be a great singer; you have to convey emotion and connect with your listeners, and that will go a lot further toward sustaining your career than a ridiculous range and all the fancy runs in the world. But equally, there’s another side to this, where more than half the Americana albums I’ve heard in 2017 have featured a singer that was merely adequate, sometimes flat-out off-key. One specific album comes to mind that featured absolutely great instrumentation and production, lots of good songwriting, nice melodies–and sung by anyone else, I’d have reviewed it and loved it, but I couldn’t get past the voice. And tone is not something any singer can help, so it’s what you do with it that matters most, like Rod Melancon with Southern Gothic and Robyn Ludwick on This Tall to ride, but if you can’t sing on key, I can’t take your music seriously. Anyway, all that semi-tangent aside, I then turn on Lauren Alaina’s record, and I hear not just good, but excellent, stellar, ridiculous vocal quality on tracks like the heartbreak song “Painting Pillows” and the previously mentioned “Three,” coupled with that ability to be subtle and pull out emotion like in “Think Outside the Boy,” (which features mandolin, look, more country), and I just breathe a sigh of relief.
Sure, there’s some stuff on this album I could do without, and yes, it’s all on the pop part of the record. “Holding the Other” comes to mind first because it’s just such a fluffy and pointless love song thrown in on an otherwise empowering album. Placing it between “Same Day different Bottle” and “Pretty” only made its shallow nature stick out more. “Next Boyfriend” is catchy, and the hook is pretty clever, but it doesn’t work for me as much because the cadence and rhythm isn’t flattering to Lauren’s incredible vocal ability. The same is true in “Queen of Hearts,” which also suffers massively from overproduction and from parts of it sounding nearly identical melodically to Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It.” still, there’s some of the more pop tracks here that work just fine and prove it can be done right. “My Kinda People” is the best candidate to explain this, exhibiting some pretty deceivingly intelligent lines despite it being a lightweight song. “Road Less Traveled” probably shouldn’t have gotten a #1 at country radio, and I get the criticisms with it because the lyrics do have some inconsistency, but she just sings the hell out of it, and I enjoy it. Plus, it sort of fits the album theme–well, that’s the album title, so naturally–of being yourself, but it’s expressed in a more lighthearted way than some of the more serious stuff. “Crashin’ the Boys’ Club” also works for me, but it’s one that I’m not going to try to defend because it’s just going to be a song you either love or hate upon listening.
I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about Lauren Alaina here. Hell, it’s been six months since this came out, so most of you, if not all of you, have an opinion anyway. She’s not going to be for everyone, certainly not for strict traditionalists. But she’s the kind of artist, and this is exactly the sort of record, that we need to be successful in 2017. This album has something to say, and it speaks to that ever narrow demographic so desperately courted by country’s mainstream in a way that’s both real and understanding. I once read, on a comment on something somewhere, that pop country is good when it takes good pop and good country and mixes them, and that that’s what’s wrong with the majority of today’s stuff. Well, this is good pop and good country, and Lauren Alaina does a pretty nice job of blending them together. One of the mainstream’s best albums in 2017 so far.