I used to think pigs would fly before Big & Rich released something this generic and mainstream-sounding to country radio. My, how times have changed…
Big & Rich was originally considered a blight on the country music landscape when they burst onto the scene in with the MuzikMafia back in the early 2000s. While their bombastic, genre-melding style rocketed them to the forefront of the musical conversation, the trend proved to be no more than a passing fad, and the pair’s sound slowly drifted back towards the mainstream as they themselves faded back to the fringes of country radio. However, the duo experienced a mini-resurgence from their 2014 album Gravity, and managed to sneak three singles inside the top fifteen (although none made it higher than #7). Now, the duo is attempting to capitalize on this momentum with “California,” the leadoff single for their upcoming 2017 album.
The production here is actually pretty standard from a traditional standpoint, and consists of real drums, a steel guitar, and an electric guitar that sounds like it was lifted from a Kenny Chesney song. The entire mix feels very sterile and restrained, and the volume is kept down to a reasonable level. In other words, this sounds nothing like you would expect from a Big & Rich song. While the track’s vibe feels a bit too bright for the subject matter, it’s still a far cry from the in-your-face swagger of “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy,” or even the raw emotion of “Lost In This Moment.” It doesn’t sound bad, but it also doesn’t sound terribly interesting.
Vocally, I would characterize John Rich as solid but not spectacular, and his delivery comes across a bit flat in “California.” His trademark vocal charisma is still there, but he doesn’t quite come across as the resigned, heartbroken narrator that the song demands. (Despite this, Rich and Kenny Alphin still showcase some impressive harmony and vocal chemistry.) Again, it’s a decent effort, but not a very compelling one, and it feels at odds with the song’s message.
The song itself features the narrator talking about his girlfriend’s impending trip to California, and how sad he is because she’s leaving their relationship to pursue her dreams on the West Coast. The songwriting here is fairly sharp, with the high point being the comparison between the singer’s rural surroundings and the Cali sights (“These ain’t no Holly woods, and these hills ain’t Beverly”). The problem here, as mentioned earlier, is the song’s tone, as it feels far too positive for a person who’s about to lose his true love. The material needs a bit more darkness and melancholy (with a dash of reluctant support for the leaving dreamer) to do it justice, such as with Brad Paisley’s “I Wish You’d Stay,” and “California” just feels far too bright and energetic to capture the proper mood. Both the duo and the producers share the blame for this mismatch, as neither the production nor the vocals do enough to capture the narrator’s pain over what’s transpiring.
Overall, “California” is an okay song, and certainly won’t offend people’s sensibilities like some of Big & Rich’s early work, but the mismatch between the music and the message keep this song from making much of an impact with the listener. In the current (rapidly improving) climate of country radio, there are far better songs out there that are worthy of your attention.
Rating: 5/10. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t stand out much either.