Returning to your roots. This statement is the embodiment of Randy Houser’s new album Magnolia. Like many artists in Nashville, Houser got sucked in by the corporate, generic sounds of radio country and things were going pretty good when radio was playing his songs. But when you live by the radio hit, you fall by the radio hit too. Houser fell pretty hard on his last album, as it was bloated, forgettable and had zero hits. So after a somewhat lengthy hiatus, Houser re-emerged and promised a return to what made people fans of him in the first place. For the most part, Magnolia lives up to this promise and throws a few wrinkles in too.
“No Stone Unturned” is the perfect opening track for this album, as it’s a summation of Houser’s journey as an artist: going to Nashville with a dream, getting lost along the way and then getting back to why he makes music. It’s a declarative and redemptive song from Houser. He follows with another good song in “Our Hearts,” a meditative love ballad with Lucie Silvas. I particularly enjoy the slowly building tempo that reaches a crescendo with the strings in the bridge.
The lead single “What Whiskey Does” is a song I’ve enjoyed since release, as it’s a bluesy and smoky jam contrasted with some starkly somber lyrics. Speaking of jams, “Whole Lotta Quit” is a damn fun song. It’s catchy and guaranteed to get your feet moving. The song is drenched in harmonica, which is honey to my ears. Country music needs more working class, honky tonk anthems like this song.
Perhaps the best moment for Houser on this album is “No Good Place to Cry.” This song is pure, blue-eyed soul from Houser, as he belts the absolute shit out of it. It’s a raw and powerful vocal performance that reminds us of the great pipes Houser possesses. I wouldn’t complain at all if Houser decided to cut an entire blues album because he has the chops to pull it off. It’s a shame he doesn’t let this side out more often.
The second half of Magnolia isn’t quite as strong as the first half, as it has a lot of issues for me. Your mileage will vary with a song like “New Buzz.” I find it really catchy and fun, but at the same time I can see how it gets old real quick for some listeners. It also reminds me of something the Brothers Osborne would sing (this isn’t necessarily a good thing). “Nothin’ On You” and “Running Man” are okay songs and I probably won’t remember them.
“What Leaving Looks Like” is another great vocal performance from Houser and captures the feeling you’re looking for in a heartbreak song, but it feels like it largely treads on territory that’s already been covered on the album. “High Time” is two minutes too long, as you can’t get away with such a repetitive song for nearly six minutes and expect me to enjoy it. “Mama Don’t Know” is my least favorite track, as it quickly annoyed me after a few listens. It’s corny and tries too hard to be clever and fun, especially with the weird crack in Houser’s voice in the chorus.
The closing track “Evangeline” ends the album on a strong note. The song is about a man taking his woman on a strolling tour throughout landmarks in the south. He does this to show where he comes from and the roots of who he is as a person. It’s a breezy, easy-going song that puts an appropriate bow on the album, going back to where it all begins.
Magnolia is a step in the right direction for Randy Houser. There are many enjoyable tracks throughout and shows off some of his best strengths as an artist. This album though also suffers from having repetitive themes, a lack of memorable lyrics throughout and has some songs that just aren’t necessary. This isn’t the best work Houser is capable of producing, but it’s a great building block for his next album. I hope Houser builds on the best aspects and delivers a great follow-up to Magnolia.
Best Songs: No Good Place to Cry, Whole Lotta Quit, No Stone Unturned, What Whiskey Does, Evangeline
Producers: Randy Houser & Keith Gattis
Songwriters: Randy Houser, Dallas Davidson, Kylie Sackley, Rob Hatch, Keith Gattis, Hillary Lindsey, Travis Meadows, Gary Nicholson, Jeff Trott, Jaren Johnston, Tony Lane, John Osborne, James Otto, Brice Long, Jeffrey Steele