We all know by now of the dozens upon dozens of former rock stars who have ventured into country music. Some such as Don Henley and Cody Jinks have proven that they understand the heart and soul of the genre and respect its roots. Others like Bret Michaels and Steven Tyler……yeah not so much. Up until his debut solo album, The Road you could have probably easily lumped singer/songwriter Aaron Lewis into the latter category. “Country Boy” and “Endless Summer” were absolutely terrible songs yes, but something never really added up when it came to Aaron. After all, it’s not as if his band Staind was exactly doing poorly, nor was 2011 really the cool time to hop aboard the country train. It finally did add up when he released his debut solo album, The Road and proved there was more to him than what his singles had shown up to that point.
When Aaron released the first single from his brand new album, Sinner titled “That Ain’t Country”, the question came into play whether or not Aaron was once again looking to cash in on a trend or actually crafting a song out of frustration. It’s not as if protest songs are exactly original these days, and heck, this dude started out in rock music and was signed to Big Machine Records. The record label who launched acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett! How the hell was this going to be anything more than a marketing gimmick?
Hey, I was willing to give Aaron a fair shake coming into his newest album. Like I said, he showed real potential on his last album, and I had reason to believe this album could be even better, especially when I heard he was deciding to cover two awesome country songs with “Whiskey And You” and “Travelin’ Solider”. So did Sinner meet my expectations?
This is a pretty straight forward element to talk about. I mean, if you remember the outlaw era of the 70’s or even what guys like Whitey Morgan and Cody Jinks are doing right now, well you’ve got a good picture of this album. Plenty of true country songs accentuated by pedal steel and even dobro, something I’m a known sucker for. There’s also a lot of texture and flavor to the instrumentation here as well. The title track is a swampy blues-rock foot stomper that is an excellent start to the album before diving into probably the most upbeat song here with “That Ain’t Country”. Aaron also chooses to strip “Whiskey and You” to its bare essentials much like Chris Stapleton and Jason Eady chose to do on their respective versions instead of Tim McGraw’s version (which by the way, I like all four or five or six or however many versions there are at this point). For an album that really could be knocked points for plodding along with slower songs, I still can’t think of what else to call this track other than a highlight. However, my favorite track on this entire album is definitely “I Lost It All”. Now, my lack of technical musical knowledge is definitely going to shine here, mostly because I really can’t describe what just works about this song. It’s a little softer in its delivery and when the melody is backed by dobro all throughout, this song really just sucks me in. Again, if you enjoy half time beats and enjoyed the music that emerged from the outlaw era (noticed I didn’t call it outlaw country) then you’ll definitely find a lot to enjoy in terms of the sound on this album.
Equally one of the easiest elements to talk about as well as one of the best on Sinner. Aaron’s voice is definitely more suited for rock than it is country, and in terms of sheer power he’s not exactly the best, but that doesn’t mean the performances he gives are bad. Actually it’s quite the opposite. Hell, “Whiskey and You” has been recorded more times than I can think of and yet Aaron’s version just may be one of the best yet. That speaks to his part on the album as a whole. No matter what, you can tell that he’s taking his work seriously and trying to earn the respect of the country establishment. That brings us to the big selling point – the passion. I’ll expand on this more later, but when you have an album that’s centering on pretty much one theme overall, you definitely need to have something to break the monotony. Songs like “Mama”, “Stuck In These Shoes”, and “I Lost It All” all have a somewhat melancholic tone to them and that’s really where Aaron shines on this album. That’s not to say that he never sounds like he’s having any fun, it’s just that the aforementioned tracks are really where Aaron goes above and beyond in his delivery.
Speaking of vocals, we have to talk about Aaron’s guests on this album. Sure, literally everybody has recorded at least one song with Willie Nelson. Yes, Willie’s voice isn’t exactly in the best of conditions (don’t touch him 2016, I swear to God…), but at its core it’s a fun opener to the album that features one of country music’s’ best from the outlaw era. I enjoyed it. Of course, the one that truly surprised me was Aaron’s daughter Zoe on the Dixie Chicks cover (and Bruce Robison penned), “Travelin’ Solider”. I had always wondered how Aaron would handle this song, and to my surprise, he lets his daughter sing the entire song while he sings backup. It’s quite amazing how great Zoe sounds on this song. Seriously, her delivery absolutely blew me away, and while country music isn’t exactly kind to females, if there was any justice in this world she could easily have her own career someday. It’s one of the best songs on this album by far.
Alright, this is where things are going to turn a little ugly. Now, like I said, there are a lot of improvements across the board compared to his last album, but there’s definitely still some cracks here. As I said before, this album’s theme is anchored in describing a sinner, someone who’s flawed and is trying redeem his or herself. For the record, I commend Aaron for trying to incorporate a theme into his album. Seriously, it’s one of the many things missing from a lot of albums today. However, I’m not sure we always get all of the details that we need on this album.
Take the title track for example. We get that this man is a sinner, but we don’t really know what in fact makes him a sinner Sure, it’s expanded upon a little as we dig into the album, but the song itself is really just good mostly due to the awesome sound. Also, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment of “That Ain’t Country”, but honestly this kind of song has honestly been done better by acts like Aaron Watson as well as Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen. I also kind of don’t care for the insinuation that just because the music isn’t country automatically means that it’s bad. I do like the song but I can’t say I’m pumping my fist in the air when it comes on.
Aside from that however, on that note of details, that’s definitely where Aaron has improved quite a bit. Songs such as “Mama”, “Sunday Every Saturday Night”, “Stuck In These Shoes”, and “I Lost It All” are painted with such nuance and texture that they really do standout from each other despite the similar themes of each track. Considering that Aaron wrote nine out of these eleven tracks by himself, a lot of credit needs to be awarded here. Hey, I’ll give him credit as well for choosing two awesome songs to cover as well.
On that note however (you knew a “but” was coming didn’t you?), I would be remiss not to mention the absolute worst song on this album, “Northern Redneck”. Now, I get that Aaron coming from Massachusetts may fuel a need for him to prove his love of country music to close minded people. Heck, being from New York I can totally relate. You think that geography solely determines our musical tastes? Think again. Bring on “Northern Redneck”! Oh wait….we’re going to the bro-country well to frame this song? No, no, no Aaron. We’re country fans because we admire its stories about real life and its lush and equally recognizable sound, not because we live the lifestyle. There’s a difference in being country and liking country music. This song just misses the mark in so many ways that it isn’t even funny. Thankfully, it’s one moment on the album. The rest of Sinner is good enough to make the listener almost forgive this huge misstep.
You know, despite all of the events that surrounded this album, I think that if you just push them all aside and actually listen to this album that you’ll actually find a lot to like here. The writing is still very much where Aaron could push himself a little more as some songs on this album just aren’t as good as others. Like I said, “Northern Redneck” is just a mess of unbelievable levels as well. But again, there’s progress being made here, and where the lyrics sometimes falter either the sound or Aaron’s vocal delivery usually make up for it somewhat. Aaron seems to be on his way to delivering a great album. If you find more to like or dislike with this album I totally understand but eh, this was a good listen. I’m looking forward to more from Aaron.
Worst Song: “Northern Redneck”