It’s always fun starting one of these pieces without a lot to say in the introduction (and a little awkward). Really though, other than telling you that AJ Hobbs hails from California, deems himself a “soulful outlaw” and has released his debut album, Too Much Is Never Enough, that’s really all you need to know.
Now, I’ve seen this album get a lot of praise from other bloggers for fusing together an “outlaw country” sound with a more livelier soul feel (in other words, lots of horns), and that is what you’ll get, but in all honesty I’m a little more lukewarm on the project.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this album, but as I noted in my recent Jason Isbell piece, a lack of bad doesn’t equate to an abundance of good. Really, it’s a debut album, so I think a lot of the problems I’ll discuss today can all be boiled down to that. Still, I think there’s a great potential in AJ, and I want to see it be brought out more throughout his career.
I usually would rather start with what I liked about a particular project before discussing what I didn’t, especially in cases like this. However, there are a couple more points we need to address. To start with, you can tell this album is going more for that type of fun, soulful vibe throughout. While that’s fine in principle, I’m not sure it suits AJ’s style. Songs such as the title track, “Shit Just Got Real” (which really is too corny for it’s own good) and “Are You Going To Tennessee” all fit into these categories, and yet AJ’s rougher, more serious tone don’t really add that type of levity the songs need. Conversely the spot where it does work is the song, “Daddy Loved The Lord” which speaks of how (presumably) either his or the narrator’s father ruined the family with his love for more a dangerous lifestyle. As you can tell, that makes for a weird tonal balance, and while that particular story isn’t mine to tell, speaking as a fan it just is a little jarring.
My other main criticism comes in the form of the writing. Now, we’ll get to specifics later, but in terms of the big picture here – the themes of this album, there’s nothing really here that’s grabbing me right away. It’s already a little retro in nature given the production choices, but it also is in terms of the themes. You have your songs which talk about hard living or drinking (or both) such as the title track, “Life Without You”, and “The Loser”. You also have the nod to heroes and legends in the Merle Haggard cover of “The Bottle Let Me Down” as well as, surprise surprise, “Waylon & Merle”. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when many of these songs are enjoyable. It’s just hard to really tell who AJ Hobbs is overall. I get the music he likes, but aside from “Daddy Loved The Lord” I’m not entirely sure of who AJ is.
To branch off into the areas of this album I did like, I will say that AJ Hobbs is a good singer from a technical standpoint with a lot of grit and heartfelt sincerity anchoring his sound. Ironically enough he’s able to pull of the one type of song that I never really care all that much for – the sweeter love songs. Between his delivery on “A Little Bit Of You and Me” backed by the soft acoustics, pedal steel and fiddle, it really feels like a relaxing and nice moment on this album (might even be my favorite song here).
That leads us to another point, because while I still think he could broaden his horizons in terms of his thematic content, I would still say AJ is a great writer in terms of the details within the songs, especially when it comes to the hooks on the album.
“Eastside” is an example where AJ really shines with his songwriting, detailing a unique story of an actress struggling to make it in the business while the narrator plays her rock, someone who she can lean to get back up and make her dreams come true. Again, it’s that sweeter atmosphere that AJ surprisingly pulls off well. I also enjoyed the final song “Tomorrow I’ll Be Hurtin’” for taking the theme of life on the road and really hammering down on it with better details and how it personally affects him within. Even considering the title track is a little broadly sketched, the hook of “one is too much, and too much is never enough” is a killer hook.
So overall, I wouldn’t say this is a great debut album, and to call it really good is also a strecth, but again, there’s potential here. To be fair, for as unfocused as this album can feel at times between the more straightforward country tracks, horn section, fun songs and serious songs, AJ is able to bring it together somehow. At thirteen tracks, it does run a little long, especially when some songs such as the Merle Haggard cover and “Shit Just Got Real” really didn’t need to be here. As a whole though, there’s a lot to be fascinated by here, and while this didn’t blow me away, I’m looking forward to seeing what AJ does in the future.