The Internet Couldn't Kill Brad Paisley, and That's a Good Thing

Categories: Country

Paisley, helpfully leaving room for you to Photshop in Cool J.
One of the many things off about "Accidental Racist" was its thudding bluntness. Savvy Brad Paisley, long the country star of choice of people who don't buy music at Wal-Mart, had always been more sly than that. On ace hits like "American Saturday Night" and "Welcome to the Future" he stormed radio with progressive truisms -- immigration is good! A black president is worth celebrating! -- that he cannily embedded in country-music themes. He was a master of inception, making his gently lefty beliefs feel like they had actually been part of Nashville thinking all along. In short, he brought listeners with him.

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But on "Accidental Racist" he came off like a naif who had just figured out why anyone might object to the Stars & Bars. Cool J's dopey co-sign didn't help, and neither did Paisley's increasing tendency to favor concepts over songcraft. It's no surprise that the internet didn't get that he meant well, just as it's no surprise Paisley's follow-up is mostly a retreat. When he screwed up, it wasn't his left-coast audience that had his back -- it was Nashville. No wonder he teamed up with Carrie Underwood for anti-Obamacare sketch comedy.

The new one is Moonshine in the Trunk, released just one summer after Wheelhouse, the album "Accidental Racist" tanked. (Usually a Paisley set can fuel two year's worth of hits; only two Wheelhouse cuts cracked the top ten.) This go-round's first single, the cheerily innocuous "River Bank," incepts nothing -- instead, it feels like the perspective of all the party-hearty bro-country stars have wormed their way into Paisley's.

Still, for all its bikinis and shuffling break beats, the song's appealingly his: The cornpone, punning chorus ("We're laughing all the way to the river bank"), the jaunty gee-tar hotdogging, that bizarre conviction that the backing vocals on a country-rock song should sound like "Holiday Road" from the Vacation movies.

"River Bank" hit number two, so it's clear Paisley's rebuilding year is a success where it maters most. Much of Moonshine in the Trunk follows its lead: kind of dumb, kind of fun, occasionally inspired, often sounding like older Paisley songs but not quite as good.

The sprightly "Crushin' It" acknowledges his rut and prescribes Bud Light as the solution; the bustlingly meaningless title track is his second-best car-chase number; folksy tall-tale "The High Life" endorses Chik-Fil-A even as it suggests it's "lowlifes" who like the place; the best-composed ballad posits that it's a compliment to call a woman "The Perfect Storm," which means what, exactly? That she's the death of seamen?

Here's the weird thing: Despite the lack of smarts and standouts, the first seven or so songs here is the sweetest streak Paisley's hit in years. Ambitious and eclectic, Wheelhouse and 2010's This Is Country Music weren't albums you could just, like, play straight through. Moonshine in the Trunk might not hit their highs, but it powers through their duds and lulls, and his signature guitar-work -- barbed strings of plunking, percussive, plugged-in honky-tonk -- remains one of the great pleasures in all American music.

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