Five years ago, country singer Randy Houser was on a blissful commercial hot streak. His How Country Feels album spawned four consecutive radio hits; the title track, which came on like 1997 Shania Twain with chugging guitars and titanic drums, was a strong entry in country’s long tradition of songs that emphatically assert their own country-ness.
Radio has largely abandoned Houser since then, which is unfortunate, but maybe that’s freed him up — his music is even better. In 2013, when aggressive genre hybrids ruled country, the singer had to roar and bash guitars to make himself heard. His new album, Magnolia, operates on a smaller scale. Many of the heavy riffs are excised or played acoustically, making room for rich, Seventies-sounding keyboards, and the drums are often so soft they wouldn’t alarm your neighbors. This has the advantage of making Houser, who has an arena-swallowing voice, seem that much bigger.
His voice really is a terrific instrument, capable of an affecting tenor tone that is canonically country, but also of absurd growls and double-take-inducing low notes that have gone out of fashion in nearly every corner of popular music. He tests every vocal gradation singing “Our Hearts” with Lucie Silvas over lightly brushed drums. On “New Buzz,” co-written with producer Keith Gattis and Jeff Trott, Houser’s voice is so flat and low it’s almost worrying.
Because Magnolia‘s ballads allow Houser to go deep into those vocal gifts, they are often particularly arresting. The single “What Whiskey Does,” a duet with the great writer Hillary Lindsey, is as delicious as it is desolate. And “What Leaving Looks Like,” written with John Osborne (of the Brothers Osborne) and James Otto, is fantastically over-the-top, with Houser reeling off a stream of intensifying demands: “Come on and make it hurt!” “Do your worst!” “Put me through hell!”
Then there’s “No Good Place to Cry,” co-written with Gary Nicholson, which sounds like it could have been cut by Sixties R&B singer James Carr in the same session that yielded the classic “Dark End of the Street.” It won’t be a radio hit. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.