A new record label and a new production team seem to have re-energized Joe Nichols as he prepares to release his eighth studio album next week on October 8. Led by a team consisting of producers Mickey Jack Cones (Trace Adkins, Act of Valor Soundtrack) and Derek George (Randy Houser), Joe showcases his optimistic and happy-go-lucky persona on Crickets while also demonstrating a clear love for classic country.
Crickets is packed tight with 16 songs, which is actually just four less than his last two albums combined (2009’s Old Things New and 2011’s It’s All Good). With so many cuts on the album, there’s a danger of falling into a repetitive trap. However, Joe manages a richly diverse collection that plays to his everyman strengths. The shiny lead single “Sunny and 75” is whimsical and contemporary while the album-opener “Just Let Me Fall In Love With You” pairs back porch guitars with slick tones and straightforward lyrics. Joe’s engaging personality is at the forefront and songs like the speechless “Hard To Be Cool,” which plays like heartland country/pop powered by a Tom Petty-esque chord progression, and the similarly tongue-tied “Yeah” show off his likable and slightly self-deprecating sense of humor. The latter is a sly tune about going along with whatever she wants to do with fun lines like, She played me some band on her ipod/Kinda hit me kinda hippie and I thought, no/But I said, yeah. There’s a sense that Joe is quite literally smiling while he sings many of the songs on Crickets.
The title Crickets is also one of its main themes as the little creatures’ universal song is heard throughout the project. Opening to their chirp and ending with the traditional-based title track, crickets serve as an informal guide to the album. When they appear at the midway point on the driving tune “Y’ant To,” a subtle shift follows leading into a back half that is more traditional than the contemporary-leaning first half of the record. The pedal steel and fiddle “Old School Country Song” is an insightful take on current times fitting classic country emotions with the great line, All you’ve really done, you see, is modernize the melody. Joe also includes a cover of Merle Haggard’s hard-livin’ and lonely “Footlights,” giving the song a deeply soulful touch. The Arkansas native is an expressive country singer and he shines on the album’s more traditional works like the piano-based “Billy Graham’s Bible” to expose a song’s true feeling.
Joe dives into a diverse range of sounds on Crickets as the understated jazz influence of “Better Than Beautiful” and the full horn section of “Gotta Love It” add welcome textures. Moving from the urgent and innuendo-filled “Hee Haw” through to the power ballad “Love Has A Way,” Joe keeps things fresh with a set of varied tempos and subjects. The result is ample reason to be excited by Joe’s own fresh start, with a new label and creative team as Crickets is easily one of the singer’s best projects to date.
Key Tracks – “Old School Country Song,” “Footlights,” “Y’Ant To,” “Yeah”