Modern country music is, generally speaking, the worst music in the world. It's worse than Pat Boone singing heavy-metal covers. It's worse than Vanilla Ice. It's worse than "Friday" by Rebecca Black by a factor of about a million. It's also huge. Arenas fill up by the tens of thousands for white-bread dudes in baseball caps and perfectly-manicured chinstrap beards who sing with Auto-Tune about cheap beer and beat-up old trucks, but when the show is over, those same dudes go drink champagne and consider their next investment in the Lamborghini company on the phone with their broker. It's a lie. And the music is more computerized and sanitized than the poppiest pop music. "Bad rock with a fiddle," the late Tom Petty called it.
So, Emily Haavik & the 35s deserve a ton of credit for making a full-on modern country album that actually has good songs and good performances and could easily be played on the stations that play big-ticket glitz-country acts.
The thing about walking a line is, you have to do it confidently. On "Ease Back," Haavik and crew do it with aplomb. Their music is organized, and not a note is out of place, yet they don't sound as if they overused editing software and sucked all the life out of everything. Haavik sings in a voice that isn't a million miles away from any of the hit-making women who have been on country radio in the past 20 years, yet she doesn't sound like she's mimicking anyone in particular, and her singing is impressive without any unnecessary pyrotechnics. This is music that sounds commercial, but it's not syrupy-sweet or insincere like so much big-selling commercial music is.
Another thing "Ease Back" is: it's short. The record scoots by in just over 30 minutes, and a number of its 10 tracks are under three minutes. What this displays is a judiciousness in editing and a streamlining of composition. There's just no fat on this anywhere. No needless breakdowns, no pretentious spoken-word sections, no "fun" detours into hip-hop. It's just 10 songs, each one in perfect focus.
The record is actually so consistent that it's tough to point out high or low points. "Candle" sticks out, just because it's got a strong hook where Haavik encourages her subject to "keep that candle burning." It's nothing groundbreaking, lyrically, but sometimes a good chorus doesn't need to do more than restate an aphorism in a catchy way and then dress it up with some other imagery. The fiddle break on the song by Alyssa Mesedahl is also worth noting - and the way it butts up against the guitar bit that follows is excellent.
"Fool's Gold" features a stutter-step beat and shimmering guitar washes that sustain a dusty mood for a while until the band begins jabbing at the chord progression in the bridge. "Don't you think we're animals, living this way?" Haavik asks. "Canon" is a quieter one that finds Haavik playing around with comparing a person to literature. "Wish you were a book that I could read," she sings.
There's really not a note out of place on "Ease Back," and that's usually a bad thing, because imperfections can add to a sense of humanity in music. But, here, it's fine. There's soul in Haavik's voice and in the hands of the musicians she's picked to back her up, and the album is proof that modern people can make modern country music that isn't just a gaudy Vegas nightmare. Someone should tell Florida Georgia Line.
Artist: Emily Haavik & the 35s
Album: "Ease Back"
Recorded by: Jason McGlone
Personnel: Emily Haavik (vocals, guitar), Lisa Wentworth (vocals), Bryan Wentworth (guitar), Luke Mirau (drums), Alyssa Mesedahl (fiddle), Matt Prois (bass), Beau Walsh (banjo), other guests
Upcoming show: 9 p.m. Friday with Jerree Small at Blacklist Beer, 120 W. Superior St.