When Eric Church became the king of "bro country," coined for his party-ready mix of country, rock and hip-hop's appeal to young dudes, with his album "Chief," it was pretty clear that wouldn't last.
Church's rep is built on being a rebel, and you can't really rage against the machine when you are the machine. So on his new album, "The Outsiders" (EMI Nashville), Church consciously tries to move outside the mainstream again, looking to be more artistic.
And, for the most part, he succeeds. His eight-minute epic "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)" combines a spoken-word allusion to Charlie Daniels with a catchy bit of gospel-tinged rock. On "That's Damn Rock 'n' Roll," he raps, kind of, over an AC/DC guitar riff mixed with some Rolling Stones grooves. "The Joint" is a must-hear if only for the low, rumbling grumble he uses to tell the story of his mama's arsonist streak.
Sometimes, he tries a little too hard, like on the title track -- a hybrid of talking blues and hip-hop where he throws in lines like "We let our colors show where the numbers ain't/We're the paint where there ain't supposed to be paint."
After all, he sounds completely natural on much of the album when he delivers pleasant songs like "Give Me Back My Hometown" and the catchy "Roller Coaster Ride," as well as a soon-to-be "bro country" anthem, "Cold One," with its clever wordplay, hip-hop scratching and bluegrass breakdown.
Church may want to be an "Outsider," but he's destined for a mainstream embrace, whether he likes it or not.
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BOTTOM LINE Stretching his boundaries, as well as the definition of country.