Much like the album cover, Frankie Ballard’s El Rio feels dusty, as if an artifact from the old Hollywood ruled by Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. His leather jacket is a signifier of a more rebellious era in cinematography, seeped in the romanticism of the ’40s and ’50s — a time when the very mystique of celebrity was entrenched in fleeting paparazzi camera flashes, newspaper headlines and marquee signs. But in 2016, that means something completely different. Beacons of film, music and television now possess the art of connection at their fingertips. What does that mean for Ballard’s new record? He paints close to the heart throughout most of the 11 tracks, each as transparent but as honest and delicately approached as the last — he also tips his hat to the splendor of classic ’80s rock.
“El Camino” (Lee Thomas Miller, Chris Stapleton) and “Cigarette” (Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton, Jaren Johnston) contain a sort of high-speed charm and appropriately set the tone for El Rio, produced by Marshall Altman (who also helmed Ballard’s last LP Sunshine & Whiskey). And it seems the singer has moved on to more progressive and interesting pastures here — there’s even a stark lyric and sonic similarity to Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” on the latter track.
Compare the bridge of “Cigarette”:
“I don’t want your number. I don’t want your name, girl. I don’t want to waste your time. I don’t want your heart girl. I could only break it. I don’t want to wreck your mind.”
To the hook of Hunt’s “Take Your Time”:
“I don’t wanna steal your freedom. I don’t wanna change your mind. I don’t have to make you love me. I just wanna take your time. I don’t wanna wreck your Friday. I ain’t gonna waste my lines. I don’t have to take your heart. I just wanna take your time.”
It is also significant Stapleton’s and Moore’s monumental perspectives are left in the very capable hands of Ballard, whose voice is soulful, edgy and easy accessible without sacrificing classic luster. Ballard’s rollicking country-rock pushes the pedal to the metal on songs like “Wasting Time” (Jimmy Yeary, Craig Wiseman), complete with a satisfying guitar solo; the low-riding sizzler “Little Bit of Both” (Ben Hayslip, Chris Janson, Wiseman), in which he declares “you’re like Cinderella in a blender” and the honky-tonk texture of “Southern Side” (Monty Criswell, Rick Huckaby). Even when the lyrics are slathered on the tawdry side, Ballard’s vocal is jammed with personality and conviction.
Lead single “It All Started with a Beer” (Johnston, Neil Mason, Jeremy Stover) and closer “You Could’ve Loved Me” (Dustin Christensen, Chris Gelbuda) are the meaty anchors of the album. Both are satisfying in their tenderness and simplicity, and Ballard demonstrates the exact sturdiness of his voice. Even his cover of Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” is delightfully remastered with an understanding for straightforward but absorbing storytelling. In fact, that is how he approached the entire album, stealing away from the bustle of Nashville for a much quieter scene in which to create and record El Rio. Telling One Country, “I looked at Marshall Altman and I said, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to ramp it… I’ve recorded a lot in Nashville and I get distracted. I live here…Getting better there’s no way I could let anything be pulling on the music.”
What results is an expansive disc — both packed with panoramic, glamorous portraits of yesteryear and achingly intimate snapshots. Ballard undeniably flourishes as both a musician and performer here, even if his only songwriting credits are “L.A. Woman” (with Brett and Brad Warren) and “Sweet Time” (with Johnston and Jon Nite). The mark of an accomplished storyteller is the tear in the voice and the dirt on the hands.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Cigarette,” “It All Started with a Beer,” “You Could’ve Loved Me,” “El Camino”
Grade: 3.5 out of 5