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Brantley Gilbert

Just As I Am – 2014 (Valory)

Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen

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CDs by Brantley Gilbert

Brantley Gilbert's third release is a collection of songs that define who he is as an artist. There is a notable absence of wild experimentation here; these are straightforward songs from the artist who broke through with "Halfway to Heaven." The tattooed country rocker follows in the footsteps of Eric Church's recent hit, "The Outsiders," making a conscious step away from the overproduced hip hop country that artists like Florida Georgia Line are taking to the top of the charts. Instead, Gilbert focuses on what he knows and refines his sound.

The album kicks off with the rocker, "If You Want a Bad Boy," which brings to mind his previous hit "Country Must Be Country Wide." But for the majority of the album, Gilbert chooses to aim for a vibe suited more for a hot summer afternoon than a wild Friday night party. It seems like he has taken notes from peer Jason Aldean, for whom he has written a number of hits. There are the obligatory party songs, perfect for blaring to drunken crowds at concerts, but the bulk of the disc focuses on well-written ballads and emotional mid tempo country rock songs. The nostalgic "17 Again " looks back fondly on the end of youth, as does "That Was Us." Gilbert had a hand in writing every song and the overlying themes help give listeners an idea of who he is as a person.

Listeners who grew up in small town America may find a lot to love here. There is the token salute to the troops ("One Hell of an Amen") and nods to his Christian roots ("My Faith in You "). There are the expected drinking songs, including the first single "Bottoms Up" and "Small Town Throwdown," which brings along Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore for a rowdy sing along. Rhett's father, Rhett Akins, is co-writer on a few tracks. One of the highlights, "My Baby's Guns N Roses," weaves titles from the '80s rockers' discography into a likeable love song. Images of bad boys have been beaten to death, but this take on a girl who has a wild side is a fresh take on a familiar subject. The song is naturally backed up by strong lead guitar work.

Much like Gilbert's last album, it is worth tracking down the deluxe edition. The additional three tracks help make for a complete package, as if Gilbert's intention was always to include 14 tracks. A rerecording of the most notable track from his raw debut, "G.R.I.T.S. " (Girls Raised in the South) adds a little more rock edge. The lyrics are extremely corny, but it's a likeable track despite that, largely because it invokes a smile in serving as a rough tribute to the beauty of southern girls, while avoiding being demeaning to women.

The rock song, "Read Me My Rights," a good ol' boy anthem where he balances his party image with morality, follows. Underneath the simple words, Gilbert surprisingly touches on deep issues, saying that he'd be proud to wind up in jail after standing up to a woman beater. While it probably won't inspire a lot of philosophical conversations in barrooms, it is nice to see a little bit of good shine out in the misogynistic glut of bro country on mainstream radio. Gilbert closes with the somber "Grown Ass Man," a lament that weaves the topics from the album together, touching on his faith, politics, love of his hometown and desire to sing his own songs. Though he exhibits moments of bravado and his image lends itself to criticism, Gilbert comes across as down to earth in his music. When he sings, "some folks say that I'm an outlaw, but I ain't earned that yet. I'll be the first to say I still got dues to pay," he comes across as sincere, a refreshing departure from the self-aggrandizing the majority of modern male country artists seem to rely on.

Brantley Gilbert has managed to release a mainstream friendly country album that actually has substance. It provides a much needed counter to the drunken frat boys who are dominating the landscape. He is an easy target for critics, with his wallet chains and biker image, but when you get past the clichés, Gilbert is an enjoyable artist who writes good modern country songs. While it may not appeal to those who like their country in a more traditional vein, Gilbert definitely knows who he is as an artist and makes no apologies. He simply asks listeners to take him "Just As I Am."

A separate review of the CD by Michael Rampa

With a sound that could be mistaken for Metallica, full tattoo sleeves and biker chains, who knew Brantley Gilbert had a softer side? It turns out that is what shines on his autobiographical third chart topper, "Just As I Am." Make no mistake, there is no shortage of his signature blunt force rock trauma and traditional country themes like the painfully obvious number one Platinum single "Bottoms Up" and "If You Want A Bad Boy." These numbers define the standard in your face, no apologies artist that BG nation has come to know and love from his prior albums.

That being said, he digs a little deeper this time around and reflects on the more emotional aspects of life. The end of his relationship with Jana Kramer is the subject of the more subtle, "I'm Gone." Gilbert has previously stated, "I won't sing anything anyone else writes." This time around, he made an exception and employed co-writers like the Peach Pickers and Thomas Rhett.

"I was always a guy who wrote by myself, but it's definitely beneficial," Gilbert says. "It helps you bend your mind a little bit, having somebody else in the room and having somebody to bounce ideas off of. " "Let It Ride" is Gilbert's only solo credit.

While putting the chapters of his life together, the album will take you from your best first date to the last dance of a good bye and all the memories in between. For a guy that rides a Harley and could replace James Hetfield with no one the wiser, he writes about love and loss as effectively as kicking it in the sticks.