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Eric Church

Mr. Misunderstood – 2015 (EMI Nashville)

Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen

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CDs by Eric Church

When listeners were introduced to Eric Church on his debut, they heard an artist who could balance strong song writing with a bit of a rebellious edge to the music. The surprise release of his latest continues that tradition, being quietly released to his fan club before even being officially announced. The music, written and recorded over a short period of time with an unheard of fast turnaround, has a raw edge that bridges the gap between radio friendly country music with the more rugged sound of artists like Corb Lund and Chris Stapleton.

The subdued music allows the lyrics to take center stage. "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" is a restrained blues song, with soulful vocals from Susan Tedeschi adding emotion. One of Nashville's strongest songwriters, Travis Meadows, co-wrote the unapologetically dark "Knives of New Orleans," which slowly builds to the climactic confession. A gospel choir, hand claps and energetic organ support the fun track "Chattanooga Lucy." Southern soul is a clear influence on many of the songs, with nods to the history of the blues peppered throughout.

Taking a step back from the over the top arena rock of his last album, "The Outsiders," Church instead focuses on the song again, taking influence from soul and the blues rather than John Cougar Mellancamp. This was a bold move for Church, but it works well. When a country artist incorporates a piece of a Wilco song into their own and namechecks Jeff Tweedy to boot, you know they are going to push some boundaries.

The biggest surprise to come from this album isn't the unannounced release. Rather, it is that Church rolled out his best set of songs since "Sinners Like Me" instead of trying to mine the formulaic success of "The Outsiders." Like Stapleton and Jason Isbell, Church now seems more interested in writing great songs than chasing radio play.