When Gary Allan released Tough All Over in 2005, it was a turning point. He'd been running all over the country map from the beginning of his career in 1995 (label A&R types and certain producers can feel more like oppressive regimes than nurturers of talent). But on that effort he finally contributed substantially to the songwriting by co-penning four of the album's tracks, and by embracing rock & roll in a way he hadn't before. He had to be happy with it. It was still a really slick record but it was harder, leaner, and reflected its title without giving up an ounce of the accessibility or appeal of his earlier albums. Living Hard is part two of that evolution. Allan co-produced with Mark Wright, and co-wrote six of the album's 11 cuts. The confidence that brims from the opening grooves of "Watching Airplanes," the set's first cut, is obvious. Written by Jim Beavers and Jonathan Singleton, mandolins and electric guitars entwine to offer a thin rope for Allan's delivery to walk as he brings a broken love song full bore to the listener. With an imaginative mix of Fender Rhodes, strings, big guitars, pedal steel and big tom toms, and slapback on the vocal, its refrain is almost anthemic; his vocal, while big and strong, comes off as bewildered while seeking to console itself by simply sitting still and looking into the sky without having any answers. As good as this track is, it's merely a precursor to Allan's "We Touched the Sun." Written with Jim Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon, it's one of those big, fat contemporary country love songs that endears itself to radio play, a big production video, and most of all, scores its memory deep into the ears of every listener. A simple hook that won't let go, the guitars -- metallic leads included -- are enormous, interwoven with strings and a transcendent refrain; the song is almost bigger than the record that contains it. But it goes from here and just gets better.
And while no one track touches that one, "She's So California" is a country tune by Allan with Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna, and a hook in the middle of the verses right out of Tom Petty's fakebook. Pedal steel fills dominate it so it won't be mistaken for what it actually is, but the guitar sounds are even drenched in a Rickenbacker 12-string ethos. Allan loves to rock -- check the big bad riff on "Like It's a Bad Thing" that could have come right out of early-'80s MTV. The steel and fiddles are the only things that keep it from being hard rock; there's a B-3 choogling along in between the lines on both verse and refrain, pushing the groove into the dual lead -- metallic guitars are a nice twist, too. One can hear everything from Eddie Money to Bon Jovi in this mix, except for one vital element that apparently makes this a truly contemporary country album: these guys play loud guitars, but they're afraid of them. They compress these big riffs and the bassline so much that they actually end up sounding thin. When these cats can learn how to embrace a big bottom end they will be unstoppable, and if they let the rounded edges create space for that huge drum kit along with a bassline that immediately brings the listener into the tune, they will be unstoppable. Sure there are the equivalent of power ballads here too, like the truly wonderful "Learning How to Bend." With the echo effects on the vocal and the big strings at the same volume as those ringing, jangling guitars, they can't miss.
Allan writes great lyrics for a pop lyricist, and here is more evidence that it's his own tunes that really connect. Some might be put off by those slapback digital delay chorus line vocals in tunes like this one and "As Long as You're Looking Back," but it's new ground. It serves these songs well and Allan is enough of a vocalist: powerful, strong, and in the tradition that it pushes the music forward to the next level. "Yesterday's Rain," written by Allan, Matt Warren, and James LeBlanc is the first true ballad on the set and it's the eighth cut on the record; it comes as welcome diversion after the over the top and nearly ridiculous Big & Rich/Montgomery Gentry style cross that is "Wrecking Ball" (the tune is so bad not even those acts could have pulled it off). Allan's "Trying to Matter," cops a .38 Special riff (think "Hang On Loosely") for another of his mid-tempo rockers, with a sprightly B-3 riding above the melody it works like a charm. That's the sun for this set: charm. Allan's personality on record, as nearly schizophrenic as it has been these past 11 years, has finally settled into its own kind of recognizable charm that wears its influences on its sleeve and makes no apologies. He uses it inside songs that are memorable for their hooks, their grand choruses, and heartfelt emotion, even if they aren't memorable for the long haul. The title track closes the record, and it's so over into the red you gotta hear it to believe it. You'll think your stereo is defective for a couple of minutes with all its distortion and wah wah pedal. It smokes. Period. Living Hard is a moment, hopefully not a singular one, for an artist who has worked diligently, put in the time, and found his way with the most consistent and striking album of his career thus far.