Contemporary country singer and songwriter Eric Church has been on a roll since 2006. He's had a slew of charting singles and albums, won Top New Solo Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards for 2010, and in early 2011, both the Caldwell County EP and "Homeboy" -- the pre-release single for Chief -- hit number 13 on the chart. That said, he hasn't reached the commercial heights -- yet -- that peers such as Jason Aldean and Justin Moore have. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Church is having it both ways: he scores consistently enough to keep his label interested, but also maintains his independence to a degree, which turns on his fans. Church co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs on Chief. Once more teamed with producer/guitarist/bandleader Jay Joyce, he delivers a collection that, on the one hand, stays close to his outlaw pose -- in the new contemporary country sense of the term -- while being firmly entrenched in the music's mainstream. "Homeboy" offers a taste of the kinds of streetwise characters Church seems to prefer to write and sing about (even if they are him at times), though the production is atypical of the rest of the set. “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” commences with a National Steel guitar and a thumping tom-tom before winding its way into neo-blues-rock before pulling in the reins; his lyrics bemoan the fact that an ex is getting married while he's left to get wasted alone. It's a new kind of "cryin' in your beer" song. “Drink in My Hand,” with its ringing, open '70s rock guitars and sharp crackling snare, defiantly state that no matter how oppressive his boss is, he cannot ruin the experience of his own cold beer once the work day is done. "Springsteen" isn't so much about the Boss as it is a nostalgic ode to an early love and the memory of the legendary songwriter's music as an accompanying soundtrack to it. It's a clever, if somewhat cloying, tune, but it gets the feeling across in spades. "Country Music Jesus" is a paean and a prayer, a rockist wish for a "long haired hippie prophet who preaches from the book of Johnny Cash" to save what's left of the tradition, and then evokes the spirit of Charlie Daniels to underscore it. Chief is defiant, well-conceived, and more carefully executed than it sounds, with some excellent songs. While it doesn't break any new ground and remains firmly entrenched in contemporary country's geography, it evokes the riled-up, bluesy hard country rock sound of Hank Jr. enough that it separates Church from the genre's other practitioners who are attempting the same thing.
by Thom Jurek