The very title Real Friends carries an air of bonhomie, suggesting Chris Janson's third album was designed as good music for good friends. Sure enough, Real Friends is a cheerful, breezy affair, filled with reassuring ballads and party tunes that mindfully avoid pressing the pedal to the metal. Janson's deliberately light touch helps disguise how he takes a few more musical risks this time than he did on his previous two records. While he doesn't abandon his lean, straight-ahead country wheelhouse, he accentuates his traditionalism with Mellencamp-styled heartland rock, punchy horns, glossy pop, soft R&B, and a bunch of slick electronic tricks. It's varied enough to justify his claim of "Rolling Stone called me the most open-minded redneck on the block" on "Say About Me," and even if that lyric is just Janson paraphrasing himself (the 2017 article contained the quote "I'm the most open redneck you'll ever meet" from the singer), there is a kernel of truth to the sentiment. Janson does seem eager to appeal to all audiences on Real Friends, making music that is big, bright, and welcoming, but underneath that chummy veneer, he's essentially a modern-day good ol' boy, celebrating the virtues of home, buddies, beer, and family. This sentimental streak does result in some cornball moments -- kids singing along on "Hawaii on Me," name-drops of Porter Wagoner and Johnny Paycheck on the fiercely anti-traditional "Check," a hammy duet with Blake Shelton on the title track -- but that old-fashioned cheer is also the thing that makes Real Friends a fun listen.
Real Friends Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine