When it comes to quality of music from major label country artists this year, it’s been disappointing to say the least. To be more blunt, it’s been pretty mediocre and surprisingly boring. That sums up about 90% of the album releases I’ve heard from major label country artists this year. I can tell many share this sentiment, so when fans saw Jon Pardi was releasing his sophomore album California Sunrise, it became one of the most anticipated albums this year. After all Pardi is one of the few major label artists willing to keep it country with music. His current single and the lead single of the album, “Head Over Boots” is one of the most traditional songs at radio right now. Outside of Chris Stapleton, Pardi perhaps best represents the hopes and aspirations of traditional country fans hoping radio goes back to the sound. So with the hype in mind, does California Sunrise live up to the expectations? Well it depends on what exactly you expected out of the album and you’ll know what I mean by this by the end of the review.
Pardi begins the album with “Out of Style.” From the title I was expecting a song about how traditional country is considered out of style, but instead it’s about Pardi trekking to Nashville and learning how to write songs. The song elaborates further about how singing about how cold beers and complaining about the nine to five Monday through Friday lifestyle will never go out of style. It’s a longer song than what you’re accustomed to hearing from mainstream artists, as it allows Pardi and the band to show off their instrumentation. It’s a solid song, despite being a tad cliché. This is followed by the more traditionally arranged “Cowboy Hat.” And when I say traditionally arranged, there’s pedal steel guitar and fiddles throughout. The song itself is a love song, as Pardi sings of the love he has for his woman and how he loves seeing her in nothing but his cowboy hat. The whole song reminds me of something you would hear on country radio in the 90s (good or bad depending on your outlook on that era). I find it to be one of the best on the album and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a single for Pardi, as I think it could be a hit.
I could see it as the follow-up to “Head Over Boots” even, which follows on the album. I gave my thoughts on Pardi’s first career top ten hit last year and I still thoroughly enjoy the song. From my original review: It opens with the sounds of an acoustic guitar and steel guitar. These are the main instruments used throughout the song, with some fiddles sprinkled in too. It’s country through and through. The song itself is a love ballad, which is proving to be a strong suit for Pardi. In a way this song kind of reminds me of Brad Paisley’s “We Danced,” a solid love song that isn’t some all-time classic, but a feel good song that anyone can enjoy.
“Night Shift” sees Pardi singing of the working class man. The song is about a man who works several hours a week, but he looks forward to the “night shift” with his wife in bed. On the surface this seems like an overtly sexual jam that has plagued country radio recently. But really it comes off as sentimental and plays to the blue-collar sensibility of work hard, play harder. Not to mention there’s plenty of fiddle. This theme continues with “Can’t Turn You Down,” as we see the man in the song calling up his woman to meet up with her and later go back to his place for a romantic night. While the lyrics get a little stereotypical millennial-y with lines like “a phone call turns into a what’s up what’s up,” it’s a good song with a nice melody.
The album up to this point has been mostly good, but it starts to take a turn in the other direction with “Dirt on My Boots.” With one of the co-writers being Jesse Frasure (the other two writers being Rhett Akins and Ashley Gorley), I’m not surprised because he’s helped write his share of bad music. Right away there’s a noticeable drum loop that gives the song a dance club beat, clearly trying to create some adult contemporary appeal. Yet there’s a steady presence of a fiddle too. The song itself is about a farmer after a long day cleaning up to go to town with his girl for a night of dancing and fun. This song is one of three clear moments on this album of what I would call label meddling. Despite the pop leanings of this song, I don’t dislike it too much due to the fiddle play, Pardi’s charisma in his delivery and the hard to deny catchiness of the lyrics.
The best song hands down on California Sunrise is “She Ain’t In It.” Sounding like something straight off a classic Alan Jackson album, Pardi sings of his broken heart and how it’s prevented from going out and living his life. He’s now ready to do his normal things and go out into crowds, as long as his ex isn’t involved or mentioned. Otherwise the heartache will come rushing back. It’s not only the best song on this album, but one of the best I’ve heard this year. Two of the songs I thought of when listening to this song were Sammy Kershaw’s “Politics, Religion & Her,” as well as Garth Brooks’ “Learning To Live Again.” All three capture the feelings of getting over heartbreak perfectly. This could be a career song for Pardi and I truly hope him and his label release this as a single.
Unfortunately, the worst song follows the best song of the album. That would be “All Time High.” It’s a love song with a nauseating amount of clichés and comparisons of love to drugs and getting high that we’ve heard too much in recent years. One line that elicited a groan from me was Pardi singing about how he enjoys his girl turning “his knob” up to 11. I get where songwriters Pardi, Bart Butler and Brice Long are going for here, but the lyrics are just a clunky mess. At least there’s a lot of fiddle in the song I guess. The third and final song clearly involving label meddling is “Heartache on the Dance Floor.” Just like “Dirt on My Boots,” this song has a clear pop dance beat accompanied by fiddles. For a song with heartache in the title, I didn’t expect it to be so upbeat. Out of all the songs on the album, this one confuses me the most. You have this dance beat, but also fiddles and steel guitar. Why couldn’t we just have the latter? Well the obvious answer is the label wanting something pop-y and Pardi having to comply. For a “compromise song,” it’s not terrible.
“Paycheck” is about a man hoping his paycheck will help take his work blues away, as he spends it at the bar. The country rock production combined with the catchy lyrics makes it easy to sing along with. It’s your standard drinking, blue-collar song that is solid, yet unspectacular. “Lucky Tonight” has a more traditional arrangement that dominates the album for the most part. It’s about a man whose woman left him weeks ago and now is trying to rebound in the bar scene and move past her. While the lyrics are a little simplistic and a tad too mainstream, the song is pretty solid to my ears. Not every heartbreak song has to be a complex ballad. The album’s title track brings it to a close, another highlight of this album, only trailing quality-wise to “She Ain’t In It.” The song is about Pardi singing of the love he has for his woman and comparing it the California sunrise he sees back home. It’s nice to see Pardi honor where he’s from, comparing someone he cares for so much to his home that he cares for so much too. Regional pride is something country artists need to embrace more. Despite some rocky songs in the middle, Pardi ends the album on a strong note.
Based on my expectations heading into this album, Jon Pardi delivers a solid album with California Sunrise. I knew going into this album that it wouldn’t be at a level of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller nor would it be stone cold country all the way through because this is an album from a major label and Jon Pardi is still early in his career. I expected some label meddling and there was actually less of it on here than I thought there would be. What did surprise is how almost every song on this album has a combination of fiddle and steel guitar. Instead of focusing on what this album did wrong, I’d rather focus on this because this caught my eye more than the mistakes on it. Pardi clearly wants to make that traditional, early 90s country music and for the most part these songs accomplish this. He also does a good job balancing between serious songs and fun songs. Despite this album’s faults at times, I find California Sunrise to be a very enjoyable, fun album and will go down as one of the best from a major label country artist this year.