It’s hard not to be wary of self-proclaimed liberators, performers who, as often as not, prove more interested in promoting themselves than in setting anyone or anything free. Such suspicions, though, aren’t warranted with Jerrod Niemann, whose sophomore effort, “Free the Music,” represents a genuine, and generally winning, attempt to prove just how elastic country music can be.
Foremost among the Kansas native’s innovations is the inclusion of a horn section on most of his album’s dozen tracks, and not as a novelty or garnish, but as a component as integral to his music as fiddle and steel guitar are to that of Alan Jackson or George Strait. The record opens with a scratchy sample of what sounds like a snippet of vintage Louis Armstrong before reeling woozily into a psychedelic, pedal steel-inflected rap that recalls “Beercan”-era Beck. “Get On Up” features the stomping beats and sinewy funk-guitar of classic swamp-pop. “I’ll Have to Kill the Pain” is buoyed by lilting Caribbean rhythms.
Built around Dixieland Jazz clarinet, “Honky Tonk Fever” is more suited to a New Orleans second-line parade than to a Texas dance hall, while “It Won’t Matter Anymore” smacks of a 21st-century update of the bluesy, genre-oblivious pop of the chameleon-like Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. If Niemann’s all-over-the-map approach sounds like it’s a bit too much, it isn’t. In fact, it’s downright refreshing, especially on the likes of “Fraction of a Man,” where in a dusky baritone he credibly conveys lyrics that are more clever by half than “the same old punch lines” cranked out by the Nashville hit mill.
“Free the Music,” “Honky Tonk Fever,” “Fraction of a Man”