Josh T Pearson decided to impose five pillars upon his songwriting for his second solo record The Straight Hits!, these being designed to clear the decks and break away from his musical past. Given what a prestigious past he’s had, first with Lift To Experience and then through his devastating solo record Last Of The Country Gentlemen, the urge to expunge feels curious.
It’s possibly even more surprising to learn that he has opted in the main for a simpler approach this time. The uncharacteristically pink hued cover of the decisively titled The Straight Hits! sets out Pearson’s stall in no uncertain terms, as does the lead single Straight To The Top. Musically, the single feels like a diluted version of Lift To Experience’s more straightforward rocking moments, like Falling From Cloud 9. “This is me boys without even tryin’” he sings, and in many respects, his newfound vim and vigour, along with a willingness to rip it up and start again, is admirable. But it doesn’t make for an entirely coherent record.
Elsewhere, the positivity of the zestier tracks feels lumpen, and they lack the elegance of much of his earlier work. The light yet decisive touches of yore are traded for ramming home a track as if by sheer force of will, and assuming that enthusiasm will translate. But it often doesn’t, as Straight At Me is largely forgettable, and his commitment to a straight-up country rock model makes tracks like Give It To Me Straight feel uninspired.
The second half of the album tends towards more familiar Pearson territory and is the more successful portion of the record for it. Whilst it would be poor form to wish Pearson embrace misery and existential anguish for the sake of a record, there’s no doubt that the more downbeat tracks are the most successful. On Loved Straight To Hell the shimmering wash of guitars and slightly distorted vocal match the kind of heart-sore drama that Pearson is so deft at creating. It’s pairing with the more uncomplicated, prosaic tracks on the record merely serve to highlight that this is what he does best. When he chooses to head in a familiar direction the results are as rewarding as anything he’s ever recorded, like the mournful tone of Whiskey Straight Love that revisits familiar themes of boozin’ and lovin’.
Interestingly, there is one straight story he tells that turns out to be one of the record’s finest. Despite opening with the decidedly dejected “Love’s the greatest threat ever know to man… possesses and haunts the soul,” A Love Song (Set Me Straight), perhaps unsurprisingly, does exactly what it says on the tin. For this song of devotion Pearson even breaks into a sweet falsetto to claim “I’m so grateful for who you are,” In less skilled hands, these candid declarations would be too sickly to bear, but in his, they soar majestically.
Josh T Pearson’s latest experiments have made for his most uneven record yet, but among the less characterful songs, there’s still some of that old miserable magic to relish within the directness of it all. The Straight Hits! may not be his finest, but maybe the purge was a necessary one.