Shiflett writes and performs sturdy and catchy country-rock.
Foo Fighters should release a country album. At this point in their career, why not? Coming out of grunge, punk and hard rock, the band could take a hard left just because. At the very least, they’d have the foundation for such a move in lead guitarist Chris Shiflett, who’s used his solo career to develop a particularly country style of rock (and sometimes the inverse of that phrase). On new release Hard Lessons, he continues that movement, making sure whatever honky-tonk he visits knows how to rock.
While covering an array of sounds, the album has its firmest grounding in Southern rock without inessential jamming; he’s detached from the alt-country label that only superficially connects here. “Liar’s Word” opens the album with a steady stomp, Shiflett as prepared for an arena as he is for a local dive bar. “This Ol’ World” develops more of a ’90s rock sound. With a cleaner guitar tone, he could have found a place on mainstream radio 25 years ago. Even so, it keeps the sound contemporary, and likely the hand Dave Cobb had in making the album didn’t hurt.
Tracks like those make sense as a deviation from his punk and Foo Fighters background, but Shiflett sounds comfortable in tracks that move further into country. The opening riff to “I Thought You’d Never Leave” sounds like the distillation of a particular type of country playing. “The One You Go Home To” pairs Shiflett with Elizabeth Cook for pedal-steel-ed classic duet. The match works well enough, with Cook playing it straight as both singers get into character. The song highlights Shiflett’s songwriting, too, with its twist that the two cheaters considering how happy they are that they aren’t being cheated on even if they should feel guilty. In a comic twist, the pair get foiled at the end, and they sound almost unhappily married in a quick spat at the end.
Shiflett’s writing typically relies on straightforward emotion and imagery. “Marfa on My Mind” deals with the internal fallout from a one-night stand, concisely creating a character and a bit of tension. As with “The One You Go Home To,” Shiflett does his best writing when he’s just a little askew, but he often teeters on the edge of standard sorts of songs. Some of the cuts here work perfectly as music to turn up and sing along to – and presumably they make for a strong live show – but they aren’t as distinctive as we could be. “Liar’s Word” is memorable, but it needs a touch that makes it clearly Shiflett.
Even so, his sense of tone and melody combine with his talented musicianship for highly listenable music. Hard Lessons is easy to drop into and stay with. A short record, it ends far too quickly. Shiflett writes and performs sturdy and catchy country-rock. As good as the record is, he could find something that distinguishes his work to elevate it, and the character nuances that show up in a few of these tracks probably point the way to that place.