Album Review – Jon Pardi’s ‘California Sunrise’

Jon Pardi California Sunrise

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.

Grade: 8/10

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10 thoughts on “Album Review – Jon Pardi’s ‘California Sunrise’

  1. Since I’ve only listened through the album once, I need more time for the songs to make their impression. But my initial reaction agrees with your review. It’s a solid album, and indeed “She Ain’t In It” is the best track. I am especially fond of the lead track, “Out of Style,” and I think it could work as a radio single, even with its length. Of course, they could shorten it as a radio single. I worry that “Heartache on the Dance Floor” will be the next single, since it clearly has the Thomas Rhett vibe going on, which radio loves right now. In fact, it’s hard not to imagine this song as specifically designed for radio play. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

    My one overall criticism of the album is in regard to the lyrics. I understand the simple, blue collar themes, and I appreciate that, of course. But, nonetheless, I think Pardi needs to push himself a little more for substance and creativity in some of his lyrics.

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  2. I’ve listened a couple of times now… And wow does this blow me away. Did THIS just get released in the mainstream? Pinch me, I’m dreaming 😂

    Honestly, I can’t find a song I don’t like. All of the songs fit into the mid-90s country vein with the fiddle, steel guitar, etc. prominent throughout. Granted, some of the songs have the mid-90s cheesiness you’d find in that era, and the lyrics do occasionally leave something to be desired, but i don’t see that cheesiness as a negative (its better than thinly veiled sexual innuendos and bad puns about beer). She Ain’t In It is by far the best track on the album. Is there a worst? All Time High is the weakest, but it’s alright.

    If I was guessing singles, I could see Heartache On The Dance Floor fitting into the Thomas Rhett vein while still attempting to appeal to country purists. Cowboy Hat seems like an obvious choice as well, and She Ain’t In It will probably be the last single.

    9/10

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  3. My (un-)popular opinion: “She Ain’t In It” saves the album. “Dirt On My Boots” sounds like a Jason Aldean track. “California Sunrise” is ok. The rest: radio-friendly stuff, album filler & steel/fiddle to cover the mediocre songwriting. 5/10.

    New album: John Berry – “What I Love The Most” – JB Music – 10 tracks – released
    John Berry is back. Remember “Kiss Me In The Car”, “Your Love Amazes Me” & “Standing On The Edge Of Goodbye”? No cowboy hat, not so much steel or fiddle & his Nashville career was over after six years & four albums. On his new album John Berry is playing it safe. Country-pop & (power-)ballads. Best track: “Gotta Lotta Love”. 6/10.

    New Ep: Smithfield – “Smithfield” – No label/Smithfield – 8 tracks – released
    Another male/female duo. The sound: radio fast-food “country”. “Your kiss, your lips turn me on”- blahblah (from “Nothing But the Night”). Two tracks are really good “Hey Whiskey” & “Rust”. 6/10.

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    • You can close your eyes, listen to this album and pretend the large doses of country instrumentation aren’t intact…………………..and it dawns on you that “California Sunrise” is quite similar to a Jason Aldean album in terms of lyrics and themes. And as many here are aware, I’ve regularly been willing to defend Aldean in terms of album tracks in the same breath I bash most of his awful singles.

      Seeing the praise this album’s receiving and then comparing it to the amount of flak Aldean routinely gets in the general sense just seems to expose the cognitive bias many have towards the latter. Pardi’s EP is definitely better than any Aldean album to date, but really I consider “California Sunrise” about even with any Aldean album besides “Night Train” because, really, it IS an Aldean album…………………only with more pedal steel and fiddle.

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  4. She Aint in it is such a good song. Reminds me if a Sony George Strait would have put on one of his more recent albums

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  5. Am I the only one somewhat underwhelmed by this record?

    Don’t get me wrong: I do appreciate Pardi’s insistence on sticking up for traditional country instrumentation. He has earned a great deal of respect from me for that, and his release of the B-sides EP last year demonstrates how far he’ll go to maintain some shred of artistic integrity that is laudable.

    *

    Still, this album feels significantly compromised, at least to my ears.

    If anything, this album underscores how odd I find it that many here seem dismissive of Jason Aldean’s discography entirely (I’m convinced many here begrudge him off the singles alone), as well as consider Randy Houser’s “Fired Up” one of the very worst country albums of 2016 (again, it’s not a good album but, really? THE worst?)

    Because let’s be honest: if it weren’t for the generous dose of fiddle and pedal steel, “California Sunrise” would primarily be exposed as a largely-generic bro-country album. About two-thirds of the album’s tracks are variations on the “work hard, play harder” theme or, more specifically, “Whew, it’s a relief I got that hard work over with! Time to get home to my sweetheart!”. Granted his take on this tired theme doesn’t come across remotely as douchey or even sleazy as many of his peers, but the songwriting still comes across as crassly written-by-committee and like a Diet version of David Davidson Songwriting School.

    “Night Shift” joins the long line of titular puns that result in not-so-clever full-length songs. “Cowboy Hat” is like Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” with country instrumentation. “Lucky Tonight” is something that could just as easily have surfaced on either Randy Houser’s “Fired Up”, the former half of Jason Aldean’s “Old Boots, New Dirt” or Easton Corbin’s “About To Get Real” and you couldn’t tell the difference. And then you have the triad already raised that easily makes up the most disposable additions of his catalog to date: rendered worse by phoned-in label interventionist production.

    Obviously this album is by no means bad. The lead single “Head Over Boots”, the solid intro cut “Out of Style”, the romantic title track closer and especially the Alan Jackson-reminiscent “She Ain’t In It” alone are about worth the price of admission and prove his broader potential. And like I’ve said, I always have a soft spot for pedal steel and fiddle in larger doses.

    But I have to say “California Sunrise” is not only a step down from his B-Sides EP and even his debut album “Write You A Song”……………….I have to admit I’d prefer the latter half of Jason Aldean’s “Old Boots, New Dirt” (minus “Gonna Know We Were Here”) from a songwriting standpoint over this as a whole. And I’m dead serious, mind you. “California Sunrise” mostly gets it right musically, but lyrically it’s a worrisome drop-off in quality.

    *

    I’m thinking a Decent to Strong 6 out of 10 for this.

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    • If I sounded exasperated in my take on this, it mainly stems from how I’ve, for a long while, found it bewildering that the likes of Jason Aldean (not his personality, which is undeniably douchey, but rather his music and broader song selection) tend to get routinely bashed as nearly the very worst the mainstream has to offer aside from Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, while equally as lazy and generic albums for the most part like this one tend to get a free pass.

      Just because an album has more pedal steel and fiddle does not make it a better album. And I’m well aware it’s going to be a very unpopular opinion here, but…………………..I just think the latter half of Aldean’s most recent album “Old Boots, New Dirt” (as well as his first three albums) are stronger from a songwriting standpoint than “California Sunrise”. His B-Sides extended play is still better than any Aldean release as a whole, however, mostly because it’s bereft of the bro-country tropes and relies on stronger individual cuts like “Borrowed Time” and “Rainy Night Song”………………….while “She Ain’t In It” and the title track are the only major standouts on this album.

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      • I totally understand where you’re coming from here Nadia and I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all to favor the second half songwriting on Old Boots, New Dirt over the songwriting on California Sunrise. As I said at the end of my review, this is a fun album. It’s not complicated nor deep. I find it to be something you can throw on and enjoy if you’re looking for something quick and easy to process. It’s the very definition of a good mainstream album. As much as I love someone like Jason Isbell, I can’t listen to his heart wrenching music all the time. Sometimes I just want something simple like this. I knew when I wrote this review it wouldn’t be popular with everyone and there would be disagreement. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I just think country music needs albums like this just as much as it needs more serious songs from the likes of Isbell and Sturgill. Variety is the spice of life as they say.

        As far as Aldean is concerned, I never bash him as hard as I do other mainstream artists. I mainly criticize him for his singles and helping introduce hip hop influences to the genre, along with raising the star of Brantley Gilbert (who isn’t as bad as people make out either). He has some truly great album cuts, but it sucks they remain album cuts. He used to release good singles (The Truth, Fly Over States, Don’t You Wanna Stay). It’s ironic you bring this up because I have a post coming on Monday that will tie into this. But again I get where you’re coming from and I think your points are spot on.

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        • Thanks for the understanding response! =)

          I know I came across more thin-skinned there than was intended. And I also know it seemed random on the surface to selectively bring up Aldean’s name (though I also cited Houser and Corbin), and I only did so because the lyrics and themes were so strikingly reminiscent of what you expect from an Aldean album minus the awful singles that anchor his albums.

          And I get what you’re saying about the “fun” factor. Hell, I’ve expressed on record how, when you really get down to it, Josh Turner’s music is actually VERY shallow from a lyrical and thematic standpoint. “Haywire” and “Punching Bag” actually made me cringe multiple times from a songwriting standpoint. But at the same time, I completely get why many look up to him as a voice of authenticity worthy of respect: because he makes up for his song selection shortcomings with his unworldly baritone, most likeable and down to earth personality and easy on the ears production that almost always feels like your favorite pair of worn-in jeans: nothing challenging but warm and rich with character all the same. Aldean, in contrast, is better at selecting deeper cuts with relative degrees of quality……………..but nonetheless never sounds like he’s having a good time or enjoying himself because the tonality of his songs, more often than not, sound sour and aloof.

          So while I do stand by my criticism of this record’s shortcomings, I also draw from the Josh Turner analogy for perspective in understanding why “California Sunrise” is appealing to many. And I do get that. I guess, in the end, I still expected more from this album and still think this was a regression from his EP.

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