When it comes to mainstream country, I think the ideal place to be is under the radar and unsung. Well at least at first because the pressure isn’t immediately on the artist to be this big hit maker. It should happen organically and over a certain period of years of work because it ultimately helps shape them to be better and find their sound. This is certainly the case for Dot Records’ Drake White. It took him two different major label deals and two single releases over a couple of years with Dot to finally launch his new album Spark. While those two lead singles didn’t blow me away with their quality, it did catch my eye with their roots-y, organic instrumentation. I could see the potential and made me look forward to see what he could bring to the table with his major label debut album. Spark was actually one of the few mainstream country album releases I’ve looked forward to in 2016 and after listening to it, White delivers the goods for the most part.
Sparks opens with “Heartbeat,” which is introduced by a recording of White’s preacher grandfather delivering a sermon. Interludes of his grandfather show up throughout the album, as White has said in numerous interviews he greatly influenced the album’s songs and themes. The opening song is soul meets country tune about the value of heart and hard work. Everything about the song is uplifting in nature. Depending on your attitude towards these songs will greatly affect your outlook on this entire album. “Story” opens with lots of fiddle, which made me double take upon first listen and thought I had accidentally hit play on a Turnpike Troubadours song. That let me know right away I was in for a great song. It’s about various people’s lives, their everyday goals and tribulations of a normal day. It’s a song that is very easy to like with its universal message and traditional instrumentation. At the end it even features a little bit of scatting from White.
The piano-driven “Makin’ Me Look Good Again” really shows off White’s soulful side. You’ll find when listening to this record there’s a noticeable soul influence and White does a great job for the most part blending it with the country sounds. This love ballad gives him opportunity show off his flawless vocals. While he’s not one of the very best vocalists of the genre, he has a genuinely likeable quality about him that will endear him to listeners similar to Josh Turner and Zac Brown. The album’s lead single “It Feels Good” is next. Looking back I’m kind of surprised this upbeat, feel good single didn’t do better at country radio. While the lyrics are nothing to write home about (basically a song about being happy), the song is quite infectious and will stick with you.
This is followed by the sophomore single and biggest hit so far of the album, “Livin’ The Dream.” Much like the previous single it’s not breaking any new ground in the theme department, but it’s agreeable enough to a majority of listeners that it made sense for the label to make it a single. It’s a decent song that helped launch White and his album, but I probably won’t remember this song. “I Need Real” is one of the songs on Spark that tries to dig deeper. It starts out with White singing about small town problems like drugs and birth control, immediately catching my attention. But it doesn’t really delve into these more serious topics like I was hoping and it turns into a song about wanting a real, tangible love. It’s not what I hoped, but it’s solid and I could see it as a potential single for White.
Most of this album features a lot of organic, roots-y instrumentation and on “Back To Free” it doesn’t seem much different. That is until it kicks into the meat of the song and we get the annoying buzzing/beeping sound pulsing in the background. It just smacks of label dabbling because it’s utterly pointless and is only satisfying to some label executive in a suit. It’s distracting and ultimately brings the song down, making it one of the worst on the album. White tries his hand at an island summer song with “Equator.” It’s about heading to an island on the equator and getting away from the cold weather in the winter and it’s something you’ve heard before it you’ve ever listened to Jimmy Buffett. That being said it’s not a bad summer song by any stretch and along the line of Zac Brown Band’s beach songs. It’s fun, carefree and will fit nicely into vacation playlists where it belongs. “Live Some” is another song where White’s likeable vocals elevate above average lyrics. Most of the song consists of lyrics finishing with “some” at the end. It all revolves around how all kinds of things happen to you in life, but you continue to live and experience life. Again it’s simple, yet relatable.
The most serious song on this album is hands down “Waitin’ On The Whiskey To Work.” It’s probably the most important too because it showcases that White can dig deep and isn’t just all about fun and uplifting themes. The song is about a broken-hearted man trying to drink the pain away and continuing drink until the whiskey starts working. A fleeting organ and fine harmonica set the tone of the song perfectly. I would say this is the best track on Spark. “Elvis” is not indeed about the king of rock and roll, but he serves as an example of the point the song makes. It’s about keeping your head down and continuing to work hard towards your goals in life because success isn’t something that comes over night. The only way you’ll get there is putting in the time. With the catchy hook and the country rock production, this is another one I could see being a single. Spark unfortunately goes out with a fizzle with the R&B influenced “Take Me As I Am.” First off the production feels completely out of place after hearing the first 11 songs and seems to be a better fit on Thomas Rhett’s last album. Then the lyrics are your standard, generic love lyrics you find in Nashville pop songs nowadays. I will give it one thing and that it’s catchy. But that’s about the only good I can find in it.
With Spark Drake White delivers an album I think shows he’s a mainstream country artist worth paying attention to, despite a couple of rough spots. The upbeat and organic instrumentation is a real breath of fresh air and brings a sense of authenticity that is lacking from the mainstream scene. White’s vocals are deep, infectious and is something that will leave a lasting impression on the listener. Spark in a way reminds me of a lot of Zac Brown Band’s major label debut album The Foundation, which like White’s album wasn’t perfect, but it established the sound of the band and made them into a recognizable name in the genre. This doesn’t represent the best we’re going to get from White, but it gives us an idea of who he is and his sound. Spark is a pretty solid foundation for Drake White to build upon and I look forward to what he delivers on his next album.
(I also have to give kudos to the artist of the album cover, which is fantastic. Probably one of the best album covers I’ve seen this year.)