Eric Church The Outsiders

Eric Church The Outsiders
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Eric Church has made four records over the past decade, and each has been essential listening for country fans. A top-drawer songwriter, Church's blend of radio-friendly twang with offbeat and sometimes downright challenging material — the death penalty, smoking pot, reactionary "traditionalists," some northern Democrat named Bruce Springsteen — has set him up as Nashville's rebellious, if not exactly reluctant, megastar.

Especially after his last studio record (2011's near-perfect Chief) sat atop the Billboard charts, it was hard for anyone to deny that this self-styled "outsider" had all the mainstream appeal you could desire. The fact that he then played Metallica's Orion Festival and Lollapalooza just cemented his cred as a kind of alt-Nashville Nashville star.

However you view his previous efforts, his almost absurdly ambitious fourth record follows this line to territory few have ever explored. Finding his inspiration at the intersection of country and heavy metal, The Outsiders offers a dozen powerfully rocking tracks that sound like little else on the radio, anywhere on the dial. This is, emphatically, a good thing.

Sonically, this album is a monster. Gloriously produced by Church's longtime collaborator Jay Joyce, the record feels for all the world like a mid-'70s stoner rock band collided with the sharpest country songwriter busking Music Row. The drums are deep and Bonham-esque, the guitars wide and distorted, the piano big as a house. It's all rather jarring, at first, until it becomes simply thrilling. This is something new under the sun. There are a lot more Sabbath influences here than on your typical country album, is what I'm saying.

I mean, there's even a song called "That's Damn Rock & Roll," which quotes the guitar riff from AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" — on a mainstream Nashville record!

On its best songs — the killer title track, the seductive "Like A Wrecking Ball," the ultra funky "Cold One" and the heartrending current single "Give Me Back My Hometown" — Church reminds us that, even when he's on the knife edge, taking risks, throwing sand in the eyes of those who'd prefer he sounded like everyone else, he's totally in command. If there's a better, more influential, or more downright exciting mainstream country record in 2014, I may just start wearing a cowboy hat.

Read an interview with Eric Church here. (EMI)