Once country music abandoned the three chords that made it famous, its creators opened the barn door to a heedless eclecticism that Jerrod Niemann's new full-length, High Noon, illustrates perfectly. If you think the old-fashioned modulations and rhythm-section dynamics of '60s and '70s country didn't express reality in suitably complex ways, Niemann's latest record might disabuse you of the notion that formal innovation and studio craft equal brand-new ways of putting across musical and verbal ideas. With its power-ballad borrowings and yacht-rock leanings, High Noon may sum up the much-maligned genre known as "bro country." In a Nashville country scene notable for its lack of spiritual uplift, High Noon stands out as a paean to materialism that Niemann couches in terms of country music history and musical innovation.
Niemann's previous big-label records contain some interesting music. On 2010's Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, a track such as "Come Back to Me" registers as a funk pastiche, complete with guitar that seems lifted off a mid-'70s Funkadelic album. Elsewhere on Judge Jerrod you'll find modified country shuffles, Americana-style blues and a song about visiting Mexico that rhymes "Tijuana" with "if you wanna."
A Kansas native who'd co-written with Garth Brooks, Niemann got a country No. 1 single out of Judge Jerrod — the record's "Lover, Lover" was a souped-up version of Sonia Dada's "You Don't Treat Me No Good," which had been a 1992 Australian hit. Niemann followed up Judge Jerrod with another example of Nashville bricolage, the 2012 full-length Free the Music. Again, the borrowings and studio expertise suggested Niemann had been listening to some of the great middlebrow icons of rock — I hear allusions to Beck and Coldplay — and Free the Music boasted strings, horns and other seemingly extraneous musical elements.
High Noon continues in the previous records' super-eclectic vein. "Day Drinkin' " begins with an oddball guitar lick that frames a song about drinking during the day, just as the title says. Compelled to drink beer by listening to Roger Miller sing "Chug-a-Lug," Niemann devotes his time to "cheatin' on those neon lights," which nicely reverses a country music trope. As on all of High Noon, Niemann marshals an impressive array of musical materials to reinforce words about country girls who are hotter than city girls, rocking in the country, and other staples of the bro-rock lexicon.
What's perhaps most mind-scrambling about Niemann's music is its references to such country stars as George Jones, Miller and Johnny Cash, none of whom would likely understand just what the heck Niemann and his many co-writers are up to on High Noon. "Donkey" sounds like glam-rock with a Beck-style vocal, and it combines spastic banjo insertions with a basic rock stomp that occasionally sports guitar work in the mode of Jimi Hendrix.
In "Donkey," Niemann pays tribute to The Possum in a startling line: "George Jones took a John Deere tractor, hope my donkey gets there faster." Meanwhile, "Refill" references Jackson Browne, whose "Running on Empty" inspires writers Niemann, Lance Miller, Brad Warren and Brett Warren to suggest that what this particular country boy needs is some "Southern Comfort" in his rock 'n' roll. With its high-grade instrumental backdrop, High Noon never lets up on the studied eclecticism. But as Jones could teach you, keeping it simple can often let the real insanity of country come through, and Niemann seems far too sane to approach that level of expression.