Honestly, it is hard for me to rate this record: on one hand, Big & Rich are my favorite musical act of all time. On the other, the reality that this album is not as good as the duo's previous releases is painfully obvious. But don't let that skeptical remark fool you: if you like Big & Rich -- as in, more of their songs than "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" -- then you will probably like "Hillbilly Jedi." If you were never that fond of Big & Rich, nothing here will change your mind. This is one of those slightly formulaic records ("formulaic" meaning in terms of the artist(s) in question) that everyone will have a different opinion of.
It has been a long wait, but Big Kenny and John Rich are back. Judging from a pre-release listen to the opening track "Born Again," I was expecting this effort to be a welcome return to form for the duo after the overly mainstream sound of "Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace
" in 2007 (not that I disliked the album, it just didn't take any risks). I was partly right, but it depends on which "form" one is thinking of. B&R's patented Country/rock/hick hop sound is back and Cowboy Troy is even thrown in for good measure, but the weird humor of "Horse of a Different Color
" and "Comin' to Your City
" is again absent. You might think otherwise based on the rather silly title of the record, but with the exception of "M-E-D-L-E-Y of the Hillbilly Jedi", nothing here is much more adventurous than what you would hear on modern country radio, some odd flourishes notwithstanding. It's too bad that the rest of the album isn't like the closing track; that one would fit in nicely on any of the duo's previous works. While I miss the "weird" take on the material (as it was the main trait that made the duo stand out in Nashville), I have always loved the rocking sound that B&R put out as well. "Born Again" even features a guest appearance by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, who also co-wrote the song with Kenny and Rich.
This album is by no means "bad" but one can't help but feel that they were playing it safe. Despite the outlandish art and title of the album, the contents are largely predictable. Even then, I enjoyed each and every song on the record, save for "Last Words" (quite possibly the most boring B&R song to date) and "Get Your Game On" (their most moronic song to date, but without any of that self-aware humor that made other such songs work). "Born Again" is one of my new favorite songs of the year and "Party Like Cowboyz" is a fun rocker, while "Cheat On You" is heartwrenching -- the B&R sound is there, it's just lacking the same spark of freshness and zeal from several years ago. Call the actual stars 3 &1/2: aside from a few standouts, "Hillbilly Jedi" just isn't all that memorable and that is ultimately the biggest problem with the album.
As a first, the boys bring in an outside producer in the form of Dann Huff, who handles all of the production duties this time around (Kenny and John both co-produced their previous three outings). This little change up boosts the energy a bit but is otherwise unnoticeable on the lesser tracks. One great thing about Big & Rich that hardly gets any credit is their diverse approach to their music, and it's in full force here. That doesn't necessarily save the record from some mediocre tracks or a lack of personality, but it's still nice nonetheless. There is straight country, rock and hip hop all on the same record here; silly songs and serious ones too. If you are not familiar with Big & Rich, listen to samples before you buy (or better yet, go for one of their first two albums). Their music is not for everyone, but if you like it you'll probably have a good time. The one caveat I would tell the first-time listener to keep in mind is that the duo's records tend to be uneven tonally due to the nature of individual songs, which applies here as well.
To sum it up, "Hillbilly Jedi" is a fairly modest Big & Rich record. The sound is there but the personality really isn't, making the album a well-made but average effort for the duo. This record is more akin to one cut by a duo in a bit of a creative rut; one whose act is thinning, not returning after a five year break. I hold their music to a higher standard that this record doesn't quite reach. Complaints aside, if you like Big & Rich give "Hillbilly Jedi" a spin. The music is clear and crisp and once you hear Kenny's preacher-esque rambling exit your speakers, you'll be whisked back to the good ole days of "Save a Horse" and "Comin' to Your City," if only briefly.
Great to have you back guys, but try harder next time!
My favorite songs:
"Party Like Cowboyz"
"Rock The Boat"
"M-E-D-L-E-Y of the Hillbilly Jedi"