An album that would qualify as an artistic sell-out but for the fact that Big & Rich never had much of a hold on what, exactly, they claimed to be selling in the first place, Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace severs all ties to the duo’s Muzic Mafia and “freak parade” and climbs in bed with the country mainstream. Looking back on their sophomore disc, Comin’ To Your City, on which they marginalized Mafia members Gretchen Wilson and Cowboy Troy (though, in fairness, who could blame them for wanting to?) and concluded the album with a bit of shameless catering to the flag-waving demographic, it’s not such a terrible surprise, but it’s a major disappointment nonetheless that a duo whose stated raison d’être was to shake up the country music industry would record an album that kowtows to Music Row’s politics and sounds.
Bifurcated into a side A of ballads and a side B of uptempo cuts, the album is intended as a statement on the struggle between living and living right. It’s an idea that’s been covered thoroughly in country music—Matraca Berg’s Sunday Morning to Saturday Night just over a decade ago, to pick perhaps the best counterexample to something as poorly written as this record—and the division of the album’s tracks might actually work from a structural standpoint if listening to the two sides weren’t equally hellish. But side A is supposedly the “Amazing Grace” side, with treacly wedding anthem “Lost in this Moment” (tellingly, their biggest radio hit to date) leading things off with a healthy dose of cliché (“Sealing our love with a kiss/Waited my whole life for this”) and sounding exactly like something from any recent Brooks & Dunn album.
The overtly religious images continue through the remaining five tracks on the side, which wouldn’t be a problem if there were any depth to the spiritual questioning. Instead, there’s the ridiculous, unbelievable gang violence saga of “Faster Than Angels Fly” (which hinges on the borderline hysterical line, “Bullets can blow your dreams away/Faster than angels fly”), the maudlin “Eternity” (on which John Legend is credited as a guest, though he didn’t play piano and can’t really be heard singing harmony, so whatever genre-blurring point they were attempting to make is lost), and the embarrassingly trite “When the Devil Gets the Best of Me.” Big & Rich have never been able to pull off would-be serious material all that well, but at least earlier singles like “Holy Water” and “8th of November” weren’t so self-serious and certainly weren’t so terribly written as the first half of this album.
Sadly, things don’t improve when the tempo picks up. It’s unlikely that Big & Rich will ever pull off another single as great as “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” but they keep trying for another arena-sized anthem. Here, it’s “Radio,” which is little more than a retread of “Comin’ to Your City,” which was already diminished returns on “Save a Horse.” That it happens to include the line, “We like our fiddles and our guitars loud” is simply baffling, considering that any fiddles that were involved in the recording of the album have been completely smothered in the mix, except on the horribly executed, ironic cover of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Far worse, though, is “Please Man,” on which Rich mistakes the rhyme, “Please man/Don’t call the police man,” for clever and on which Wyclef Jean shows up to drop a guest verse that’s nothing more than a list of obvious names tossed into a series of non sequiturs. It actually wants for the wit and subtlety of Cowboy Troy, and it’s all about talking a big game about loving the genre’s history without ever demonstrating that anyone involved knows what that means.
So Big & Rich can insist, on closer “Loud” (which is all but indistinguishable from “Radio”), that they’re “all about tradition, [they] don’t mind the twang,” and they can have their guests drop references to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, but there’s literally nothing on Between Raising Hell to justify any of it. It’s all empty posturing and lip service, and it’s in that way that Big & Rich have created an album that’s fully the product of the soulless Nashville assembly line. The album’s god-awful songwriting, strident demo-baiting lyrical content, and alternately shrill and bombastic production only reaffirm its shameless commercial bent. Big & Rich’s first two albums were too erratic to be truly great, but at least they were interesting—and an attempt to be progressive. Between Raising Hell, however, isn’t flawed in any ways that speak to an underlying creativity, ambition, or significance. Instead, it’s an attempt to assimilate into the very machine they said they were raging against, and the result is predictably deadening. Which means, obviously, that this one’s going to sell big.