Canaan Smith
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Canaan Smith ‘Bronco’ – Album Review

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When Canaan Smith released his debut self-titled EP last March, I wasn’t all that impressed. I felt he was trying too hard to be like the bros, sacrificing any unique storytelling ability to become absorbed into the pack. It didn’t work, and I felt it was a shame that I couldn’t feel much of his own identity in the record. Therefore, upon release of his debut full-length album ‘Bronco’, I was intrigued to see whether he could improve upon the chapters already published and provide us more depth and heart to the overall story.

Lead single ‘Love You Like That’ was not his first stab at radio (that honor goes to the far more enjoyable ‘We Got Us’, released in 2012), but it has been his most successful, settling in the top 10 with potential to rise further. Commercially it was a solid song to lead the record with, although don’t expect your listening experience to be particularly inspiring; the beat-driven pop-orientated track has a tolerable chorus and that’s about it. The same can be said for several of the other songs on offer here, such as the more R&B-infused ‘Two Lane Road’ (although honestly the chorus here isn’t up to much), the heavily rhythmic matchmaking of electric guitar and synths on ‘Good Kinda Bad’, and the weirdly electro-abstract ‘Mad Love’ (which has some truly awful lyrics on display).

Still, there are a few which attempt to improve the picture somewhat. ‘Stompin’ Grounds’ has something of a west coast pop vibe, with the focus on rhythm returning but joined by an especially sweet chord progression in the guitar picking. The chorus fills out to pander to radio and build a kind of summery anthem, but it doesn’t sound too dissimilar to recent material from Kristian Bush and Jake Owen and is at least different enough in places to capture my attention for the full three minutes. The lyric is nice enough too, with little to distinguish it in the chorus but the verses providing some of Canaan’s own story. Finally, we get to hear something that sounds like it’s actually coming from him.

‘One of Those’, like ‘Stompin’ Grounds’, would also be a solid follow-up single. It begins sparsely, with a bluesy swagger and an acoustic sensibility, and although it does layer up for the refrain that chilled-out west coast vibe is back to ground the track. Again, the lyrics toe the line between clichés and originality as he word-paints a little to describe what he’s like as a man and, later, as a lover, but for the most part it’s pleasant listening. ‘Love At First’ (a song reminiscing on a love lost), meanwhile, combines the effects of the two aforementioned tracks for a melding of bluesy electric guitar, acoustic R&B/pop beats and production, and a semi-rapped vocal. Still, however bad that sounds on paper, it is kind of weirdly enjoyable (although, it should be noted, not country whatsoever).

And that’s largely the problem with this album. It’s not country, and some of the songs are okay, but I find myself either narrowing my eyebrows in suspicion, raising one eyebrow in confusion, or wrinkling my nose in disgust (see ‘American Muscle’ – really?). Even ‘Stuck’, which has a pretty harmony ascension and descension to form the hook and a lyric dripping in sadness, musing over a lover lost and not being able to move on, has its issues. The production feels too over-wrought and at times the song comes across too happy-sounding for what is, at its essence, a song of total heartbreak. ‘Hole In A Bottle’ is an improvement, injecting a little bluesy, honky-tonkin’ swagger into proceedings, but I find it not pushing far enough in that direction to really tip the balance of the record.

However, there is one song on ‘Bronco’ that is extremely well-written, well-delivered, and well-produced, and that is the title track. The epilogue to a record that I was ultimately unsure about, ‘Bronco’ tells the story of Canaan losing his brother in a car crash with grace, heart and melancholic beauty. Wrapped up in recounting the reckless free spirit of his brother gone too young, he muses introspectively on the impact the tragedy had on him and his family, and while very sad and thoughtful it also feels uplifting, somehow. Luckily the arrangement was kept simple, steeped in reverb and simple electric guitar picking to support Canaan’s vocals (which honestly could have done without the edits towards the end of the song, but hey). “Takes a lifetime of prayers on bended knee, to try to come to peace with your memory,” he sings to take the song (and album) to close, and we are left speechless at the sudden stripping away of layers and vulnerability.

Canaan spends much of his debut album dwelling on surface emotions, settings and material things, grappling with a sound that just really isn’t that country, but at least part of it is put to rights with the brilliant final track. If only more of the album was like ‘Bronco’.