Sony Music Entertainment (2013)

The third time was apparently the charm for Jake Owen and his rock-tinged style of country. After two modest releases, 2011’s Barefoot Blue Jean Night struck a chord (pun intended) with country fans, scoring Owen his first number-one hit and his first Platinum-selling single, and putting him in position to take things all the way to top.

But that also puts a huge amount of expectation on the next album: will his new release Days of Gold take advantage of the momentum Owen gained with Barefoot? Will this be the record that puts him on the proverbial A-list?

Let’s start with the good news: Days of Gold is a fine album on its own merit. It’s got plenty of radio-friendly tunes, it’s fun to listen to (in fact, it’s hard to listen to without smiling), and it’s got great range. Lots of country fans are already familiar with the highly catchy title track and lead single, and they’re likely to be just as satisfied with the rockin’ anthem “1972,” the solid midtempo “Life Of the Party,” and the philosophical ballad “What We Ain’t Got,” along with others. So there’s that.

But part of the problem here is context. Jake Owen, after all, is pressing to be noticed at a time when a bevy of hot young country guys are dominating the country market, and the challenge is to differentiate himself. What is he doing differently?  What sets him apart? Sure, Days of Gold has some great songs on it—songs about hot girls, cold beers, tan lines…

See the problem? The likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Blake Shelton all have this ground well covered. So when Jake Owen comes out singing songs about this stuff—and when the songs don’t sound that much different from what is already on the charts—he conveys the image that he’s coming from behind, running to catch up, or copying established trends trying to get in on the action. In a recent article in Billboard, Owen suggests that he took some risks on this album. Maybe I’m not looking at it from the right angle, but I don’t see much in the way of risk at all. The songs are good, but there’s nothing I’m hearing on this record I haven’t heard from three or four other acts who have already made it.

And so, unless the fans hear something on this record that I don’t, I’m afraid that Jake Owen is going to remain in underdog status for a little while longer. He’s got the talent and the chops to become a top seller, and for that matter to stay on top for a long time once he gets there. But we’re still looking for a niche, something that tells us to pay special attention to Jake Owen as opposed to someone else, and he hasn’t really found that sweet spot yet. Days of Gold deserves to be heard, but Owen is going to have to dig a little deeper.

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