Three albums into their career, Joey + Rory have developed some of their established signatures – steel-heavy neotrad country arrangements, genuine down-home sincerity, a sly sense of humor, and of course, overalls. Many of the usual ingredients remain in place on the couple’s third album His and Hers, with perhaps the most immediately noticeable formula tweak being the increased vocal presence of Rory Feek, who sings lead on half of the album’s tracks instead of taking one obligatory lead vocal turn. That’s all fine and good, but the problem is that His and Hers finds the Feeks peddling some surprisingly weak material.
That’s not to say that His and Hers is without its standouts. Lead single “When I’m Gone” is easily one of the finest country ballads never to make it into heavy radio rotation in 2012, featuring a delicately detailed lyrical meditation on the grieving process, as well as one of Joey Martin Feek’s finest recorded vocal performances to date. B-side side “Josephine” makes a similarly strong impression as Rory takes on the voice of a Civil War soldier writing a letter home to his wife. The song paints a stark picture of wartime conditions, with the lines “You know, I killed a union boy last week, bet he wasn’t fourteen/ He looked just like our son, forgive me for what I’ve done, Josephine” being particularly striking. Rory’s performs is fraught with urgency and desperation, which just about makes up for the fact that the chorus cries out for a stronger hook than “I love you, I love you, I love you, Josephine.” The album closes on a solid note with the sparse steel-laden title track that follows a couple through marriage and subsequent divorce, elevated by a detailed lyric and an aching performance on Joey’s part, despite its narrative being nothing particularly novel.
Unfortunately, once you’ve savored the deep layered poetry of a gem like “When I’m Gone,” it makes the stale, forced humor of tracks like “Someday When I Grow Up” and “Let’s Pretend We Never Met” that much harder to stomach, or to see as anything less than embarrassing for an act of Joey + Rory’s artistic stature. That’s not to say that the couple can’t pull off such cute wink-wink humor effectively (Past album highlights like “God Help My Man” show that they certainly can), but the attempts on this album often strain to be clever, and come across as self-impressed instead of self-aware. Rather than moving forward, it sounds like they’re giving us more of what we’ve come to expect from them.
A foremost issue is that the songs far too often come across as shallow, perfunctory takes on their chosen themes – a problem not limited to the ditties. “Love Your Man” feels like a forgettable, hookless rehash of Tammy Wynette’s standard “Stand By Your Man.” While Joey sings “Waiting for Someone” beautifully, it still doesn’t quite overcome the predictability of the song’s narrative. Rory’s lead vocal turns come with the same problems, with “Cryin’ Smile” seemingly having little point except to reaffirm that people do cry happy tears sometimes. A disjointed narrative and lack of lyrical detail leaves the ultimate point of “Teaching Me How to Love You” unclear, causing it to ring hollow.
The pleasantly crisp neotraditional arrangements remain intact as on the duo’s previous efforts, while the performances are as amiable as ever. But when it comes to storytelling – a vitally important factor in making a great country album tick – it simply seems that Joey + Rory have little to say that is of any substantial interest. That makes His and Hers a disappointing effort coming from an act who made such compelling, creative music in the past - a collection with nowhere near the enduring appeal of Joey + Rory’s previous efforts. A shame indeed.
JOEY + RORY’S SCORE: 5
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)
BUY: His and Hers