The Shires - Brave
The Shires—Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes—are from Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, hence the name. But you wouldn’t think so listening to this debut album. They have absorbed the current pop-country sounds of Nashville so perfectly that they could so easily be mistaken for Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town or any one of a dozen American vocal groups that have emerged in the wake of those two groups’ success. That’s not meant as a criticism of the Shires or this excellent debut album, which is a powerful grower, its melodies sinking in deep after a few listens. They mostly deliver impeccably crafted originals that fully capture the duo’s pop smarts, vocal prowess and accomplished musicianship. Crissie and Ben sing so beautifully together one would easily assume they’ve been performing together for years and years, but they actually got together just over two years ago for writing sessions and began playing together on stage regularly as the Shires little more than a year ago.
The majority of these songs were co-written by the couple, some in Nashville with top Music Row writers. The group’s breezy, easygoing feel makes its music seem effortless, as if anyone could pick up a guitar, grab a few friends and churn out a record so catchy and engrossing, but listen carefully and you’ll soon realise that the lyrics are generally thoughtful and well-written, with the melodies reflecting the mood of each song. Album opener Tonight is particularly strong; sung with verve, tunefulness, a great hook, and the kind of energy that makes you pay attention. Even stronger, in commercial terms is Friday Night, already a Radio 2 favourite. True, there is not a new idea to be found on this pop-country romp, but it has all of the elements to become one of those irresistible guilty pleasures of the coming months. And that’s what a successful record is all about.
They also rein in to present some high quality ballad material that allows Crissie to show-off her rich, emotional vocal tones. The title song is a powerful ballad, lyrically a highlight of the album. In a softer vein is the piano-led Black And White, which starts off quietly as they swap verses and come together with tingling harmonies on the chorus. A masterful pop ballad that adds much depth to the album. I’m not so sure about Nashville Grey Skies, their first single, which sounds somewhat naïve with its lyric of creating a Nashville in the UK. Much better is Made In England, a stirring anthem treated with genuine affection, rather than the bombast that Americans tend to bring to flag-waving songs about their home country. This is a debut album from a duo that displays great potential; without quite fully realising it. Shake off the Americanism and showcase more Englishness and the Shires could be great for British country music.