He’s the area’s wunderkind when it comes to country music and his latest set, “Onward,” cements as much. With a twang that mirrors Ryan Adams at times coupled with the type of soft-rock accessibility that the Wrecking Crew perfected half a century ago, Christian Lopez establishes himself as a force with these 11 songs. It’s no wonder CMT can’t get enough of him and the dude from Sister Hazel wanted to collaborate for an online video. This stuff is top-shelf.
It begins with “Take You Away,” a waltz-y ballad that musically wouldn’t be out of place on a Counting Crows record, heavy piano dramatics and all. With local banjo queen Chelsea McBee providing tastefully subliminal plucks underneath it all, the song feels like a perfect choice for adult contemporary radio. The vibe is Southern, but the presentation embodies class. “Leaving It Out” is much of the same, recalling echoes of late-era The Band.
“Seven Years” and “Goodbye” utilize the same delicacy all the while taking a more nuanced approach to soft songwriting that allows the intricacies of Lopez’s talent to shine. The latter, which closes the album, is brilliantly dark, the strings adding a layer of theatrics that’s on par with anything the big boys produce. “Seven Years,” meanwhile, paints gorgeous visions of countrysides and railroad trips, complete with a female backing harmony that manages to be both light and affecting.
Much like McBee was on the band’s previous EP, “Pilot,” she’s the secret weapon that takes Lopez and his friends to the next level. He brings her along throughout all of “Don’t Know How” in a way that’s so tiny, but so imperative. Even if you listen closely, you can hardly tell that she’s singing each word of the song behind him because of how seamlessly their voices line up. That touch pops up relentlessly throughout a lot of the 11 songs and not once does it fall flat.
Another thing that works consistently? Lopez’s penchant for the type of radio pop-rock that thrived in the late 1990s. The aforementioned “Don’t Know How” would have worked on any record from the aforementioned Sister Hazel. And even though “Will I See You Again” drops by after being the centerpiece of “Pilot” last year, it continues to have a charm that would have fit perfectly next to Del Amitri or Gin Blossoms on pop radio nearly two decades ago.
The guy is at his best, though, when he’s his most feisty. “Pick Me Up” should be the band’s signature anthem. Introduced via a quick few measures of Southern rock, it calms down in time for Lopez to hit ‘em with a passage like this: “Waking up to another day/Of just leaving behind what I wanna say/Copping out to think of how you were today/While smiling for someone else.” And if that’s not enough, stick around for the infectious, upbeat chorus and a certain swear word that you’ll be humming all day.
Elsewhere, the band earns its bones as a soft-rock stalwart with a song like “Morning Rise” as it recalls a specific blend of 1970s twang and structure that brings to mind elements of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. The traditional old-timey “Oh These Tombs” is a nice touch, and probably the most Old-Nashville that the band gets. And “The Man I Was Before” allows the group’s namesake to put his voice above all else with an a cappella beginning. Then, once the band kicks in, it’s all allure all the time, the soft drums holding court above pastel vocals that accentuate the Lopez/McBee team’s strengths.
Which, of course, might just be “Onward”’s greatest accomplishment: Playing off a formula the band has already perfected and taking that formula to new heights. With this most recent set, the Christian Lopez Band has one-upped itself. Coming into their own as a unit, they have established their own blend of Southern charm and soft rock that’s as memorable as it is impressive, as inescapable as it is familiar. At such a trajectory, it’s hard to fully grasp exactly how far these guys can go, assuming they keep marching down their own path.
Onward and upward, indeed.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***