Don’t let the CMT videos fool you and ignore all the accolades from Rolling Stone’s country imprint. Forget the Nashville connections and the Music City Roots videos. Hard as he may try and committed as his team may be to telling you otherwise, don’t believe the hype: Christian Lopez is not a country artist. Christian Lopez is a pop artist.
And holy hell, Christian Lopez is a damn good pop artist.
“Red Arrow,” the West Virginia singer’s latest excellent effort, is a coming out party in the grandest, most impressive of ways. Sure, Lopez leaned in with an occasional drawl on both “Pilot,” his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 2014 EP, and “Onward,” his 2015 promising debut LP. And yes, you’ll always be able to find a touch of Americana ethos within his work, regardless of how far he strays from the country-western hemisphere.
But the largest, most clear takeaway from these 11 songs is that Lopez is now a bona fide stellar hook-writer, a musical mind more than capable of crafting tunes that will make you dance as much as they make you think. His eye isn’t necessarily on the prizes that George Jones and Hank Williams once claimed. Rather, this album suggests that his victory reaches far beyond genre and straight to the top of the Hot 100 era during which his pals in Sister Hazel could dominate the universe with a hit like “All For You.”
And he’s even better when he combines that virtue with a desire to dig deeper into his musical bag of tricks. “1972” is an outstanding shot of Southern soul, complete with a dark groove and a killer organ that grants the proceedings atmosphere and credibility. Part Leon Russell, part Shout It Out-era Hanson, part classic rock radio, it’s the best song of Lopez’s career to date. Plus, check that falsetto as the chorus unfolds and soars in ways only rock-pop could some 20 years ago. Adam Duritz would be proud.
“Someday” is in the same vein, though just a little more anthemic than its brethren (anytime the “O” sound is stretched out in a hook, you just know the artist can hear a crowd singing it back to him or her somewhere down the line). Doubling down on warm production, the singer’s voice feels as delicate as a feather once the second verse settles in and he asserts, “It’s good to see you again.” Even the simple guitar-driven bridge is a thing of beauty, case in point that simplicity in pop is always the right way to go, 100 times out of 100.
Speaking of simplicity and delicacy, this guy mastered both of those skills long ago and even when his familiar approaches return from previous albums, the results are better than they’ve ever been before. Opener “Swim the River” is steeped in roots accessibility, lush fiddle and all. The best part comes as the bluegrass unfolds and Lopez sounds as comfortable as ever, old-school production values combining with a new school flair for Americana. The inevitable string soloing makes you want to grab a partner and head to the barn while the earnestness in the singer’s delivery will force you to swoon as he recites both the things he’s good — and not so good — at doing.
These moments pale in comparison, however, to how exciting the album feels whenever Lopez tries something new. How so? Well, “Say Goodbye” is a Motion City Soundtrack song if Motion City Soundtrack grew up in West Virginia and tried out for American Idol. No, but seriously. If you don’t believe these words, fast-forward to the 45-second mark and hear the quirky synth/keyboard work step to the forefront as the uptempo continues to push forward. It’s surprising, thrilling, infectious, ambitious, and, without question, the most fun Lopez has had on a record.
Even single “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight” is more sock-hop than it is a square dance. Led by an impossibly catchy electric guitar line, the track chronicles a night filled with urgency, lust, and desperation backed by a retrofitted pop structure that should always be listened to while sipping on a milkshake. Also noteworthy is the subtle, tasteful guitar leads that fill out the backdrop in ways not often heard in pop music these days. It’s the perfect combination of classic bells, yesteryear whistles, and modern-day shine. Or, in short, the song is a lot of great things, but it ain’t all that country.
Which is OK, of course. Because if Christian Lopez has been waiting for his breakout moment, “Red Arrow” is a cannonball of arrival. Matured and textured, you would be hard-pressed to find a more promising illustration of youthful, fully realized pop-rock in 2017. If nothing else, this set proves that Lopez is a singer with his sights set far beyond parameters some have unfairly set upon him throughout his early years. This, though? This is a brand new chapter, an invigorated artist, and perhaps most lasting, a courageous mind.
“Cause it’s now or never,” Lopez half-shouts on “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight.” “Red Arrow” proves that “never” wasn’t even an option.
**** 4 STARS OUT OF 4 ****