Sam Hunt Sets Himself Apart with Debut “Montevallo”

Unfortunately for die hard Sam Hunt fans, debut album Montevallo doesn’t offer a lot of new. Four of the ten tracks were on Hunt’s recent EP X2C, “Raised on It” had been previously released as a pre-label single, and “Cop Car” and “Speakers” existed in slightly rawer forms on mixtapes Hunt had released, notwithstanding the massive recent success of “Cop Car” for Keith Urban.

However, in the case of Hunt, oldies are in fact goodies. “Speakers” has long been a Shotgun Seat favorite, and the slight re-imagining of the track for Montevallo retains the intimate energy, breathy vocals, and hip-hop drums central to Hunt’s style. “Speakers” is Hunt at his best, and the double-time, rap-influenced flow of “love in the back of the truck with the tailgate down, just us and the speakers on” is the perfect hybrid, stealing country themes and hip-hop rhythm in the perfect balance, still singing. Hunt isn’t the best vocalist, but the employment of his vocals is much more interesting than the vocals themselves.

Compare with tracks like “Take Your Time” or “Break Up in a Small Town,” which bats fourth in the Montevallo lineup. Both begin with spoken verses, the end of some lines transitioning seamlessly into sung melody. It’s a bold move that ultimately falls short of genius, especially in the latter, draining energy in a lackluster way between choruses, particularly in a live setting. While Hunt does a decent job of rationalizing these dualities in concert, it’s a factor that could break for or against the artist both in person and at radio. In every other sense, however, “Break Up” is an absolute smash. The Zach Crowell and Shane McAnally produced record is simple and complementary in the verses, building in a Swiftian “Trouble” way to a dynamic pop hook that’s 1000% catchy, both in melody and production. It’s the quality of the hook that allows the verse to be so left-field, a tactic that “Take Your Time” employs to a lesser extreme, with fewer spoken parts of the verse and a well-written but ultimately less catchy chorus.

Another interesting moment on Hunt’s debut is his rendition of “Cop Car.” It’s been no secret that Hunt wasn’t ecstatic about Urban’s recording of the song – “I worked hard on ‘Cop Car. Everything I poured into that song was stolen from me. I unfortunately can’t celebrate it being on The Grammys,” he tweeted in January. Hunt’s rendition doesn’t attempt to compete with Urban’s vocally, although Hunt sounds good on the track, but makes it stylistically his own, returning again to a hip-hop-infused beat (versus Urban’s more vocal/guitar driven approach, especially in his Grammy collaboration with the soulful Gary Clark Jr.) A female harmony graces the track (as it did on Hunt’s mixtape version of the song,) which is an excellent touch.

“Single for the Summer” is also classic Hunt: big drum beats and a decidedly synthetic groove matched with pop-inspired melody. The production has some interesting moments, with pitched vocals and electronic synths that slither sparingly through runs of high notes without being prohibitively un-country. Lyrically, the song goes deeper than the title implies, touching on tan legs and women in bikinis before settling into verses of turmoil: “I’ve gone off the deep end, the company I’m keeping is messing me up / the good girls at home sleepin’ while I’m out creepin’ til the sun comes up.”

The break from Hunt’s style comes with “Make You Miss Me,” which starts with piano chords and strings, immediately allowing the same drum back in at the verse but staying tastefully at bay, much like “Speakers” for the hook. Vocal and songwriting talent Hillary Lindsey provides harmonies. The song’s chorus reaches almost-anthemic, with a chorus that feels a little awkwardly balanced writing-wise but is saved in part by the play of the vocal harmony. The lyrics are very Hunt in imagery, painting his own verison of Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me:” “Girl I’m gonna make you miss me, make you wish that you were sleeping in my shirt, lie about my jacket and tell everyone it’s yours, when your phone rings after midnight and you’re thinking maybe it’s me, I’m gonna make you miss me.”

All in all, Montevallo follows the vibe and success of gold-certified first single “Leave the Night On” well: it’s not the most inspiring musical release this year, but it’s definitely different, and for what it seeks to be it performs well. The album flows well, and stays true to Hunt’s lyrical themes with a production style that is consistent and cohesive. Montevallo incorporates pop and hip-hop, a trend that has been well-documented at radio, but does so in a more natural way – note the lack of rap features on the album – attempting to speak to the variety of Hunt’s musical roots more than current industry trends, conveniently hitting both. While it’s not a musical masterpiece, it’s interesting, and is engaging and at times downright undeniable while doing so.

3.5 stars