Despite a recording career that spans more than 20 years, The Straight Hits! is only the second solo release for Josh T. Pearson and third overall. Ironically for a man who has released just three albums in 17 years, it was written in a whirlwind three day period and is a big departure from what his fans will have come to expect. First arriving on the scene in the mid-1990s with his band Lift To Experience, one single release contained more creativity than many bands generate in an entire career with their 2001 album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. Following the band’s rapid dissolution shortly after, Pearson seemed to disappear off the radar as he toured (usually as support) without entering the recording studio until his 2011 solo debut Last Of The Country Gentlemen. A mournful, stately yet painfully fragile piece of work, it earned universally rave reviews around the world. And then, nothing. Until now.
Written within a tight set of creative parameters (described by Pearson as The Five Pillars, with rules dictating song and lyrical structure, as well as each title having ‘straight’ within it), The Straight Hits! is less of a re-appearance, and more of a rebirth. Opener ‘Straight To The Top!’ is like a breath of fresh air, a 120 miles per hour rocking and rolling country-punk song that feels like a runaway train, crashing through obstacles where others would dart and dive. ‘Straight At Me’ is more standard country fare, only with light-footed synths adding a suitably upbeat tone to a tale of new love. For an album written in such a short time, there is an admirably carefree feeling to the album’s production – each track has its own personality, bound into a collection not just by Pearson’s Pillars but by its sense of fun and playfulness. Both ‘Give It To Me Straight’ and ‘Straight Laced Come Undone’ have their tongues planted firmly in cheeks, and have an infectious vibe that makes you yearn to hear them in a rowdy rodeo bar.
The tired and irritable ‘Damn Straight’ (a Jonathan Terrell cover) links Pearson firmly to his country predecessors. A grouchy complaint at those Nashville veterans Waylon, Willie and Merle for enticing his love away, before the album finally and irresistibly kicks into top gear with the fuzzy storm clouds of ‘Loved Straight To Hell’, the closest that Pearson has ever come to returning to the sound of Lift To Experience in its apocalyptic crescendo. No country stone is left unturned, be it the yearning quality of ‘The Dire Straits Of Love’ or the downbeat yet gorgeous ‘Whiskey Straight Love’. Best of all is saved for the penultimate ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’, a straight-up (pun intended) love song that floats serenely like a bird on the water. Lovestruck lyrics make this a sure thing to be the first dance for many country-loving couples at their weddings (“I could search the whole world over and never find a better partner / You set me straight as an arrow, flying higher and higher’). It is beautiful, and serves as a wonderful epilogue to the heartbreak of Last Of The Country Gentlemen.
After seven long years, any worries that fans may have had of The Straight Hits! being an anticlimactic return are far off the mark – though it is also interesting that this is a clear progression rather than a mere retread of past glories. Pearson has spoken about changes in his life and an awareness of time moving on, and these factors have leant the album a vibrancy and urgency that will make listeners hope that he doesn’t leave it another decade before returning once more.