Josh Turner ‘Punching Bag' (MCA Nashville)
With his deep baritone and neotraditionalist leanings, Josh Turner boasts one of the more distinctive voices in modern country music, but the material on his latest album, “Punching Bag,” only intermittently offers a worthy showcase for it.
His fifth studio album opens with a boxing-inspired introduction from famed ring announcer Michael “Let's Get Ready to Rumble” Buffer, who grandly declares Turner “the tornado of testosterone, the bone-shaking baritone” who is “fighting out of the traditional country music corner.” It's a nifty segue into the title track, an energetic anthem about taking life's hard knocks and swinging with them.
Coupled with the cover art design that labels the tracks “Round One” through “Round Twelve,” it initially appears that the South Carolina native might be working on an intriguing concept album. Alas, “Punching Bag” quickly settles into Turner's usual good-natured family-man mix of buoyant love songs, brokenhearted ballads and original hymns.
Turner wrote or co-wrote eight tracks on the album, and with a couple of significant exceptions, the songs on his new chart-topping collection are pleasant enough to the ear but not especially memorable.
It's hard to escape the impression that he and his fellow songsmiths are relying a mite too heavily on that singular voice and the novelty of traditional country instrumentation to set them apart.
The leadoff single, “Time Is Love,” is an ideal example. While Turner nails the relatable message about the struggle to balance work and family, the song is more notable for its prominent mandolin than for the delivery or lyrics.
The singer-songwriter makes charming romance with “Good Problem,” follows a hot country trend by inviting his wife and three sons to chime in on the super-sweet “Find Me a Baby” and winkingly plumbs the depths of his baritone with the ballad “Deeper Than My Love.”
Turner's cavernous voice is put to much better use on “Pallbearer,” a mournful, old-school tale of a jilted groom that features Iris DeMent's haunting backup vocals and Marty Stuart's heart-pricking mandolin. Acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs ably assists the country crooner on the bluegrass sacred song “For the Love of God,” providing harmony vocals and playing mandolin and cello banjo. Turner penned both tracks solo, recorded them with the help of skilled collaborators, and it seems no coincidence that they land the strongest one-two punch on “Punching Bag.”
— Brandy McDonnell