Album Review: Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Lady Antebellum

Own the Night

Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” is a once-in-a-career kind of hit.  The drunk-dial ballad became a such a huge cross-genre smash that is was virtually inescapable no matter which radio station you tuned to.  The Grammy-winning hit pushed Lady Antebellum to instant-add status on country radio, which is where they stayed even as their single releases gradually slid downhill in quality.

The downward slide continues on the trio’s third album Own the Night, an uninspired effort that savors strongly of an act coasting along on their superstar status while resting on their laurels artistically.  One could present the easy-out criticism that the album is not country, and indeed it makes little effort to sonically resemble country, but the real issue is not simply that these are pop songs.  The issue is that, pop or country, they’re just flat-out not good songs.

The album title suggests a work dominated by songs about the carefree nature of young love, and it not only delivers, but beats the concept into the ground.  Own the Night is replete with canned references to being caught up in a moment, dancing in moonlight, “the love we made,” and “baby ridin’ shotgun,” among many other overused formulas.

Opening track and current single “We Owned the Night” offers little more than rote imagery strewn together without the benefit of a catchy chorus or hook.  Rocking up-tempo “Friday Night” fares a little better thanks to an energetic beat and some quirky turns of phrase, though it suffers from cluttered production.

But cliché-filled lyrics like “When You Were Mine,” complete with “heart open” and “never had butterflies like this” are embarrassingly amateurish.  Even when song lyrics are subpar, a spirited melody can go a long way toward enhancing the appeal of an unremarkable song.  Such a strategy has at times worked for Lady A. in the past, but on tracks like “Wanted You More” and “Dancin’ Away with My Heart,” painfully plodding melodies make the songs nearly unlistenable.

Narrow perspective aside, such an effort could still have been enjoyable to some degree if the production and performances managed to channel the youthful excitement that the lyrics aim for.  But it doesn’t happen.  Instead, Own the Night sags under the weight of murky, watered-down production and flat, colorless vocal interpretations.  Charles Kelley possesses a strong singing voice, but all too often settles for rigid by-the-book vocal deliveries with little flair or style.

On the other hand, Hillary Scott has a pleasant-sounding voice, but lacks precision and control, often veering off pitch.  That’s not to say that absolute technical perfection is a must, since an artist’s vocal flaws have at times enhanced the emotional qualities of the performance.  But in the case of Scott, it more often registers plainly as a weak performance that bogs down the overall quality of the track.

At the same time, producer Paul Worley’s arrangements largely hurt the project instead of helping it.  Cluttered noise obliterates “Wanted You More,” while tinkling pianos and string arrangements on “As You Turn Away” and “Heart of the World” ring saccharine and syrupy.

Overall, Own the Night is notable only for its dogged refusal to take a single risk, or to say anything artistically significant.  It’s distinctive only in its non-distinctiveness, offering precious little insight into who Lady Antebellum are as artists.  Regardless of whether one had high expectations to begin with, it’s beyond disheartening to see such a high-profile act churn out such a deadly boring and uninteresting album that’s all filler and no killer.

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39 Comments

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39 Responses to Album Review: Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

  1. I knew I’d disagree with other country ‘sphere writers on this one. But that’s ok :)

  2. The album may be filler, but killer review.

  3. Why thank you, Leeann :)

  4. BillyNo Gravatar

    “Cold As Stone” is brilliant, though. The rest of it, take or leave.

  5. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    They’re just boring. So, so boring.

  6. sharon wellsNo Gravatar

    I love some of the images created by Ben Foster! Drunken Dialer, ha, ha, ha. Filler, no killer, murky, watered down production,etc…. ‘love the word usage.

  7. Thanks, Sharon. Glad you enjoyed it ;)

  8. Great Review, I really enjoyed it, on the other hand, I won’t be getting this album anytime soon. Seeing as I only sort of liked 3 or 4 tracks on Lady A’s first two albums.

    I want to know what it is about them that has managed to captivate country music? “Need You Now” was interesting, but their other singles have failed to live up to “NYN”‘s success (and the gritty, as well as great first single “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”). I suppose radio was looking to swap out former superstar group Rascal Flatts for some new blood.

    …I’m still ticked they took home the Grammy for “Need You Now” over Little Big Town’s killer “Little White Church.”

  9. That’s my problem with them, Kevin. I even know that Charles Kelley technically has a very good voice, but I still can’t connect to it.

  10. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    The most interesting thing about this album is that big poof dress. They should have sung about that big poof dress.

  11. Dan, they SO need to have you write their next album! Hey, if Chris Young hit it big with “The Black Dress Song,” then Lady A can score a hit with “The Poof Dress Song” ;)

  12. KarlyNo Gravatar

    This is a fantastic review, Ben. I especially loved the last line.

    I wasn’t expecting much from the new album but I also could never be called a Lady Antebellum fan.

    That said, I tried listening to the album with an open mind; I think everyone was curious to know if they could live up to the catchy hooks & polished harmonies of “Need You Now.”

    I’ve come to expect nothing groundbreaking from Lady A; aside from the occasional catchy song with flawless harmonies, both their performances and song selection leave much to be desired.

    Even I was surprised at how brooding and dull this album was. The songs are uninspired, the hooks are noticeably absent, and squeezing any emotion out of the performances is about as difficult as pulling teeth with your bare hands.

    Granted, Lady A has had some shinning moments, but unfortunately, none of them can be found here.

    Some of the tracks are even retreads of what they’ve delivered with the first two albums.

    Friday Night = Need You Now’s Stars Tonight, Singing Me Home = Our Kind of Love, “When You Were Mine” has similar lyrical themes to Taylor Swift’s “Mine,” & “Cold As Stone” reminds me of so many songs with similar themes, I could easily give you half-a-dozen. The first one that came to mind was “I Feel Bad” by Rascal Flatts from “Me And My Gang.”

    Although it’s common for artists to revisit similar lyrical themes and sounds once they’ve found something that resonates with a larger audience, there are way too many glaringly obviously similarities within this album.

    Although I respect that Charles, Hillary and Dave write much of their own material, in their case it doesn’t deliver results anywhere near their best work.

    The more I hear of the writing of these three, the more I wish they would realize they don’t have to write everything they record to be authentic.

    Much like Taylor Swift, Hillary probably benefits from singing on some of the tracks the threesome have written themselves; they know their way around the hook, can connect to the lyrics, and maybe even wrote it to try and fit their own personal styles.

    That said, the material they record does no favors to Charles great voice, or Hilary’s weak one. Again, I can’t help but wonder if choosing outside material might allow Hillary to find out what fits within her range & sweet, soft vocal style.

    As I mentioned Taylor’s struggle with this issue, I see similarities between the two as vocalists.

    Both have voices that work with the right material- but when it’s wrong, the results can be downright painful. “American Honey” and “Need You Now” didn’t require Hilary to step out of her comfort zone, which benefits her vocal style & often allows her to bring out the emotion & vulnerability that can hide behind a out-of-place vocal performance.

    Having a band trade off vocalists isn’t the best move for every band; it can be fantastic for some & really add to the band’s identity, or it can just be something that might set the band apart, but does them no favors.

    It’s a dangerous move when a band or artist reaches the point where they have to rely on great vocal performances to lift the lyrics, but the effect is downright tragic when neither of those elements benefit the album.

    Even though a lot of artists become stale with success, I think a lot of people thought Lady A would be the mainstream band good enough to pass that trend.

    They’ve released some great pop-country songs in the past while proven they know their way around a sweet sugary pop hook. Those rare performances where everything seamlessly works is not lost on Lady A. If they’ve delivered before, why can’t they do it again, right?

    It’s no surprise that Lady A didn’t deliver the smash followup to NYN, but I think people expected too much. People were sick of Rascal Flatts dominating everything, and as soon as someone heard something that seemed fresh & new in the beginning, people laid all their expectations on them to deliver. They did it the first & second time, but now people seem to be realizing they’re no different from every other mainstream band. They can’t remain fresh and innovative for long, especially when people start to see through the cracks.

    Setting any act up to be the next great, fresh act isn’t completely fair, especially when they start to become as homogeneous as the acts everyone thought they would never become.

  13. NorrisNo Gravatar

    I respect your review but disagree. For the most part most of these comments sound like a bunch of haters. Like it or not, The Country Music Genre would be dead without the modern sounds that Lady A, and other crossover Artists have brought. The Genre needs this type of music. I have listened to the Record and for me personally, Dancin Away With My Heart, and Somewhere Love Remains are stand out tracks. They have great lyrics, Great hooks and Great Melody. I believe Dancin Away With My Heart has crossover potential and is a huge hit waiting to happen.

  14. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    The Country Music Genre would be dead without the modern sounds that Lady A, and other crossover Artists have brought.

    Please. Lady Antebellum aren’t the lifeblood of country music. The embalming fluid, perhaps…

  15. TomNo Gravatar

    …, dan, you mean that black thing isn’t a parasail? that’s gonna be a field day for “trailer” – lost the boat

  16. Norris, my issues with the albums weren’t centered around the fact that it’s crossover styled. My problem is that I found the album to be weighed down by bad songwriting, poor production, and in some cases, bad singing.

  17. When I heard “We Owned the Night,” I knew I wasn’t going to like the album. Sadly, that premonition came true.

  18. Bob LoblawNo Gravatar

    I unfortunately purchased the Need You Now based on the stellar title track. I can’t even sit through the iTunes previews of this album. I typically prefer more roots or traditional sounds when it comes to country music, but when country-pop is done well it can be killer (Faith Hill’s Cry, Keith Urban’s love pain & the whole crazy thing). Hopefully the trend of mediocre elevator music that Lady A is spear heading is on its way out.

  19. NorrisNo Gravatar

    Kevin John Coyne, they may not be the life blood but if you take away them, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and the Band Perry who all produce Country-Pop music, this Genre is in trouble. The traditional fans and Artists can’t produce the revenue needed to keep the record labels, the songwriters and publishers in business. They certainly can’t sell out Stadiums.

    And Ben I don’t particularly like every song on this CD, I don’t care for We Owned the Night, or Just a Kiss, and they have been the two releases so far. I’m even going to say I think all the recent Dallas Davidson Co-writes on radio right now are starting to all sound the same and some of them aren’t all that great. I still think “Dancin Away with My Heart” is a well written song even though it’s a slow ballad and I don’t think it’s over produced.

  20. DCNo Gravatar

    “they may not be the life blood but if you take away them, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and the Band Perry who all produce Country-Pop music, this Genre is in trouble. The traditional fans and Artists can’t produce the revenue needed to keep the record labels, the songwriters and publishers in business. They certainly can’t sell out Stadiums.”

    If the genre is that dependent on the artists named above, which it probably is, then I think it is already in trouble.

  21. NorrisNo Gravatar

    DC you would be wrong. It’s thriving because of those Artists.

  22. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    I love pop-flavored country. I just find the idea that Lady Antebellum is making the most vibrant pop-country to be untrue.

    And there are very few country artists, pop flavored or otherwise, who can sell out stadiums on their own. We don’t have any Madonnas, Bruce Springsteens, or U2s. Multiple act stadium tours? Yes. But rarely on their own.

  23. bobNo Gravatar

    Kevin, you say that “I love pop-flavored country. I just find the idea that Lady Antebellum is making the most vibrant pop-country to be untrue.”

    Who is making the most vibrant pop country? A few examples, please. My current favorite country group is the Zac Brown Band. Their music appears to be a mix of traditional and other influences including reggae.

  24. Joseph BrownellNo Gravatar

    Lady A claims to own the night, I claim they are merely babysitting it.

  25. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    I don’t think any of today’s big stars are knocking the pop-flavored stuff out of the park like Shania Twain in her heyday. But the best moments of Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, and as you mentioned, Zac Brown Band, have been quite vibrant. I just can’t point to a Lady Antebellum song and say the same.

    If we move away from the big stars, I will say that the best pop-country confection of the past two years was Laura Bell Bundy’s debut set.

  26. GatorNo Gravatar

    I agree with you on that Kevin! While I do think “Need You Now” was a really good song it wasn’t as great as people began to think it was. Also, Laura Bell is in my opinion the closest person to replicate Shania’s balance of pop, country and fearlessness in an incredible manner.

  27. It’s a shame Bundy never really caught on. I agree that all the acts Kevin mentioned have at one time or another produced vibrant pop-country records. Though Shania remains unmatched, I would also give honorable mention to Faith Hill and SHeDAISY.

  28. KarlyNo Gravatar

    I actually think Lady Antebellum does pop-country very well when they’re given the right material.

    The moments may have become sparse, but I think they deserve some credit for doing their “brand” of country justice.

    “Love Don’t Live Here,” “Lookin’ For A Good Time” “I Run To You” and “Need You Now” all have that pop/country spark that seems to be lacking in most of their new material.

    They’re far from the “life blood” of country music, but I think some of their contributions have made them a welcome addition to country music.

    We could take away Taylor, Carrie, Lady A, Kenny, Keith, Rascal Flatts, etc; while they may not have the individual sweeping power of Garth or Shania caliber, I’d argue the loss of these artists would diminish the collective power of the genre when you consider the contributions of all these artists put together.

  29. JustinNo Gravatar

    Lady A is one of my least liked acts out there now…they are instant change the station music for me…and this coming from someone who, unlike the majority of the people here, likes most of what is on country radio these days. There is just nothing remotely country about them at all.

  30. I want to like them more than I do at this point. I absolutely loved their debut. It was country-pop done right, like the best moments of Taylor, Carrie, Keith, etc. Then “Need You Now” dropped and I was so excited for what was coming next. Then the album was disappointing.

    I still really enjoy their harmonies. And unlike most others, I don’t really hear what’s so bad about Hilary’s voice. I like it, to be completely honest. I like Charles’s voice more though. I just hope that they get their act together and release something that is more interesting.

  31. bobNo Gravatar

    Victoria Shaw co-produced Lady Antebellum’s debut album with Paul Worley and co-wrote 4 of the tracks, “Long Gone”, “Love’s Lookin’ Good On You”, “Home is Where the Heart Is”, and “Slow Down Sister”. She was not involved with the next two albums. Don’t know why or if it’s significant since I don’t know anything about the production end. I do know that Shaw sure can sing and has some impressive songwriting credits, most notably Garth’s “The River”.

  32. Hoggy from OzNo Gravatar

    Bob, funnily enough those four songs you mention were my favourites from their first album.

  33. klarkNo Gravatar

    I miss the pre Need You Now Lady Antebellum. sigh

  34. JoshNo Gravatar

    I have to admit, “Dancin’ Away With My Heart” was one of the songs on here I kind of enjoyed. It’s got a nice, laid-back groove, and feels authentic to me.

    However, I completely agree with the rest of the review; it’s not good news when a “nice” song is the highlight. Lady A clearly has a knack for writing musically interesting pop-country that can turn a great hook into an well-done, accessible song, and they’re in a position to get the best of the best of Nashville’s song kernels from their co-writers. Which is why I don’t understand how the hooks and messages here are so… bland.

    They seem to be growing more focused on their “sound” than they are on putting out great songs, which is not a very good thing for a country act.

  35. CraigNo Gravatar

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I think “Cold As Stone” is awful, though. It’s incredibly “Colder Weather” (ZBB) reminiscent, and the orchestra at the end is like they revamped the Titanic song.

    Best of the album: “Wanted You More”
    Worst of the album: Too many to name.

  36. Ben,

    I loved your review – definitely harsh and true for the most part. I don’t always classify Lady A with country music, but I like their sound. They certainly attract a new listener and if they’re looking for success as a new group, their shallow words made for radio and 12-year-old girls seem to be the way to go right now. I did think you made an excellent point when you said, “Even when song lyrics are subpar, a spirited melody can go a long way toward enhancing the appeal of an unremarkable song.” I look forward to reading more from you.

    http://cornfedcommentary.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/lady-antebellum-album-breakdown/

  37. Thanks, Lindsay! Much appreciated. I look forward to reading more of your feedback as well.

  38. Adam JamesNo Gravatar

    I haven’t heard the album yet, but based on this review and the two singles I’ve heard, I’ll probably skip it.

    Lady A isn’t the kind of band that will ever surprise you. They do what they do, and they do it well, but you’ll never catch yourself saying, “Wow, I TOTALLY didn’t expect that from Lady A!” I’d like to hear them change their sound, maybe rock it up a bit more, or do something totally rootsy and acoustic rather than the bland formulaic pop/rock arrangements they’ve been doing.

    i do agree that the songwriting has gone downhill. Their first album had some brilliant stuff on it, the second I liked a few of the songs, but “Just A Kiss” sounds like something some first year songwriting student would churn out.

    I also agree that the band brings a lot of fans in the door for the country genre. No, they aren’t the lifeblood or even a defining act, but they help it be more than it is which is good for all the acts.

    @Kevin John Coyne: Actually according a friend who plays guitar with Thompson Square, Jason Aldean has been selling out arenas lately. (they’re on tour with Jason Aldean right now and he says they’ve been selling out 30,000 seat arenas.)

  39. agreed that her songs in the past is far better. I’d go for the other artist, then!