Single Review: Lady Antebellum, "Downtown"

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February 10, 2013

lady antebellum downtownCredit where credit is due:  After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.

But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.

What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.

It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little”  just a few lines later.

The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin’” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”  At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which

nods toward the B-52s, is kind of fun.

An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer:  A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.

Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.

Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally

Grade: C+

Listen: Downtown

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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I could not agree more. I do like the production, and think it’s great to hear something a little more organic from Lady A, especially considering their track record over the past two albums. But the songwriting is middling at best, and I find Hillary’s vocals very off-putting. Very fair review, Jonathan.

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yes, very fair and accurate review. I do like this song though for the positive aspects that you outlined. I suppose I don’t really mind Hillary’s voice on this single either, but I especially like the guitar. I think it’s good fluffy fun, but agree it’s nothing more.

  3. Markus MeyerNo Gravatar says:

    I like this.

    Anyways, this one of the finest reviews I’ve ever read. Well done.

  4. JakeNo Gravatar says:

    I agree 100%. Interestingly enough Miranda Lambert had this song on hold but decided to let them have it. I bet I would like her version better because she could give it the attitude the song needs instead of the sweet vocal from Hilary. Lets just hope the Lady A from their first album is back.

  5. Great review, and as much as I dig this song, I think you’re about right with your grade. With regards to the below part, do you mean that Swift has figured out how to use her voice better than Scott has? I agree with that, but I think if Scott ever ups her game, the combo of character and soul in her voice will make her a much better singer than Swift.

    For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer…

  6. Markus MeyerNo Gravatar says:

    Personally, I think Scott is a stronger vocalist than Swift, but that’s just me.

  7. Jonathan KeefeNo Gravatar says:

    Based on her fairly consistent failure to sing on the correct pitch and her increasingly unpleasant, pinched tone, I honestly do think Scott is every bit as technically poor a singer as Swift.

    I thought she had a world of potential as a singer based on the group’s debut album, but she’s gotten progressively worse over time.

    I do think Swift has at least learned how to vary her phrasing in ways that are interesting and that can, at least in the studio, sometimes compensate for her technical limitations. Scott, on the other hand, seems to be doing the opposite a lot of the time, and ends up accentuating the most troublesome attributes of her voice. At one time, she had a strong sense of phrasing and a little grit in her tone, but I haven’t heard either of those things in her studio recordings or live performances for going on three albums now.

    Does she still have an innate potential to be a better singer? Most certainly, and I do hope that’s the case sooner rather than later.

  8. Noah EatonNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll give them this: they sound more like Lady Antebellum (as opposed to Lady Ampleboredom) again here! ;)

    *

    Still, this is not the 180-degree shift many had been hoping for, and here’s why.

    Firstly, Hilary Scott’s vocals sound so calculated here. The drawl she tries to inflect before each chorus is especially forced (i.e. “It’s beeeeeeennn awwwwhhhhillleee!”, as well as “You might be tiiiirrrreeeddd, but I’mmmmm nottttt!” )……….only to slip into her usual wistful, dewy-eyed mode in the latter stretch. Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue”, for instance, was most enjoyable in that Jennifer Nettles was able to harness that youthful spunk from beginning to end. With “Downtown”, Hillary Scott aims for a sexier, spunkier vibe, but by the second half retreats to common ground. I guess it might be the point considering “Downtown”, lyrically, depicts a protagonist lamenting a youthful fire having been extinguished in her love interest………but it still makes for an awkward listening experience. Especially when Scott sounds increasingly tired by the end, herself.

    *

    The vocals are not the only aspect of the song that ring calculated to my ears, however. Especially after an abstinence-dripping “Just a Kiss” and senior-prom fluff a la “Dancin’ Away With My Heart”, which both found this youthful group playing it waaaaaaaaaayyy too safe and not acting their youthful age whatsoever………………it’s as though their publicist finally got the memo and, upon doing so, panicked: “Oh Gosh-Gollies! Where have we been? Have we been loitering away in a bomb bunker over these past twenty years and didn’t even realize it? You mean singers are talking about, (gulp), BLACK DRESSES now?!!! ”

    “Downtown” is the sound of them trying to re-adjust their lyrical fodder to fit the more sexed-up than ever before trends in pop culture, but doing so more with a nervous half-step forward rather than the full step. You can easily tell how self-conscious they are of making any of the vanilla traditional listening demographic feel uncomfortable, and that tentativeness is made most emphatic in Scott’s inconsistent vocal. It’s not hard to imagine her, on the first several takes in the recording booth, eyeing the lyrics sheet and wanting to say dress, but instead mouthing “Coat!” ;)

    *

    So I’ll give this trio credit for two things. Firstly, this doesn’t sound boring. And secondly, I do like the steel guitar-driven bridge (which will be sanded away when given the inevitable crossover airplay treatment in favor of a dubbed guitar solo or a guest rap by A$AP Rocky).

    Beyond that, though, I’m still not impressed. I’d give this a C, personally. Now if only they’d make music as interesting as their Webisode Wednesdays series! ;)

  9. Noah EatonNo Gravatar says:

    And yes, I’m going to continue to refer to this trio as “Lady Ampleboredom” until they have landed a record where at least half of its tracks are either filled to the brim with vim, or else offer some real meat and depth in terms of lyricism or performance! ;)

  10. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Jonathan, You mentioned their Webisode Wednesdays, so I thought I’d check them out. So funny! I’m hooked.

  11. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Pretty dumb lyric – performance is okay but I agree that Hilary Scott’s vocal is very affected – she needs to go back and listen to her mother’s recordings and hear what a vocalist with control sounds like.

    I’d give this a B- as the whole seems a little greater than the sum of its parts

  12. GloriaNo Gravatar says:

    Off topic here, but I cannot get onto Country Universe anymore. It tells me site Temporary Unavailable. Could it be something with my computer or is it this site. I got in by googling and then clicked on reviews and this popped up. Can someone help me??

  13. CamNo Gravatar says:

    Let’s see… it was on hold with Miranda, cut by Lady A, and yet you think it’s sloppy songwriting? Well, I hope to someday write plenty of them just as sloppy then. The rules have changed, and this is exactly the type of material Nashville wants, sloppy or not.

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