Author Archives: Tara Seetharam

Single Review: James Otto, “Groovy Little Summer Song”

There’s been many a discussion this past month about what makes an artist most effective: is it vocal nuance or personal connection? Is it songs with explicit absolute truth or implicit absolute emotion? They’re interesting topics to explore, but somewhere in between the analyses, we’ve lost sight of –and perhaps even appreciation of– the artists who have the potential to make our analyses futile. Because some artists actually have it all.

Let’s be real: “Groovy Little Summer Song” isn’t near James Otto’s most memorable, well-written material. It’s not as infectious as his mega-hit, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” nor as impassioned as the lesser-known “For You,” and his soulful phrasing seems to eat up some of the words. But “Groovy Little Summer Song” is an incredibly refreshing re-introduction to an artist who can deliver both rich, distinctive vocals and pure, raw sentiment. Otto may be simply asking a DJ to crank up a cool summer tune, but he still manages to color his performance with shades of believable soul, technical substance (the falsetto is a treat) and authentic summer bliss.

It helps that country radio rarely hears groovy little summer songs, making this one a breath of fresh air against its island-flavored and often one-dimensional peers. Otto’s summer is a little slower-burning and smoother than that of Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band, Jack Ingram or…Rascal Flatts. It’s a little more contemplative and a little more intoxicating. Country radio’s tried-and-true themes could stand to gain a splash of emotive soul.

As we sift through the crop of mainstream country acts this year, let’s remember to keep an eye on Otto. Like Sunset Man, his upcoming album has the potential to make him a contemporary example of an artist whose strengths are multi-faceted. And we need more of the kind.

Written by Al Anderson, Carson Chamberlain, and James Otto

Grade: B

Listen: Groovy Little Summer Song

 

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Review: Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”

There’s a fascinating, frustrating divide between Underwood’s ability to conjure and express her emotion. It’s fascinating because when the divide comes down, the result is magic – but frustrating because it takes some digging around to find these moments of commanding personal conviction, which typically come in the form of live performances. As ironic though it may be considering her mass-exposed start on Idol, it often feels like the only way to really know what Underwood is all about is to pursue her.

But Play On works to breaks this pattern, as best illustrated by “Temporary Home,” Underwood’s most emotionally-invested studio recording to date. Using the familiar three-prong story structure, the song visits three characters that are each holding out hope for a better tomorrow, and culminates poignantly in the religious belief that we are just passing through earth on our way to a permanent home in heaven. Lyrically, the characters are more symbolic than they are three-dimensional, but Underwood compensates by layering the broad strokes of hope in each story with a range of tangible emotions: fear, pain, peace and doubt. Her vocal interpretation is stunningly precise, most notably on the resolve in the teenage mom’s proclamation (“someday we’ll find our place here in this world”), and the falter in the dying elderly man’s reassurance (“I’m not afraid because I know…”).

Ultimately, “Temporary Home” acts as a story of shared humanity – and here’s the thing: for the first time in Underwood’s career, it feels like her story. It’s not the narrative that powers this song, but the depth and strength of her personal conviction. From the inclusion of neglected members of society to the intricate shades of fully-invested emotion to the telling last line –“this is our temporary home”–, the song provides a glimpse at the person behind the artist. It’s a refreshing departure from a catalogue of superbly interpreted but somewhat impersonal singles, and hopefully a sign of an artist who’s learned that your music becomes that much richer when you’re willing to share yourself with it.

Photo by Buffy Burton

Written by Luke Laird, Zac Maloy & Carrie Underwood

Grade: A-

Listen: Temporary Home

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Review: Brad Paisley, “American Saturday Night”

Paisley2It’s no secret that in country music, some expressions

of patriotism are more prevalent, and arguably more acceptable, than others. It’s refreshing, then, to see Paisley offer a solid albeit frivolous departure from the conventional with “American Saturday Night,” a proud depiction of America as a nation whose identity is molded by not one, but numerous cultures:

“You know everywhere has something they’re known for
Ah, but usually it washes up on our shores.”

True to form, Paisley takes this slice of truth and serves it with gigantic dollops of whipped cream: French kisses and cold Coronas, toga parties and Italian ice. And that’s what makes it work. With bouncy production and Paisley-style wit (“Live from New York…”), the playful song calls for no more than a playful look at American life. It doesn’t feel ignorant or negligent because it’s clearly meant to be simplistic. Whereas Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America” promises and fails to deliver a substantial look at what defines our nation, Paisley delivers exactly what’s expected on “American Saturday Night,” and effectively, no less. If it prompts the discerning listener to think more deeply about what makes this mixing bowl nation so great – well, that’s just icing on the cake.

Written by Ashley Gorley, Kelley Lovelace & Brad Paisley

Grade: B+

Listen: American Saturday Night

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It’s no secret that in country music, some expressions of patriotism are more prevalent, and arguably more acceptable, than others. It’s refreshing, then, to see Paisley offer a solid albeit frivolous departure from the conventional with “American Saturday Night,” a proud depiction of America as a nation whose identity is molded by not one, but numerous cultures:
“You know everywhere has something they’re known for
Ah, but usually it washes up on our shores.”
True to form, Paisley takes this slice of truth and serves it with gigantic dollops of whipped cream: French kisses and cold Coronas, toga parties and Italian ice. And that’s what makes it work. With bouncy production and Paisley-style wit (“Live from New York…”), the playful song calls for no more than a playful look at American life. It doesn’t feel ignorant or negligent because it’s clearly meant to be simplistic. Whereas Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America” promises and fails to deliver a substantial look at what defines our nation, Paisley delivers exactly what’s expected on “American Saturday Night,” and effectively, no less. If it prompts the discerning listener to think more deeply about what makes this mixing bowl nation so great – well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Written by Ashley Gorley, Kelley Lovelace & Brad Paisley
Grade: B+
Listen: American Saturday Night
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Review: Bucky Covington, “Gotta Be Somebody”

buckycovington10-x600In theory, Bucky Covington covering a rock song isn’t a bad idea – when at his best, he has a natural, believable southern rock edge to his voice. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to his version of “Gotta Be Somebody,” which finds his voice oddly processed and uncharacteristically dull.

The main issue is that the bite and passion that surge through the repetitive chorus in the original Nickelback version are largely if not completely absent from Covington’s version, leaving it stripped of raw emotion. If you can’t sing a song about your willingness to wait forever for your soulmate with a fighting desperation, why sing it at all? The arrangement is also quite jarring as a result of the country “re-vamping” of the song, and this is no more apparent than in the instrumental breakdown – with a smothered fiddle – before the bridge.

Covington’s always been the kind of artist who shines with the right material, so here’s to hoping he wises up and makes smarter musical decisions in the future.

Written by Chad Kroeger & Nickelback

Grade: D+

Listen: Gotta Be Somebody

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Review: Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

SheltonEvidently, country artists in Nashville are damn proud to be from the country – so proud that they each feel the need to record a song proclaiming just this and, no less, release it to country radio. I’ve lost track of the number of these singles put out in the past year, a handful of which I’ve found to be borderline offensive. As a city girl with a heck of a lot of love for the spirit of country music, I’d rather not be made to feel like I’m being excluded from a members-only club.

And that’s why “Hillbilly Bone” is a raucous, boot-stompin’ breath of fresh air among its peers. It’s the opposite of exclusive: it’s Shelton and Adkins’ open invitation to join in on the honky-tonk fun, extended to everyone, because everyone — even you, New York urbanite — has a hillbilly bone. It’s not about where you’re from, but instead about how you feel when the “fiddle saws”: “No you ain’t gotta be born out in the sticks…to get on down with me.” Corny, but true.

“Hillbilly Bone” is a novelty song through and through, but it’s catchy and dynamic, and it laughs at itself (the consecutive “bubba”s in the second verse are pretty amusing). The only glaring problem is that it seems to be written for someone with Adkins’ swagger, and while his presence injects a certain amount of believability and punch into the song, you can’t help but wonder how four minutes of pure Adkins might have elevated the performance. Shelton and Adkins make an interesting combination of voices and attitude, though, and make an enjoyable case for finding your hillbilly bone…b-bone, b-bone bone.

Written by Luke Laird and Craig Wiseman

Grade: B

Listen: Hillbilly Bone

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Review: Joe Nichols, “Gimmie That Girl”

joenichols33-x600Certain country songs have a vibe so inviting that you’re immediately pulled in – such is the case with “Gimmie That Girl.” Its sound is fresh and almost organic, laced with a catchy beat and a charming sexiness that few male country artists can pull off.

Thematically, the song doesn’t tread unchartered waters with its “I love you just the way you are” sentiment, and it doesn’t pack a punch like some of Nichols’ previous singles. But he nails the warm, rich vocal performance, infusing the lyrics with just enough kick and swing to make them come alive. There are even a few endearing, stand-out lines: “Dancing around like a fool/starring in her own little show/gimmie the girl that the rest of the world ain’t lucky enough to know.”

Ultimately, “Gimmie That Girl” isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a tasteful balance of traditional and mainstream country, and there’s certainly a place for songs like this in the industry.

Grade: B

Listen: Gimme That Girl

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Review: Darius Rucker, “History in the Making”

RuckerI have a weakness for songs that mix in elements of fate, particularly love songs. Like no other genre, the best country music has the ability to make me not only believe in but feel invested in the journey of a man and woman.

But to make this type of song effective, an artist has to deliver a touching if not stirring melody, one that has enough distinction to match the message. On the contrary, while “History in the Making” describes what could be a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the melody and production feel a dime a dozen. It’s the kind of character-less, movie soundtrack song you’ve heard before in various forms, in various genres. Even with a line as loaded as “What if this was that moment, that chance worth takin’?”, the booming chorus doesn’t feel powerful so much as it feels forced.

Rucker’s vocal performance is infectious as usual – but in this case, neither his vocals nor the sweet theme is enough to elevate “History in the Making” from lackluster to good.

Written by Clay Mills, Frank Rogers & Darius Rucker

Grade: C+

Listen: History in the Making

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Gloriana, “How Far Do You Wanna Go?”

GlorianaIt’s hard not to at least mildly enjoy “How Far Do You Wanna Go?”. It’s catchy. It has a feel-good vibe, and the authentic kind that’s missing from many of the upbeat singles released by mainstream country artists these days. It pulses with a palpable energy, making the song quite infectious – and very appropriately complementing the “let’s leave this town and never look back” storyline.

It’s also hard to ignore the clunky production in the chorus –I don’t mind prominent rock flavoring in country music when it’s done effectively, but I’m not so sure that’s the case with this song– and the not-so-tight harmonies.  And I’d be remiss not to mention the song’s striking similarities to Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” particularly the melody and phrasing of the verses. Considering the group has cited Fleetwood Mac as one of its major influences, this isn’t exactly surprising – but it is a little… off-putting.

All that aside, the most interesting thing about “How Far Do You Wanna Go?” is that it embodies a sweet balance of free-spirit and maturity, a stark contrast to the purely youthful “Wild at Heart.” I think this quality is a sign of potential, and actually notably sets the group apart from its counterparts in the industry.

Written by Danny Myrick, Matt Serletic & Jeffrey Steele

Grade: B-

Listen: How Far Do You Wanna Go?

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Billy Currington, “That’s How Country Boys Roll”

BillyCurringtonIt’s always disappointing when a good song is tainted by mundane lyrics, and I fear that’s the case with “That’s How Country Boys Roll.” Like most of Currington’s singles, the song –lyrics aside– is charming and endearing, and the vocal performance rich and distinct.

But we come away from the song learning what, exactly, about country boys? That they like fishing, suped up cars and working real hard? Granted, there are a few deeper messages in the mix, but none are expressive enough to actually paint a picture of a multi-dimensional country boy.

Of course, I’d much rather have Currington tell me how country boys roll than have Jason Aldean preach to me how country girls roll… but then again, I’d much rather hear Alan Jackson’s genuine story of a small town southern man than listen to either. In the pack of “country folks” songs, “That’s How Country Boys Roll” sits somewhere in the middle. It’s inoffensive and unmoving – and that’s disheartening, because with one of the most interesting voices in country music, Currington’s capable of so much more.

Written by Billy Currington, Dallas Davidson & Brett Jones

Grade: C+

Listen: That’s How Country Boys Roll

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Phil Vassar, “Everywhere I Go”

PhilVSomewhere underneath “Everywhere I Go” is a great song, but to find it, you have to dig a little too deep. The song’s pleasing melody and bittersweet lyrics –Vassar sings of haunting, lingering memories of a lost love– are coated with layers of dramatic, distracting production. Even the conviction Vassar brings to the song starts to feel slightly artificial when he pushes his vocals over the top in the chorus, the most off-putting aspect of the song.

It’s just one of those songs that begs for a scrub down. I suspect an acoustic version of this song would be infinitely more poignant, interesting and distinct – qualities Vassar has effectively encompassed in numerous songs in his career.

Written by Jeffrey Steele & Phil Vassar

Grade: C+

Listen: Everywhere I Go

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