While I waiting for the YouTube video to load, they played a 30-second commercial for the Duck Dynasty Christmas album, which apparently has the reality show stars singing Christmas standards while ducks quack along with them. It sounded better than “Stay.”
Cheap shot? Perhaps. The truth is, I’ve avoided writing about Florida Georgia Line as much as possible, as I can’t remember an act I felt so tremendously indifferent to. Ten years ago, I’d be angry about their prominence, but mainstream country music has lowered its standards so much at this point that it seems totally normal that a song written and sung this poorly could be a big hit by an award show dominating act.
The reigning CMA Vocal Duo of the Year have covered a mediocre track from a little known rock band called Black Stone Cherry*, and now it’s their latest single. I believe it’s already a hit. This is the new normal. Have fun.
I think I’ve discovered a virtue of rock bands that choose to go country. They feel a need to dial it back a bit, so we end up with a less cluttered, more straightforward performance.
There’s nothing distinguishingly country about “Carolina”, which makes it stand out among a lot of what’s on country radio right now. But here’s the rub. It stands out because it’s not as garishly loud as the rock wannabes up and down the radio dial right now. They don’t try as hard as Darius Rucker or even Sheryl Crow to make it at least sound like they’re seriously attempting country music, but maybe less loud rock music is the best we can hope for these days.
So, in case you’re pining for the days of Third Eye Blind and such, here you go. They’re called Parmalee.
Written by Rick Beato, Barry Knox, Joshua McSwain, Matt Thomas, and Scott Thomas
He may have been the runner-up on one of the weakest seasons of Survivor (finishing second to this strategic powerhouse), but Chase Rice has beaten tough competition from the likes of Jason Aldean’s “1994,” Parmalee’s “Carolina,” Ashton Shepherd’s “This is America,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” Krystal Keith’s “Daddy Dance with Me,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” for the title of 2013′s worst country single.
For all of the countless complaints about the rise of “bro country” during the past year, what much of the criticism of this trend has ignored is its fundamental anonymity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion of songs that champion tailgate parties or casual weekend hookups, as the kinds of experiences characterized in songs like Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or “Ready Set Roll” are familiar to an audience that is not insignificant in size or purchasing power.
The problem, then, with this glut of frat-boys in their Ed Hardy gear and pick-ups– and what Rice and “Ready Set Roll” epitomize– is their interchangeability. Rice and his co-writers (usual suspects Rhett Akins and Chris Destefano) write almost entirely in clichés (“Yeah, we can run this town / I can rock your world / We can roll ‘em down, fog ‘em up / Cruise around and get stuck”), such that none of the experiences they’ve written about here are the least bit distinctive. But for a deeply gross line that goes farther in the objectification of women than do most songs of this ilk (“Get ya fine little ass on the step / Shimmy up inside / And slide girl, by my side girl”), there isn’t a single line in “Ready Set Roll” that couldn’t be exchanged word-for-word with lines from “Cruise” or Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” or Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” or Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night” without changing those songs in any meaningful or even noticeable way.
Setting aside the shallowness of the subject matter and Rice’s struggles with even basic syntax, it’s that lack of any discernible point-of-view that makes “Ready Set Roll” such appalling poor songwriting, the nadir of a trend that has quite rightly drawn the ire of those who value country music for its history of distinctive narratives, personal insight, and pure escapism that is still respectful of both craft and its audience.
And, thanks to a dated, cheap-sounding production job and Rice’s limited vocal ability, “Ready Set Roll” doesn’t even work as a throwaway, escapist single. The use of a digitized text-reader voice to bookend the single is jarring and adds nothing of value to the track. The most pedestrian of hip-hop beats drowns out the requisite handful of rote country signifiers, and the mixing sounds like it was made on a circa-2004 version of Winamp.
As he sort-of-raps his way through the track, Rice affects a throaty growl that unfavorably recalls Brantley Gilbert, and he dutifully emphasizes every syllable on the 2 and 4 counts without regard for whether or not native speakers of American English would emphasize those syllables. As co-writer for “Cruise,” Rice proved that he might be capable of writing a memorable hook, but there’s not one thing he and his alliance of bros do well on “Ready Set Roll.”
Written by Chase Rice, Rhett Akins, and Chris Destephano
Brett Eldredge caught the critics’ attention with 2010’s heartstring-tugging ballad “Raymond,” and caught radio’s and fans’ attention with his gold-selling number-one single “Don’t Ya,” while a coveted opening slot on Taylor Swift’s Red Tour certainly didn’t hurt. He aims to pull off a successful one-two punch with his latest radio bid, “Beat of the Music,” currently in the Top 40 and climbing.
As suggested by its title, “Beat of the Music” is a light-hearted up-tempo that goes down smooth and easy, with Eldredge’s narrator “falling in love to the beat of the music” and the beaches of Mexico serving as a backdrop. Such may be well-traveled territory for today’s country hits, but “Beat of the Music” transcends its rudimentary lyrical content by creating just the right musical atmosphere. The track begins with a sparse arrangement which builds toward the song’s exuberant chorus. A hand clap section and an inviting melody ensure that toes are quickly set tapping.
In spite of needless digital effect during the chorus, the single also proves an effective showcase of the vocal talents one of country radio’s most distinctive and dynamic male newcomers. Eldredge’s rich baritone bends the notes just night, rendering the song with a flair that makes “Beat of the Music” an effortlessly entertaining listen. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but as a bit of feel-good pop-country fun, “Beat of the Music” gets it right.
Written by Brett Eldredge, Ross Copperman and Heather Morgan
Five years ago, if someone said that Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert were going to do a duet, there’d be good reason to be excited. An A-list superstar pairing with an up-and-comer, both of whom were making some of the most interesting and innovative music under the country umbrella? What could possibly go wrong?
So much has, a mere five years later. Interesting has morphed into overbearing. Innovative has become predictable. “We Were Us” showcases the worst excesses shared by both of these artists today. It’s this stubborn insistence that bigger means better, that louder vocals mean deeper meaning, that mixing vague feelings with trivial details somehow adds up to something that is…universally specific? Specifically universal?
The goodness is still there underneath it all, you know. That signature Urban banjo. Lambert’s distinctive edge in her vocal. But it’s like trying to find diamonds in a tornado. It’s simply more effort than it’s worth.
Written by Nicolle Galyon, Jon Nite, and Jimmy Robbins
Judge by the title, and you’ll think you’re getting just another mindless rave-up. Sure, it will be catchier than most of them because of Luke Bryan’s irrepressible vocal charm, but a mindless rave-up is a mindless rave-up.
It’s tempting to make the jump and think Bryan is deliberately playing against expectations here, recording a song with a predictable title that leads to the completely unexpected territory of grief and loss. But maybe it’s just that if drinking a beer is the way you celebrate with friends and loved ones, it’s the logical thing to do when you’re trying to cope with their unexpected departure.
Bryan’s sort of become the poster boy for the brozation of country music. I’ve got two problems with that. One is simply philosophical. The failure of country radio and the larger industry to present more diverse points of view lies with radio and the industry, not with those who have the one approach that’s being too prominently showcased. Blaming Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark’s lack of airplay on Luke Bryan makes about as much sense as when Shania Twain was blamed for radio not playing George Jones. Focus on the players, not the pieces, people.
But my second problem is that Luke Bryan shouldn’t be defined so narrowly in the first place. He’s not chasing trends. He’s completely genuine, and the music he started out with a few years ago hasn’t changed all that much. There’s just a lot more people being successful with it. They don’t do it as well as him, though.
“Drink a Beer” is a great reminder of how he’s a few steps ahead of his peers in song choice and vocal delivery. He’s good enough to keep it clean. No fancy arrangements, vocoder tricks, or arena beats are needed to distract from the guy at the mic. He’s in full command, singing a beautiful song about painful loss. Sounds almost like country music, doesn’t it?
Thompson Square opts for form over content with their new single “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About.” The song’s verses function only as a vehicle to get to the earworm chorus, with the lyrical concept never quite reaching the third dimension.
If one is to enjoy “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About,” one must accept it for what it is – pure ear candy. And unlike the typically dull and tasteless radio fodder of today, “Everything” is sweetly flavored with an infectious beat, catchy guitar hook, hand clap section, and sing-along-friendly melody.
It’s unfortunate that the single is tainted by the influence of country radio’s incessant loudness war. It would be even better if the flavor were not diluted by the generic wall-of-sound Nashville production that surfaces in the chorus. Fortunately, Kiefer and Shawna Thompson manage to cut through the clutter with their confident yet playful performances.
Though Thompson Square has yet to release a truly great single, they’ve often been at their best when performing lighthearted fare that allows them to showcase personality. In that regard, “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” succeeds by capitalizing on the duo’s strengths.
In a market dominated by forgettable frivolity, “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” manages to separate itself from the pack by demonstrating perceptible effort to engage and arrest listener attention. Sure, you’ll get tired of the song eventually, but it’s a fun toe-tapper that’s interesting and enjoyable enough to garner replays, and that’s a compliment that precious few of today’s hits seem to warrant.
Written by Kiefer Thompson, Shawna Thompson, Brett James and David Lee Murphy
A fun and catchy anthem for rebels who aren’t rebelling against anything in particular.
If Eric Church is anyone’s successor these days, it’s probably Hank Williams, Jr. There’s no specific ideology or established enemy in Church’s latest single, but it’s such a barn raiser that it’s very easy to side with him anyway. “The Outsiders” taps into that quintessentially American desire to champion for the underdog, and it does it quite well.
I don’t think Church has ever sounded more confident and alive on record, and the guitar work is fresh and creative, especially when the bass takes the lead in the middle. And the breakdown during the end? The most interesting thing I’ve heard on a country song since I can remember.
All in all, it’s remarkably well done. If his upcoming album is half as interesting and out by Christmas, then we may need to save a slot on our Best of 2013 lists.
It sounds like even Jake Owen got bored singing songs about girls and trucks and summer days and nights.
How else to explain the rapid fire delivery and fierce banjo and guitar on “Days of Gold”, which has him spitting out every country summer song cliché as quickly as he can get them out of his mouth?
Truth is, if the exact same lyric was delivered in the typical, mid-tempo, paint by numbers presentation, I’d be ripping it to shreds right now. But the sheer adrenaline of the track makes it work. It would be a terrible cocktail to sip on, but as a quick shooter, it’s pretty good.
The “Pontoon” phenomenon may have been responsible for putting Little Big Town back on the map in such a big way, but it’s their new single “Sober” that deserves to be a career hit for the talented country quartet.
Though recent years have seen Karen Fairchild often tapped as the group’s go-to lead vocalist for single releases, “Sober” finally gives country radio listeners a chance to hear the distinctive vocal force that is Kimberly Schlapman. She interprets the song with poise and subtlety, bringing a sense of genuineness and humanity even to a line as simple as “I love being in love,” while her bandmates join in with their signature heavenly harmonies when the song comes to its chorus.
While today’s country radio all too often finds capable voices saddled with poor material, it’s a joy to hear these four gifted voices poured into such a worthy song. The writing team of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna build the ballad around an effective, accessible metaphor, elevated by a gorgeous piercing melody that lingers after the song’s end
“Sober” is one of those rare mainstream country releases in which everyone involved brings their A-game. Lindsey, Rose and McKenna write a gorgeous song, and Little Big Town proves to be the ideal act to bring it to full realization. Likewise, Jay Joyce’s elegantly restrained mandolin-driven production impresses in creativity, taste, and in overall effectiveness in supporting the song and performance without getting in the way.
Here’s hoping that country radio can still find a place for such a delicately polished gem as this. It’s a high-water mark for an act whose catalog is already more than respectable. Little Big Town has rarely if ever sounded better.
Written by Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna