Zac Brown Band’s laid back approach can make it easy to miss when they are actually digging deeper with their lyrics.
Their music often sounds designed to fade into the background, particularly on their radio singles, which usually land somewhere between faceless and mildly interesting, but rarely compelling in any meaningful way.
“Sweet Annie” manages to break out of their normal groove in a surprising way: Zac Brown’s vocal performance. Usually, he sings in a way that is designed to blend in with the instruments and backing vocalists. On “Sweet Annie”, he gets in touch with his inner Ronnie Milsap, pushing himself with an emotive vocal that reinforces the message of the song.
It’s a perfect fit, given that the song is all about a man who has been stuck in the same rut for too long, and is now trying to convince his love that he’s going to change his ways and leave the bottle behind. When he really lets loose at the mic, the band follows his lead, with a surprisingly prominent fiddle playing two punch to Brown’s one.
Written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrett, Sonia Leigh and John Pierce
I’d imagine that to young fans who have discovered country music in the last couple of years, the new Ty Herndon single will sound remarkably dated.
That’s a lot like how I felt when I watched the latest Bellamy Brothers music videos in the early nineties. I wondered why they were holding on so tight to a sound that had gone out of style a decade ago and thinking that building a song around a Wayne’s World catchphrase would make them relevant.
Ty Herndon’s new single, “Lies I Told Myself” sounds exactly like every other song he put out in the late nineties, as if production values and song structures were frozen in time and the last fifteen years had never happened.
I’m now old enough to think that this is a good thing. The clean and simple presentation does what a country record is supposed to do: let the singer showcase the song. Herndon’s got a solid song here, one that documents how a man can be his own worst critic if he allows his insecurities to keep him from chasing his dreams.
It’s a bit thought-provoking and a bit inspiring. But mostly it’s just a solid song that’s easy to understand and is sung by someone who knows how to deliver a performance without the bells and whistles.
Yes, I get it. The boys of Florida Georgia Line have got to make their $$$, and the way to do that these days is to give radio what they want. But if you’re going to serve up radio filler, you could at least serve up a different variety of radio filler than what you’ve previously been putting out.
Case in point: ”Round Here” is the third consecutive rural party anthem that Florida Georgia Line has released, and of those three, “Cruise” is the only one that has been any good at all.
Yes, I still believe the hook and melody of “Cruise” had something great going for it – even though the song’s place in country music history is being blown grossly out of proportion by Billboard’s nutty new chart rules. But the same cannot be said for “Round Here,” which grasps at a trite, overused phrase for its title, and burrows down into the usual formulas. Bloated production and affected vocals only make things worse.
The bottom line: Kiss some radio butt if you must, but don’t make a one-trick pony out of yourself. Remember Gretchen Wilson?
Written by Rodney Clawson, Thomas Rhett and Chris Tompkins
It has an energetic vocal performance. I like that.
Unfortunately, it also has unabashedly dumb, mind-numbing lyrics that insult the history of the country genre and the intelligence of its fans, shamelessly recycling cliché after cliché right from the opening verse – as if the rest of the world should care about the narrator’s ice cold beer, jacked-up truck, hot country girlfriend, and his musical-whiplash-inducing country-hip-hop mix tape. Feeding on yesterday’s leftovers that were never any good to begin with is something that I do not like at all.
Sorry, Luke, but Zac Brown was right. Thanks for the dignified genre representation, Entertainer of the Year.
Written by Dallas Davidson, Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley
There’s a country radio station in NYC proper for the first time in nearly twenty years. The last one went off the air before I was old enough to drive, so when I found out it existed, I immediately checked it out.
Then I immediately checked out. It’s not listenable to me. It’s playing all of today’s hits and those from the past couple of years, and sometimes a song that I like will come on, but it’s always sandwiched between filler that hurts my ears.
The thing about filler is it’s always been around, even in any of the handful of golden eras the genre has seen. My favorite era had “Independence Day” and “Gone Country” on the air at the same time, but you were gonna hear “Wink” and “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)” in between.
Today’s hits aren’t all that great to begin with, but the filler is plum terrible, and it’s so jarringly loud that it won’t allow you to let it fade into the background. I’ve heard Justin Moore’s “Point at You” twice while getting into the car this week, and if I hadn’t switched to my iPod before switching from park to drive, my road rage would be notable even by New York City standards.
I say all this because American Young’s new single, “Love is War”, is the kind of filler that would keep me tuned into the country station, waiting to hear what was played next. It sounds good from a distance. Awesome arrangement, great instrumentation, twangy in a Civil Wars on their game/Band Perry on their meds kind of way.
It’s a really bland song though, with generic lyrics that don’t really say anything new or anything interesting about a topic that requires that you have new and interesting things to say if you’re going to write about it at all. Love is war, it’s a battle, it’s a battlefield, yada, yada, yada. George Jones and Pat Benatar noticed that, too.
But I would totally be on board with more of country radio sounding like this, even if it’s just the filler.
Best known as the former frontman of The SteelDrivers and a prolific songwriter, Chris Stapleton is carving out an impressive niche on country radio, far from the band’s bluegrass sound. His first single blends blues and soul, nodding to the record era with Tony Brown’s subdued, crackling production.
Songs about songs are common these days, but this one twists the formula. While music serves as catharsis for both characters, it mostly helps materialize Stapleton’s desperation over that painful distance – figuratively and literally – between him and the emotions of someone who’s no longer his. It’s a clever way to convey heartbreak, and an impassioned one in his hands. With his voice alone, he spins the bridge’s simple question of whether his ex is on an outbound plane or a sunny interstate into striking anguish.
That’s Stapleton’s real offering to country radio: a reminder that the power of a vocal performance can’t be underestimated, even in a genre whose heart and soul is so closely tied to narrative. Hum the base melody of “What Are You Listening To?” and it’s as mild as a children’s lullaby. Hear it with Stapleton’s embellishments, and it’s as crushing as his pain – dipping and breaking and pulling and surging until you’re right there inside his circling thoughts.
Stapleton isn’t the first to bring vocal heft to modern country radio – see: Zac Brown, Chris Young and Randy Houser - but his attempt feels more honest and less tainted by the parameters of his audience, especially in the acoustic performance below. In a year lacking smart, thoughtful releases by male artists, that authenticity makes “What Are You Listening To?” all the more remarkable.
I concluded my previous Kellie Pickler review with the conjecture that “Someone Somewhere Tonight” “would seem to confirm that Pickler’s pandering days are indeed over.” Now, with the aforementioned single having missed the Top 40 entirely, here comes her new single “Little Bit Gypsy” to make me eat my words.
It’s not all bad. It’s catchy, it’s identifiably country, and she sings it like she means it. But there’s no getting away from the fact that “Little Bit Gypsy” clearly aspires to be nothing more than a factory-assembled radio hit tailor-made for endless airplay. The song offers nothing more than colorless sketch of a stock character, with nothing about feeling clever or revelatory enough to make the listener invest in the character on any meaningful level. Sure, you could be so generous as to say that it’s at least better than most of the music on country radio, but it would be a hollow compliment for an artist who has already proven herself capable of so much better.
A jaunty melody and a lively production pull just enough weight to make the song a pleasant diversion between radio commercials. But when the song’s radio run has reached its end, there’s just nothing here that’s going to be worth revisiting.
Written by Tammi Lynn, Fred Willhelm and Kyle Jacobs
For any other artist, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” would be just as forgettable as it is for the Band Perry. But given the unhinged creativity they usually show, it’s befuddlingly conventional.
Part of the trouble is the material itself. There’s a really great lyric early on that should serve as the foundation of the song’s message: “When you’re young you can fly, but we trip on clouds ’cause we get too high. We grow up and then it’s gone. God only knows what we become.” The rest of the song should be about the a-ha! moment that informs that lyric, and there are moments that get there.
But the song is weighed down by a chorus and hook that suggests that our narrator is looking more for the company of a one night stand, not someone to help figure out the meaning of life and time and all of that. It’s kinda like someone dropped “Need You Now” down in the middle of “Someone Somewhere Tonight.”
To make it work, the singer would really have to sell it. Kimberly Perry doesn’t sell it, and the odd contours that usually make her sound so distinct and interesting are nowhere to be found. The bland production doesn’t help matters, either.
The Band Perry’s weirder experiments don’t always work, but they’re always interesting. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” doesn’t work, but it’s not even interesting.
Written by Sarah Buxton, Rodney Clawson, and Chris Tompkins
Sara Evans launches her seventh studio album with the Marv Green-penned “Slow Me Down,” in which a relationship is on the rocks, and Evans’ narrator is just about ready to walk out – but she looks back in hopes that her man will give her one good reason to stay. (Lorrie Morgan’s 1990 chart-topper “Five Minutes,” written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, is probably one of the song’s closest lyrical relatives.)
The single sets the appropriate mood with a distinctively ominous string intro (which will likely make it stand out on the radio if radio plays it) as well as an evocative melody that lingers after the song ends. Melodic rises and dips convey angst-ridden indecision as Evans sings “Wheels are turnin’ in my mind… Don’t wanna leave, but I might this time,” and a dramatic crescendo exudes mounting desperation as the song launches into its chorus. Evans gives the song all she’s got, delivering a forceful performance of the chorus while rendering the song’s title phrase with a plaintive trill.
Unfortunately, Evans’ and Mark Bright’s production is where things go wrong. During the chorus, Evans’ distinctive alto is needlessly marred by sea of pounding guitars. And, considering that Evans’ voice has always sounded best in a pure country setting, it is somewhat disheartening that little about “Slow Me Down” feels country. Though Evans’ style has shifted further toward the pop side of the pop-country spectrum in recent years, it has remained rare for her to release a single that features not so much as a trace of country instrumentation, as is the case here.
“Slow Me Down” is a good song. It’s just unfortunate that it’s held back from being what it could have been.
Laura Bell Bundy made a distinctly memorable impression when she blew into Nashville fresh off Broadway four years ago. Of all the major label country albums released in 2009, few were more polarizing than Bundy’s genre-bending Mercury Nashville release Achin’ and Shakin’. Maybe you thought it was brilliant. Maybe you thought it was atrocious. But there was one thing that it definitely wasn’t – boring.
“Two Step” is boring.
It’s dull, repetitive, tasteless, and utterly forgettable.
The problem isn’t that it’s a pop song masquerading as a country song. The problem is that nothing about the lyrics, construction, melody, or production feels clever or interesting in any way. The song leans far too heavily on mundane repetitions of its unremarkable title, and with “Two Step” already floundering, a Colt Ford hick-rap bridge is not going to be the thing to save it.
I know she can do better than this because she has before. Let’s just hope that Bundy’s future releases on her new Big Machine label home will focus a little less on choreography and a little more on content.
Written by Laura Bell Bundy, Andy Davis, Lance Kotara, Adam McInnis, and Bryan Ray