Category Archives: Video Reviews

Joey + Rory + Taylor = Video Gold

No formal post cooked up here; I just wanted to thank these artists for bringing mainstream country some much-needed personality.

Joey + Rory, “Play The Song”

I've started having my doubts about the strength of this song as a radio single, but it sure makes for an awesome video. The well-placed jabs at the industry are appreciated, but it would still be notable just for the couple's infectious onscreen presence.

Click to watch Joey & Rory, Play the Song.

Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me”

I'm sorry, but I think Taylor Swift is kind of a pop music genius. If you're bewildered as to why her current album has scored with fans and critics alike, consider this video your

short-form lesson. Fearless deliberately presents Swift as something of an Everygirl, and this clip plays up that concept with remarkable shrewdness. She's unusually pretty, but seems to realize that her strongest appeal lies in the usual-ness of her personality, and that's the card she really plays here. The plot is cheesy and predictable as heck, but only because it synthesizes everything that's potentially charming about all countless “ugly duckling teen becomes a swan” movies (The Princess Diaries, A Cinderella Story) and condenses it all to a length that's tolerable for normal human beings. Bonus points for playing the villain herself.

Click to watch Taylor Swift, You Belong With Me.

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Alan Jackson, “Sissy’s Song”

alan-jacksonAlan Jackson is blessed with a voice that exudes sincerity. It’s a rare gift in country music, but one that many of country’s greats have shared. Jackson utilizes this gift most effectively on songs like “Remember When,” and his latest single, “Sissy’s Song.” In the hands of a lesser artist, “Sissy’s Song,” which deals with the grieving process after losing a loved one, would be a piece of relatively insubstantial fluff. In Jackson’s hands, however, it’s a reflective and moving experience.

Although “Sissy’s Song” came out on Good Time, it would undoubtedly be more at home on Precious Memories, Jackson’s successful gospel album.  On Precious Memories, Jackson quietly but confidently navigated his way through classic hymns, bringing a sense of gravitas to the songs, yet at the same time engendering a feeling of calm reverence and hope. All of those emotions shine through on “Sissy’s Song,” which is not traditional radio fare.

Jackson reinforces the Precious Memories influence with the video for “Sissy’s Song.”  It’s a simple video, befitting a simple song. Set in black and white, Jackson, with guitar in hand walks into a beautiful old church in the depths of winter, and sings the song on a simple wood floor with the sun filtering through tall glass windows. The video shines because it doesn’t try to outdo the song. It simply reinforces its message, which ultimately, is a tribute, using broad universal themes, to a friend.

Songwriter: Alan Jackson

Grade: B+

Listen:

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Taylor Swift, “White Horse”

tswiftIn the new video for her single, “White Horse,” our little Taylor Swift is growing up. A convincing reconstruction of a real-life breakup (Swift only sings her brutal truths), this project is the most subtle song yet in her burgeoning catalog.

“White Horse” is a perfect companion piece to her recent No. 1 single, the aptly-named “Love Story.” This time, her special someone is unable to keep up his end of the bargain, and Swift learns a painful lesson one “I love you” too late. Trey Fanjoy returns as the videographer for this damsel in distress, handling the heartache behind “White Horse” with a keen eye for detail. The most striking quality of “White Horse” is the maturity in Swift’s response, and the visual interpretation of how the characters change from frame to frame makes for compelling product.

The object of Swift’s misplaced affections is Laguna Beach “star” Stephen Colletti, continuing a trend of reality show castoffs being cast in Swift videos. (Nashville Star devotees will recall model-turned-musician Justin Gaston in “Love Story.”) And while Gaston had the sweetly adorable, puppy-dog appearance that melted the hearts of teen girls everywhere, the seemingly squeaky-clean Colletti is well-suited for the role of a phantom paramour.

Clips of the happy couple bathed in sunlight, nuzzling on the couch and playing a comfy game of cards are slowly interwoven with shots of Swift wearing a gray sweater (Flashdance-style, for the record) and crying like the rain falling outside her basement window. Why, oh, why, do you cry, Taylor?

Because her dime-store dreams are crushed at the hands of a heartless cad. Naive to believe that he’s bound to his promises, Swift chirps on cheerily about their affair during a friendly lunch with a girlfriend, one that turns into an informational meeting for the misled lass. She’s quickly disabused of any notion that their love will be everlasting.

As she makes the slow, painful walk across town to confront him, the red flashing lights in the distance signal disaster. In the final moments, Swift arrives at her soon-to-be-ex’s house where she finds him entertaining another girl; Colletti’s image is tweaked to fit his real reputation.  His once-boyish hairdo is now perfectly coiffed, spiked (like his words) and slick (like his actions). The baby-blue tee is hidden underneath a black hoodie (a knight in not-so-shining armor?). A smitten smile is replaced by a guilty glare. The last time Swift swiveled in the rain, she was giving an off-key performance of her vitriolic “Should’ve Said No,” at last year’s Academy of Country Music Awards. While that effort seemed forced, this emotion is much more genuine.

Swift, back against a brick wall (literally), is faced with a world-changing choice, at least in her eyes. The pain of ending their relationship is secondary to the pain marking her loss of innocence. A teen queen is turning into a young woman. Growing up is hard to do.

Grade: A-

Directed by Trey Fanjoy

Taylor Swift, White Horse : Music Video at CMT.com

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Jimmy Wayne, “I Will”

With all due respect, this is the most unintentionally hilarious video of the year. The song is so fiercely un-country that it makes “Bob That Head” sound like Bob Wills, and the screen adaptation exacerbates that problem by setting the story at an upscale fashion shoot, of all places. What does it say that the same genre that once gave us “Coal Miner’s Daughter” now implores us to sympathize with a pretty upper-middle class girl who lacks the self-confidence to sex it up for the camera? I guess I’ll let you decide.

In any case, the awkward little details of this video are really too enjoyable to spoil, but suffice it to say that the concept seems utterly disconnected from the song, the direction does nothing new (note the Flattsian “dozens of golden spotlights behind the singer during the chorus” effect), and the dialogue…well, just watch it.

Altogether, the piece suggests that one of Jimmy Wayne’s greatest distinctions as an artist – his penchant for musical catharsis – may also become his greatest liability. I dug the unabashed emoism of “Do You Believe Me Now” (at least in its video incarnation), but this is just way too much drama for no good reason. Wayne has talent and passion to spare, but he needs handlers who will sit down with him and help him find the right way to channel those gifts; here, he just comes off as an indiscriminately energetic pretty boy.

Directed by Deaton Flanigen

Grade: D+

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Single/Video Review: Toby Keith, “God Love Her”

What’s going on, Toby? Seriously, now: when one of the genre’s finest mainstream voices is stooping to tired numbers like this one, something is seriously up. “God Love Her” is an uptempo, Mellencampish toss-off about a “rebel child” preacher’s daughter who falls for a “bad boy” and – you’ll never guess it – runs off with him to her parent’s chagrin. So basically, every good-girl-gone-bad song ever plus “Whiskey Girl” plus a whole bunch of religious puns. Sweet action.

Really, though, is this the kind of song we’ve come to? Has Nashville decided country radio won’t give a fair shot to anything that doesn’t sound like it was written for turbo-hormonal minors, or has Keith just lost his sense of quality? Aside from it being absolutely ridiculous (and reasonably creepy) to have artists at his age recording odes to rebellious seventeen year-old girls, releases like this belie the quality of Keith’s legacy, which has seen material both serious and frivolous that did a heck of a lot more to establish him as an actual artist.

And that’s my big problem here: the lack of distinction. “God Love Her” sounds like something any ol’ southern rock wannabe might ship to country radio; instead, it’s coming from one of the genre’s modern greats. It’s a cheesy and overblown little piece, but it could be passable or even enjoyable coming from a younger artist, someone who’s still learning the ropes and looking for that big hit. But Keith is not that artist. He is a seasoned pro who has settled, wittingly or not, for an easy hit.

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Zac Brown Band, “Chicken Fried”

In my earlier review of the single “Chicken Fried,” I criticized co-writers Zac Brown and Wyatt Durrette for penning what struck me as an uncreative, thoughtless appeal to Southern pride. It frankly wasn’t my favorite critique to write, and not just because the post has consistently drawn negative feedback from fans of the song; I felt disheartened to be speaking ill of a relatively little-known act, let alone a vocal group with an actual fiddle (as any reprieve from the bland-pop domination of Rascal Flatts is always fine by me). That said, I could not ignore what seemed to be lacking in the composition: a sense of real personality. The lyrics were just too cookie-cutter country, the sentiment too hackneyed. It was all pleasant enough, but very nondescript – like anyone could have done it.

So it’s the most terrific sort of surprise, really, to discover that the video for the song is exactly the opposite. My distaste for the clip’s soundtrack notwithstanding, I can’t help but marvel at the real-world beauty of Brown’s subject matter here, not to mention the artful care with which it has been captured. “Chicken Fried” will never be one of my favorite numbers, but credit must be given where it’s due, because this video manages to compensate for some of the weaknesses of the song while doubling as a wholly endearing introduction to the band.

We open with some shin-level footage of the boys jamming wickedly for the entertainment of a pet dog, and right off the bat, there’s a magnetism that wasn’t there on record. It’s not that it’s the absolute best pickin’ you’ve ever heard; it’s the unspoken statement behind it. “We are Zac Brown Band, and this, first and foremost, is what we do. This is us.” It feels organic, and it makes the ensuing fade into graininess feel like the beginning of a deeply personal story, even if the song itself doesn’t sound like one.

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Hayes Carll, “She Left Me For Jesus”

Here’s my disclaimer: if you found the song “She Left Me for Jesus” uncomfortably irreverent, the video is almost certainly not for you. Objectively speaking, this thing is downright blasphemous; where the humor of the song came from its absurd narrator, the humor of the video comes from its absurd everything, very much including its portrayal of Christ. And there you have it. Some will find the shock value titillating and benign; others will find it appalling. A lot of people will probably land somewhere in the middle.

But whatever your reaction to the boundless mockery, you’ve got to applaud the creativity: Carll plays a cameraman for 2-Timerz, a not-so-veiled (and gloriously accurate) take on the television camp-fest Cheaters. A man comes onto the show to find out the truth about his high school sweetheart, and naturally it’s not too long before we’re spying on the tramp from a sketchy van as she cavorts around with one of the most low-budget Jesus imitators you’ll ever see. I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but suffice it to say that there’s a shout-out to the art of crib-pimping and some chutzpahed cameos you have to see to believe.

The actors have an absolute ball with their work throughout, and even some of the camera work is impressively loyal to its source material. It’s all dizzingly goofy, of course, but the antics are executed with editorial intelligence, and the jokes feel spontaneous, not scripted. The video doesn’t necessarily do much to complement the song (which obviously doesn’t feature Jesus as a physical person); rather, it uses the lyrics as a starting-point for its greater madcap story, which might not work if that story didn’t happen to be so compelling in its own right. It’s random, awkward, and endlessly kooky, and there’s no more fun to be had in a music video this year – unless, of course, it’s not your thing to begin with. So I’ll just let you pick your grade.

Grade: A+/F

(You can also watch the video in higher quality here)

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Randy Houser, “Anything Goes”

Clearly, it wasn’t enough for Randy Houser to produce one of the year’s finest debut singles; he also had to make one of its finest music videos. Excepting the bikini model who’s supposed to be his ex, most everything about this piece feels completely natural, like it was meticulously structured to complement the progression of the song (what a concept).

It’s the sort of work that makes a strong case for the music video as an art form, rather than a shallow marketing device. There’s something creative afoot at most every turn in this clip: witness the rhythmic montage in the build to the first chorus, or the way Houser fantasizes about singing alone onstage to his girl, as if to acknowledge that his whole world – even down to the songs he sings – is built on co-dependence. Someone clearly sat down and thought about this one, and it shows.

Of course, there’s always a risk of overdoing things when going the dramatic route, and there are indeed some points where Houser and his video succumb to minor histrionics. But on the whole, I haven’t felt so deeply immersed in the emotional groove of a music video in quite some time – and when it comes to this sort of raw passion, you take what you can get.

Directed by Vincenzo Giammanco

Grade: A

Watch: Anything Goes

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Miranda Lambert, “More Like Her”

“More Like Her” is perhaps the most intimate, clearly personal single of Miranda Lambert’s career thus far, so it’s no surprise to see the music video for the song follow suit. Taking a cue from Sugarland’s in-your-face work in “Stay,” the best parts of this effort center the attention squarely on the singer, whose understated acting adeptly portrays the mixed bag of emotional negatives articulated by the song. The cross-fading transitions between shots work well to the same end, creating a sense of sensory disorder as Lambert’s sights, memories and varying emotions all run together.

Things get a little too artsy for my taste when she starts inexplicably hanging around with a birdcage, and the extensive shots of her playing guitar feel forced and somewhat clash with the more interesting sights of her sulking around in the apartment and confessing to the camera. Furthermore, while Lambert’s introspection is undeniably the centerpiece of the song, she also spends a fair amount of time dissecting her ex-love interest and his new girl, and the lack of any concrete image of those key characters leaves the video feeling a little emotionally incomplete.

On the whole, though, the singer’s onscreen presence is pronounced enough to keep her from getting lost in the shuffle, and her emotional complexity here is likely to endear her to country fans who may have written her off as a one-dimensional “tough girl.” Lambert’s character may be unlucky in love – see the strangely effective penultimate shot of her pushing the “13” elevator button – but she’s smart enough to share her misfortunes with her audience, and that will pay off well for her.

Directed by Randee St. Nicholas

Grade: B

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Video Review: Taylor Swift, “Love Story”

There’s nothing I could say about Taylor Swift that hasn’t already been said – and that’s the point. She knows how to score that attention; she knows how to make the dough. With a strong push from the team at Big Machine, this girl has built a multimedia empire on the back of one triple platinum-selling album, some very crafty Internet skills, and a sparkling, sweetly savvy persona. She is the sort of rare, distinctive star people can’t help but talk about, whether they like her or not. And although her singing and songwriting talents have not yet caught up to her market appeal or massive popularity, she has certainly demonstrated that she knows her way around a singable hook.

Whether these qualities are conducive or relevant to her actual artistic merit is certainly debatable; the lead single for Fearless, for example, finds her trying to pepper up a nondescript teenage romance with misplaced allusions to Romeo & Juliet and The Scarlet Letter, all to a more anemic melody than we’re used to hearing from her. The lyrics are lame, the singing is weak, the package just doesn’t come together. To the average, wary listener, it sounds as if Swift has lost control of her own game.

But here’s where the phenom and her handlers have got you beat: Swift’s fans aren’t average, wary listeners. They’re plugged-in, multi-sensory consumers, weaned heavily on MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, the Disney Channel. To them, more so than to any generation prior, music is as much a visual medium as it is an auditory one. As you sit here reading this review, thousands of Swift fans – some closeted, some not – have already logged onto CMT.com and watched the video for this song.

And they should. As a video, “Love Story” is an unexpected treat: a big-budget, gorgeously-shot piece that highlights much of what is appealing about Swift as an artist – meaning, of course, that the song itself is a bit downplayed. Truly, it’s hard not to watch this thing and wonder whether Swift might have written “Love Story” just to have her “modernized fairytale” concept brought to the screen. What sounded trite on record is still trite on video, but what Swift lacks in voice and writing, she makes up for in spades with charisma. Given the right sort of role, she’s not just pretty; she’s friendly, warm, nuanced, oddly universal.

As a narrative, the video does exactly what you expect it to, but as an experience, it’s startlingly endearing – and it all comes down to that girl on the balcony. Swift may have written a crappy song, but she has figured out how to work around that. Her Prince Charming may be a totally interchangeable snooze, but she’s got enough personality to sell this corny arc all by herself – even if she’s playing the victim throughout much of it, which is disheartening, albeit historically accurate.

In the end, I still dislike the song, and I still dislike the story. As a music fan, I even dislike what this video represents, what it’s allowing this artist to get away with. But I don’t really think this video was intended to change my feelings on any of that. As she demonstrated with her treatment of “Our Song,” director Trey Fanjoy seems to know, intuitively, that the only important thing about any Taylor Swift video is that it features Taylor Swift. She may be overly precious, perky, pandering – but she’s also a princess.

Directed by Trey Fanjoy

Grade: B+


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