Sometimes – most of the time – I fall behind on my planned CU work and wind up with a backlog of opinions. And it can be so mentally taxing carrying all that around, you know? Gotta clean out the file sometime. So if you happen to be feeling nostalgic for, oh, five months ago, please join me in considering a bunch of singles which came out around then and pretending like they’re brand-new.
Rodney Atkins, “Farmer’s Daughter”
A warm production, likable vocal by Atkins. I just can’t bring myself to care about the story. Nothing about it feels urgent or revelatory. Grade: C
Steve Azar, “Sunshine”
How this has crept up to become his first Top 30 single in eight years is beyond me, since it’s about as exciting as a dreamless nap. A true “sleeper hit,” yuk yuk. Oh! And does it not totally sound like that “Ooohhh, but I feel it” song from the 90’s? Anyway, a pleasant enough listen if you’re in the mood for it. Grade: C+
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
It sounds like what would happen if Taylor Swift listened to one Caroline Herring track – just one – and decided to come up with her own version. I mean that in a good way, mostly. Kimberly Perry has written and performed a very pretty-sounding record here, gratuitous “uh oh”s aside, and and Republic Nashville should be commended for releasing something with such ambitious subject matter as a second single.
I just wish the song itself had undergone some more revision first. The pieces are set for a sweet, eloquent hypothetical about premature death, but then that third verse comes and it sounds like she’s actually anticipating her demise and has an agenda for it. It’s muddling.
So, not the home run it could have been. But still an admirable effort. Grade: B-
Laura Bell Bundy, “Drop on By”
It looks like this single has already fallen off the radar, which is a big shame. Bundy’s controlled performance demonstrates why she’s among the most promising new acts out there, and the song is a sweet sip of lounge-y countrypolitan.
What’s missing is a great hook. “Drop on By” is a kind of a ho-hum central phrase, and it isn’t matched with a memorable enough melody here to make it really stick. Then again, the tracks on Bundy’s album that do have good hooks (“Cigarette”, “If You Want My Love”) won’t fit radio anyway because they’re too sharp and unique. The gal can’t win. Grade: B
Eric Church, “Smoke a Little Smoke”
For a number of reasons – the biggest of which was “Love Your Love the Most” dancing on my gag reflex, but there were others – I passed altogether on listening to his sophomore album, and ignored this single’s existence for a good while.
Now I’ve heard it, though, and damn it, I can’t go back. This ode to substance-fueled escapism may be the most daring country single of the year, even without the “stash” reference in the album version. The record actually sounds like a weird high, with snaky acoustic guitars, jarring electrics, and creepy-cool effects on the vocals, yet it never sacrifices accessibility in pursuit of its aesthetic. It ain’t a country sound (check those Collective Soul-aping “yeah”s), but it’s serving a very country theme, and for once, Church’s frat-boy cockiness actually works. Grade: A-
Easton Corbin, “Roll With It”
More lightweight, breezy Strait-gazing. The chorus has a bit of an awkward meter, but I’ll deal. In earlier days, this might have been a bit boring compared to its company at radio. Today, it’s just refreshing. Grade: B
Randy Montana, “Ain’t Much Left of Lovin’ You”
Don’t care for this guy’s name – sounds like a rodeo emcee’s or something – but what a cool-sounding debut single. Mournful guitar licks, propulsive beat, appealingly gritty vocal. If only the melody were as confident throughout as it is in the second half of the chorus (“The heaven we had / The hell that I’m going through / Other than that / There ain’t much left of lovin’ you”). Still, not too shabby. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “How I Got to Be This Way”
Strike three. Moore seems to have potential, and I don’t mean to pick on him or his writers, but his output since “Back That Thing Up” represents everything I don’t like about mainstream country today. This is loud, one-dimensional, and worst of all, uninteresting. Grade: D
David Nail, “Turning Home”
I’ll say this for David Nail: he’s ambitious. Though his first two singles didn’t win me over, I found something bold to admire in each. “I’m About to Come Alive” cast him as a co-dependent loser – not exactly flattering – while “Red Light” aimed for psychological depth with its focus on the mundane nature of break-ups. Both were refreshingly moody for country radio, and both could have made great breakthrough hits were the songs themselves a bit more compelling.
From a compositional standpoint, “Turning Home” isn’t actually as risky or complex as those forerunners; in fact, it’s very much your typical nostalgic Kenny Chesney co-write. But it’s crisp and coherent enough to give Nail some interpretive room, and he reaches for the stars, delivering an emotional, octave-sweeping performance that goes a long way toward breathing new life into the well-trod themes.
He unfortunately has to do battle with a screechy electric guitar that surfaces in the instrumental break, and there’s no denying that this single owes much more to Elton John or Gavin DeGraw-type artists than it does to anyone in the realm of traditional country. Nevertheless, Nail’s ambition was well-spent here. Grade: A-
Josh Thompson, “Way Out Here”
His “Beer on the Table” was enjoyable, if a bit derivative-sounding, but I’ll pass on this one. It’s pretty much a less friendly, slightly wittier version of “Small Town U.S.A.”, of which I was never a fan in the first place. Grade: D+
I hadn’t given “Smoke A Little Smoke” a chance until your review, but I’m in. It’s funky enough for me to like it, even if I have no idea what genre it belongs in.
I like “If I Die Young” & “Drop On By;” but I never really gave “Smoke a little Smoke” a chance due to its title [sounded really corny to me]…. but I guess I might try it.
Have to agree on “Farmer’s Daughter.” It’s just way too predictable. I like “If I Die Young,” but more for the instrumentation than for the lyrics, which are interesting enough, but a bit disjointed. I love “Drop On By” – great vocal performance with a unique-sounding arrangement, but good point about the weak hook. I admit I do like “How I Got to Be This Way,” but I guess it’s mainly because Justin’s previous singles were much worse. I’m also big on “Roll with It” – It might not have stood up to the 90s competition, but it does sound refreshing today. I also love Easton’s laid back vocal delivery. As for “Smoke a Little Smoke”… eh… I might warm up to it eventually. Not real big on the arrangement on “Turning Home,” but the vocal is amazing.
Drop on By” is a kind of a ho-hum central phrase, and it isn’t matched with a memorable enough melody here to make it really stick.
Disagree on the melody. I think it’s potent, in a throwback sort of way (my favorite part is the “oh baby/darlin’/honey” before the title phrase). And I love the arrangement. This song is right up my alley – probably my favorite mainstream release this year.
…makes a kinda cool feature this rearview mirror type of reviewing. quite often songs grow on you more than you’d expect from the first couple of spins.
having said that, laura bell bundy’s “drop on by” is such a charming and warm little beauty that i liked it right from first spin.
randy montana’s debut single is one of the finest “hybrids” this year. these guitar licks are quite irrestistable. toyota would probably pay millions if they could make a prius look like this one sounds.
kimberly perry and her brothers sound and look like blue grass had a sexy dream.
david nail’s and eric church’s songs are very modern yet far closer to country’s roots than some of those new songs, where a producer just adds a little fiddle & steel for god knows what reason.
I really like “If I Die Young” A- at worst for me
I like “If I Die Young” pretty well too.
“If I Die Young” will probably still make my year-end singles list, just because the production is so pretty and I like everything before the third verse. It’s pretty representative of their album coming out soon, I think: great production, good performances, solid melodic songwriting that just needs some lyrical fine-tuning. They’re promising.
So far I really like the Band Perry. While there is some lyrical fine-tuning in order, I do think they have a very cool sound. It has beats and melodies that resemble pop, but at the same time it’s shamelessly laden with fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and all the instruments that I love to hear.
Not sure if I agree with you about Eric Church, I like the fact that he pushing boundaries. But, the rest of the song is just a string of cliches. “Turn the quiet up”. Ugh.
“Farmer’s Daughter”: B (It’s lyrically predictable, but there’s something about the general vibe and composition here that is immediately infectious. Plus Atkins pulls off the everyman persona convincingly where his vocals, despite lacking range, nonetheless have charismatic appeal. The metric bounce, flow and atmosphere is quite similar to “Big Green Tractor”, only the latter had a more bluesy texture behind the guitars while this is more contemporary country twang. The likability goes far enough to gravitate my thumb more at an upwards angle than a downwards one, despite the utter lack of originality in the song’s central choice of theme)
“Sunshine”: C+ (It’s that kind of track that sounds irresistible depending on the weather, to me. Some days it can be consummately anthemic, others completely void of blood. By Azar’s standards this is subpar, but not a complete loss.)
“If I Die Young”: B+ (I agree with the central critique of your review, but would rate it higher in that the poetic-leanings of this track’s lyrics are refreshing to hear amidst an admittedly messy and at times overly ambiguous theme. This is the kind of track that can prove to have staying power beyond its chart run as it is dissected and scrutinized under musical microscopes with regards to its poetic devices and hermeneutics. Hence the superior grade.)
“Drop on By”: B- (Strong vocals, but not enough to elevate this track to having some degree of chronic shelf life.)
“Smoke a Little Smoke”: A (An exceptionally honest track, both musically and lyrically. It’s tragic that a song with a theme such as this is considered ballsy, but with that the unfortunate reality, this is about as rewarding a listen as you’ll find among the current crop.)
“Roll With It”: B- (Corbin again offers an impressive vocal performance reminiscent of Strait’s, but loses points for tackling a well-worn-out laying-on-the-beach theme, which fails to convince me that Corbin’s ascent to stardom hasn’t been a fluke given he has relied on the most overused themes that pander to the least discerning listener thus far. Here’s hoping “This Far From Memphis” follows and becomes another chart-topping hit, which will begin to persuade me otherwise.)
“Ain’t Much Left of Lovin’ You”: B (Plenty of potential in his debut offering, but lacks that “something more” to keep listeners staring at him with gravid interest.)
“How I Got to Be This Way”: F (And Moore’s career standing declines to 0-4 with yet another overproduced chunk of commercial pyrite that sounds more like something out of a “School of Rock”-themed karaoke party went wrong than anything. Someone’s been listening to “Teacher’s Pet” one too many times, and still failing to capture even a scintilla of its charm and energy.)
“Turning Home”: B (I agree that the emotional gravitas here is poignant and pure, and makes for an excellent performance. As far as the production is concerned, it can’t help but put me to sleep much like Jerrod Niemann’s “What Do You Want” does, but it still works as a rewarding album track. Single, not so much, and the fact it has already absconded the charts suggests I’m not alone there.)
“Way Out Here”: F (Excuse me while I toss this way out here, off this balcony! :P )
Smoke A Little Smoke is great !
I hate to just berate someone’s music, I really do. But man, oh, man, has my stomach been turning and I’ve just got to vent. Last night while coming home we had the radio on; a rarity for us, but there it was. Anyway, I heard the one-two punch of “The Farmer’s Daughter” followed by “Way Out Here,” neither of which I’d previously heard.
I don’t know if I’ve left country music, or if country music left me, but I was just grateful we stopped tuning in before it got any worse. These aren’t even songs that are being composed anymore; they’re just generic lists of buzzwords guaranteed to win over an uncritical audience with an enthusiasm for vapid sounds.
“John Wayne, Johnny Cash and John Deere,” really? Come on, you’re not even trying. And I’m pretty accepting of list-based songs, incidentally. Patty’s “Think About Elvis” was a lot of fun, and Garth’s “AHBA” even toed the same line as these pandering jingles but managed to construct a coherent thought along the way.
I admit, “If I Die Young” made me laugh the first few times I heard it b/c I just couldn’t believe something that sounded so emo- (lyrically speaking) was on Country radio. So while I think it’s a great sounding song and could have been a wonderful single, I still think it’s a bit too “suicidal” for my tastes. Even so, I’m looking forward to hearing their next single. I think this could be a band I add to my radar.
First of all, can I just say: David, leave your wife and marry me. David Nail is awesome. I could listen to that voice all day and his willingness to put his emotions out there draws me in. I feel like I learn a little bit about him in each of his songs (the ones he wrote at least), and being from Missouri I can relate to some of them.
Second, what were you thinking rating “Smoke A Little Smoke” as an A-? That was the weirdest song I’ve heard recently on country radio and I just don’t feel like the topic was really appropriate for what country music means to most people. Ballsy? I’m ok with ballsy. But talking about getting high on mainstream country radio just seems to be a little out of line. Maybe they should save that for their garage jam sessions.
I hope the Band Perry puts out another single that hooks me like “If I Die Young.” Their first single made me want to change the station constantly, but I always leave the dial when this one comes on. I don’t get tired of its melody and her soothing vocals. I hope they stick around.