If you read the writing credits for … just about anything released in mainstream country music within the past few years – and beyond, depending on the act in question – you’ll probably recognize a frequently recurring name, Michael Hardy. You’ll also know he started pushing his own material to country radio last year, starting with the utterly stupid “Rednecker” before further branding himself as a frat-bro with his Hixtape project. There’s rumors that it’s all a parody, and that HARDY is purposefully poking fun at the biggest clichés to invade mainstream country music within the past decade.
Here’s my counterpoint: Look at the artists he’s most associated with – Florida Georgia Line, Chris Lane and Dallas Smith – and then try saying that again with a straight face. Granted, I’ve long argued that there’s nothing inherently wrong with dumb party music branded under the “bro-country” moniker. The issue comes in that trend’s overreliance on machismo and country pride and a misogynistic streak toward its female characters … and that, sadly, is the side of bro-country HARDY mostly falls on, as if the all-caps branding wasn’t enough of a giveaway.
Sure, he’s a detailed writer, and that’s why, I think, most people haven’t immediately written this off as an attempt at any sort of revival of the trend itself. It’s just that his details are completely unlikable, and that he draws acclaim for his writing only reminds me of discussions of yesterday, when Sam Hunt was first emerging on the scene – it’s different from the current crop of music, but it’s not exciting, nor is it remotely redeemable.
And, unlike Hixtape, I can’t even say A ROCK is aiming for parody. There’s a tribute to a deceased friend on “Give Heaven Some Hell” that probably makes for the one redeeming song off this album, but even it chooses to emphasize how much of a good ol’ country boy he was, rather than, oh, I don’t know, his actual humanity or any good memories the two friends had on Earth. It’s in character for the project, sure, but it still feels contrived as a whole, like it’s constantly going out of its way to remind listeners these characters are C-O-U-N-T-R-Y. The same can be said for lead single “One Beer,” where, yes, that lack of humanity is the point to serve how having to deal with unplanned pregnancies is an unfortunate, all-too-common situation for many young people. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story there, either. Instead, what we get are choppy images that lack the sequencing to make for a memorable tune.
But those are the tracks aiming for depth with admirable intentions. What we get otherwise is a bad, mainstream imitation of Koe Wetzel’s worst tendencies, with an overindulgence of ‘90s alt-rock production, made worse with Joey Moi behind the wheel – because literally everything sits at the front of the mix when Joey Moi is behind the wheel. It’s a mess, and it doesn’t help that HARDY is one of the most painfully limited vocalists I’ve ever covered, meaning he lacks the firepower to howl on the moments that rock out – with cluttered, poorly mixed guitar tones, if I might add – and any sort of depth as an interpreter to make the more serious selections work. He’s a solid writer from a technical perspective, and his melodies and hooks benefit from that.
There’s no more dancing around it, though – the bad songs here are downright terrible, rivaled only by Sam Hunt’s atrocity Southside from earlier this year for some of the worst ones of this year. Let’s just run it down: “Truck” is overloaded with machismo in trying to lay out how it’s perfectly acceptable to judge a man based on how he decorates his truck, written by someone who likely gets way too much of a chuckle from “truck nuts”; “Boots” finds our featured character waking up from a drunken stupor, only to have his significant other force him to leave – I can’t imagine why – and hey, he woke up with his boots on, so he’s ready! He even has the gall to be annoyed with how fed up she is of his behavior, as if she’s in the wrong; On “Hate Your Hometown,” instead of wishing his significant other the best as she moves away to ail her homesickness, he’s petty enough to hope not only that she doesn’t find a remedy for her problem, but that she spirals down further and crawls back to him; “Ain’t A Bad Day” at least shows some real remorse for his actions taken in ending a relationship, but instead of trying to be a better person, he’s just content being pissy and whiny; And I don’t have to explain a song called “Unapologetically Country As Hell.” There’s country pride, and then there’s overcompensation and reactionary anger to make it all sound insecure with itself. This is a textbook example of the latter at play.
Recommended track: “Give Heaven Some Hell”