Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 2: An Alan Jackson Overdose

It’s never a good idea to say “hey, I’m starting a new weekly series!” and then wait several weeks before the second post. When the RNG gods saw me making another series, however, they decided that I must have far too much free time, and buried me under a mountain of bureaucracy and tedium. Thankfully, they didn’t break me (yet), and it’s long past time to dust off the ancient iPad once again, so let’s do this thing!

The concept is simple: Hit the shuffle button, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist.

Is it silly and without purpose? Absolutely (which is why my initial thought was to make this a weekend feature). But hey, it’s a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Also, after today’s series of unfortunate events (mostly meetings and poorly-catered functions), I have three hours left to post something and absolutely no ideas on what to post, so…hey, no time like the present!

Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is. Drum roll please…

The Contenders

Song #1: Blake Shelton, “Cotton Pickin’ Time”

Remember the days when Blake Shelton was actually tolerable? Most of the mileage I got from 2004’s Blake Shelton’s Bar & Grill was from “Some Beach,” but this was a tolerable-enough album cut. I like the sparse-but-springy production, the lighthearted take on the money vs. love debate, and Shelton tag-teams with the writers to keep the song (which prominently features skippy-dipping) from slipping into the gutter. I wouldn’t call it great (and it likely won’t challenge for today’s crown), but I suppose there are worse ways to start off a shuffle.

Song #2: Alan Jackson, “To Do What I Do”

So now we’re a 2004 kick, huh? This was the live album closer for Jackson’s What I Do album, and while I’m not generally a fan of live recordings, I can see why they set it up this way. The song is an autobiographical recap of Jackson’s rise to country music stardom (complete with awful jobs and plentiful doubters), and it expresses his happiness and gratitude that both he and his audience are at the show right now. The song is an exemplar of what made Jackson so great back in the day: Classical fiddle-and-steel production, thoughtful and plain-spoken lyrics, and charisma oozing out of Jackson’s every pore. Like a good cleanup hitter, Jackson is a threat to leave the yard every time he steps up to the mic, so don’t be surprised to find this one in the upper tier when this is over.

Song #3: Acoustic Blue ft. Smokey Greene, “Don’t Tell Mama”

Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as New England Bluegrass. Acoustic Blue was (and I think still is, although this current iteration has dissolved) a Massachusetts-based band that was a beloved fixture on the local bluegrass circuit, and in 2009 they included this particular track on their This Is Now album. It’s been performed by a number of artists over the years (Gary Allan, Frankie Ballard, etc.), telling the tale of a young man who dies in a alcohol-fueled car accident and who pleads with the narrator “don’t tell mama I was drinking.” While this is a perfectly fine version, and I like how the limited bluegrass arrangement captures the melancholy atmosphere of the moment, I think Allan’s song is the superior one, and as much as people love Smokey Greene around here, I don’t think he acquits himself very well here (his timing and tone are not good at all). It’s still kind of sentimental, but it’s not one of my go-to Acoustic Blue songs.

Song #4: Pam Tillis, “They Don’t Break’em Like They Used To”

Tillis tends to get overlooked when the great ladies of the 1990s are recounted, but she was a pretty consistent hitmaker back in the early to mid 1990s. This song is an album cut from her 1994 disc Sweetheart’s Dance, and while Tillis’s narrator gets a little too smug at times when he lordes her boyfriend over his ex, the affection at least feels genuine and the brisk two-step production keeps folks smiling. (The hook isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is, though.) It’s a solid neotraditional offering, and it what’s shaping up to be a field with no clear front runner, it’s got as good a shot as any.

Song #5: Jackson, “Good Time”

Did I say there wasn’t a front runner? I guess I stand corrected.

Objectively, the title track to Jackson’s 2008 album is basically Bro Country with fiddles and steel guitars, complete with shallow lyrics, shameless name-dropping, and of course a lot of alcohol. So why is this so much fun? For one thing, those fiddle and steel guitars do a lot to keep the mood light and out of your face (no beats or loud electric guitars hitting you with a wall of noise, making it more of a line-dance than a rave tune), and Jackson is so dang charismatic that he never comes across as creepy or meatheaded. This is exactly what you’d expect a Friday night at your local beer joint to sound like, and Jackson lords over it all with his winning personality. Putting this back-to-back really got the party going, and I’m curious to see who comes to challenge Jackson for the crown.

Song #6: Marty Stuart, “Wait For The Morning”

Well, if someone had to kill the buzz, at least it’s country music’s resident historian. Marty Stuart never had a #1 single on the radio, but he’s enjoyed a resurgence in his second act at a throwback stylist, and his 2017 concept album Way Out West was an excellent tribute to the classic West Coast sound. “Wait For The Morning” was a thinly-veiled gospel tune near the end of the disc, and its minimalist aesthetic and uplifting vibe speak to an optimism that someday the narrator and their audience will reach the fabled promised land. While I didn’t share this optimism then (and I definitely don’t share it right now), Stuart’s faith is unwavering, and the Fabulous Superlatives live up to their name with a simple-yet-suitable melody to back their band leader. There really isn’t a lot to this track and I see it ending up somewhere in the middle of the pack, but for now, I’ll take it.

Song #7: The Dixie Chicks, “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”

Frankly, I’m still salty over what happened to the Dixie Chicks back in the early 2000s. These are three talented ladies who had some incredible records, and they got blackballed simply because they called out their commander-in-chief. This song isn’t one of the trio’s biggest hits (it was a fifth single off of their debut album Wide Open Spaces), and there’s a bit of a mismatch between the energetic vibe of the sound and sad cry-in-your-beer subject material, but it’s still catchy as all heck and the harmony work is a joy to listen to. (Plus I love lead singer Natalie Maines’s distinctive vocals, with Miranda Lambert coming close to mimicking it since the group got booted.) The Dixie Chicks may not be on many playlists nowadays, but I happy that they’re still on mine.

Song #8: Jackson, “I’d Love You All Over Again”

It seems Jackson has revealed his evil plan: If he takes up all the remaining slots, then no one can challenge him for the victory! This is a fifth single from Jackson’s debut disc Here In The Real World (and his first #1 to boot), and while it’s a little odd to hear him step into an older, long-tenured narrator at 32 years old, he showed off glimpses of the artists he would soon become: A devotion to classical instrumentation and subject matter, enough charm to melt an iceberg (not that the world needs more help doing that), and a knack for getting to the heart of the matter with his writing. “Good Time” is more of a, well, good time, but this a pretty strong single in its own right. So how many more of these are we going to get today?

Song #9: Sammy Kershaw, “One Day Left To Live”

Oh ho! This just got interesting.

Kershaw was mostly past his expiration date when he dropped this tune as the third single from his 1997 album Labor Of Love, but he remained an underrated singer with a knack for a good ballad (“Yard Sale” is probably my favorite of the bunch), and this one is no exception. Life seems to move even faster now than when this song first dropped, and after one of the busier weeks I’ve had in a while, this is a good reminder to look around and appreciate life while you’ve still got something to appreciate. The production does a nice job establishing a serous atmosphere while staying out of the way of the lyrics, and while Kershaw isn’t Jackson, he was a pretty darn good performer in his day. I think Jackson’s plan has been foiled, because this could definitely challenge for the top spot.

Song #10: The Eagles, “Desperado”

I think this is a fitting way to close things out.

This was the title track for the Eagles’s 1973 album, and despite it never being released as a single, it’s one of the band’s signature songs and made their first greatest hits album (which is how is made it to my iPad). The song describes a solitary man who seems to be endlessly working and striving for something, and the narrator suggests that they settle down and find someone to love (gee, where have I heard that before, Mom). The production does a nice job starting small and building to a climax near the end, Don Henley fills the role of the concerned friend/comrade nicely (he never feels like he’s nagging the other person, although it doesn’t seem like the “desperado” is listening either), and the lyrics do a nice job painting a picture of a driven soul oblivious to their surroundings. I don’t know if it’s a winning song, but it’s definitely a Top 5 track.

The Results

1 “One Night Left To Live”
2 “Good Time”
3 “Desperado”
4 “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”
5 “I’d Love You All Over Again”
6 “They Don’t Break’em Like They Used To”
7 “Wait For The Morning”
8 “Don’t Tell Mama”
9 “To Do What I Do”
10 “Cotton Pickin’ Time”

This are two major takeaways here:

  • This was a pretty strong group overall: I said “don’t be surprised to find [“To Do What I Do”] in the upper tier when this is over,” and it ended up ninth! There were a lot of good songs that deserved to win here, but for my money, Kershaw takes the cake tonight.
  • I’m kind of surprised how uniform this group is: Acoustic Blue is bluegrass and The Eagles are, er, The Eagles, but the sound was mostly concentrated in 90s neotraditionalism. (In fact, looking out to the next ten songs on the playlist, the only deviations from this theme would have been Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some Of That” and the theme song from Madden 2002.) My library is a bit more eclectic that this snapshot reveals, but I can’t complain with what I got.

So what do folks think? Are my ratings on point or off the mark? Is there anything here you hadn’t heard in a while? Let me know in the comments section below!

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Song Review: Tenille Townes, “Jersey On The Wall (I’m Just Asking)”

What’s the point of asking a question if you don’t care what the answer is?

I wasn’t a fan of Tenille Townes’s U.S. debut single “Somebody’s Daughter” because it didn’t know what kind of song it wanted to be: Was it the driving, energetic beat that the sound suggested, or was it the reflective commentary the lyrics seem to have in mind? I couldn’t figure it out, and apparently neither could country radio, as the song wound up with a paltry #29 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart (although it did reach #1 in Townes’s native Canada, for what it’s worth). A follow-up single “White Horse” didn’t generate enough buzz to chart at all, putting Townes in a metaphorical 0-2 hole while staring down the country music equivalent of Randy Johnson. Townes’s latest single “Jersey On The Wall” (I’m Just Asking),” however, has the opposite problem: While “Somebody’s Daughter” couldn’t decide which of many things it wanted to be, this song decided to be nothing at all. It’s a lifeless bore of a song that seems uninterested in its own story, and doesn’t convince the listener to bother paying attention.

The production is a mixed bag here, and features some of the same problems as “Somebody’s Daughter.” On the plus side, the simple, acoustic-guitar-driven arrangement keeps the song moving while staying out of the way of the writing. The tempo feels a bit too brisk for the subject matter, however, and the percussion (particularly the bass drum) is way to peppy given the circumstances, and gives the song an urgency that is totally unnecessary (it’s as if the drummer wanted to get this song over as badly as the listener does). Throw in the spacious electric guitars and strings in the background that seem too bright for the song (there’s also the piano that’s required by Nashville labor laws covering serious songs, but it’s barely noticeable), and the vibe has the same odd mix of positivity and melancholy that “Somebody’s Daughter” had, leaving the audience as confused as it was before. Townes needs to find herself a better producer fast, because whoever is behind the mixing board right now seems wholly incapable of setting a mood.

Then again, Townes has a lot trouble displaying any mood at all, giving us a performance that is sterile, stoic, and mostly devoid of any feeling. Her range is only kinda-sorta tested and her flow isn’t pushed at all, but even though this song doesn’t make a ton of demands of Townes’s charisma, she still botches the performance by delivering her lines with the detached, superficial concern of someone watching a sad TV news story about some faraway place. Seriously, if a random tragedy affects you enough driven to question God himself, put some freaking fire behind your delivery! Don’t tell us that this bothers you, show us! If you’re sad or frustrated or angry, put it out there and make us all feel that way too! Instead, we get this flat, defeated delivery that at best projects a “que sera, sera” attitude, and at worst convinces the audience that Townes doesn’t really care about this tale at all, and if she doesn’t care, why should we? (Her limp finish on the “stop that car from crashing” line, as if she loses her nerve at the last moment and is afraid to ask the question, is simply aggravating.) As much as I didn’t like her upbeat tone from “Somebody’s Daughter,” as least that song made me feel something. All I feel about this song is annoyed that it exists.

The lyrics here adopt a similar format to Clay Walker’s “A Few Questions,” although instead of asking about a wide variety of topics, the narrator asks their divine benefactor for comment mostly on a specific event involving a deadly car crash that killed a high-school star back in the day. (She also a bunch of random question about weather and planet rotation on the chorus, but they’re just throwaway softballs that obscure the main line of questioning.) There’s nothing terribly unexpected here (you’ve got the jersey, the yearbook, the mother who faith may have lapsed, etc.), but there’s at least a little bite to the lyrics: The narrator mentions how “your plan quit makin’ sense down here on Earth,” and declares that they will get an answer about this “some day” (sadly, it’s not enough to break through Townes’s cold delivery). I’m not a fan of the how the song frames the narrator as a casual bystander to this scene: If they really want to move the audience, the writers needed to make this a bit more personal, and put us in the shoes of someone who heard the deceased laugh and cry and share their deepest secrets. I think this setup could have worked with the right support, but such support is nonexistent from the sound and singer here.

“Jersey On The Wall” resembles the Jacoby Ellsbury jersey my brother hung on his wall years ago, mostly because not even he cares it’s there anymore. Whatever tearjerking potential resides in the lyrics is buried under odd production choices and a disappointing, unfeeling performance from Tenille Townes herself, and the result is a song that no one will care about in the moment or remember in the future. If Townes is serious about staking a claim in the American market, she’s going to need a lot better material than this.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: September 15, 2019

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Luke Bryan, “Knockin’ Boots” 0 (5/10)
2. Dierks Bentley, “Living” +2 (7/10)
3. Chris Lane, “I Don’t Know About You” -2 (3/10)
4. Justin Moore, “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” +1 (6/10)
5. Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks” +2 (7/10)
6. Carrie Underwood, “Southbound” 0 (5/10)
7. Cole Swindell, “Love You Too Late” +2 (7/10)
8. Chris Janson, “Good Vibes” -1 (4/10)
9. Matt Stell, “Prayed For You” 0 (5/10)
10. Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell, “What Happens In A Small Town” +1 (6/10)
11. Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing” +2 (7/10)
12. Keith Urban, “We Were” 0 (5/10)
13. Kenny Chesney, “Tip Of My Tongue” -2 (3/10)
14. Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You” +1 (6/10)
15. Thomas Rhett, “Remember You Young” +2 (7/10)
16. Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” +1 (6/10)
17. Miranda Lambert, “It All Comes Out In The Wash” 0 (5/10)
18. Tim McGraw, “Thought About You” 0 (5/10)
19. Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar” +1 (6/10)
20. Old Dominion, “One Man Band” +1 (6/10)
21. Midland, “Mr. Lonely” +3 (8/10)
22. Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication” +1 (6/10)
23. Jimmie Allen, “Make Me Want To” -1 (4/10)
24. HARDY, “REDNECKER” -3 (2/10)
25. Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads” -2 (3/10)
26. Luke Combs, “Ever Though I’m Leaving” 0 (5/10)
27. Jordan Davis, “Slow Dance In A Parking Lot” +1 (6/10)
28. Zac Brown Band, “Someone I Used To Know” +1 (6/10)
29. Jason Aldean, “We Back” -1 (4/10)
30. Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right” -2 (3/10)
31. Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” +1 (6/10)
32. Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” +3 (8/10)
33. Ryan Hurd, “To A T” 0 (5/10)
34. Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” -1 (4/10)
35. Travis Denning, “After A Few” 0 (5/10)
36. Kane Brown, “Homesick” +1 (6/10)
37. Brett Young, “Catch” +1 (6/10)
38. Riley Green, “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” 0 (5/10)
39. Scotty McCreery, “In Between” +1 (6/10)
40. Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” 0 (5/10)
41. Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?” +1 (6/10)
42. LoCash, “One Big Country Song” 0 (5/10)
43. Jake Owen, “Homemade” 0 (5/10)
44. Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” 0 (5/10)
45. Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” +1 (6/10)
46. King Calaway, “World For Two” 0 (5/10)
47. Maren Morris, “The Bones” 0 (5/10)
48. Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” -2 (3/10)
49. Blanco Brown, “The Git Up” (5/10)
50. Caroline Jones, “Chasin’ Me” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +10
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +5
Overall Pulse +15
Change From Last Week -2 😦

Best Song: “Mr. Lonely,” 8/10
Worst Song: “REDNECKER,” 2/10
Mode Scores: 0 (17 songs)

Gone:

  • Jason Aldean, “Rearview Town” (recurrent)
  • Filmore, “Slower” (down to #51)

Leaving:

  • Justin Moore, “The Ones Who Didn’t Make It Back Home” (down from #2 to #4)
  • Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks” (max-spin week is over)
  • Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” (holds at #16 but suffers a massive point loss, and is already down to #19 on the rolling charts)
  • HARDY, “REDNECKER” (down from #23 to #24, bullet-less for a second consecutive week, still bullet-less on the rolling charts, and is just out of gas)

In Real Trouble:

  • Ryan Hurd, “To A T” (down from #31 to #33, gained only seven spins and sixty-one points)
  • Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” (down from #33 to #34, gained only six spins and lost points)
  • King Calaway, “World For Two” (holds at #46, but gained only fifteen spins and seventy-five points)
  • Blanco Brown, “The Git Up” (holds at #49, but barely regains its bullet by gaining two spins and seventeen points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Keith Urban, “We Were” (up from #13 to #12, but lost spins and gained only thirty-two points)
  • Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar” (up from #20 to #19, but gained only fifty-six spins and twenty-three points)
  • Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (up from #22 to #21, but gained only twenty-one spins and lost points)
  • Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right” (down from #29 to #30, gained only fifty-five spins and lost points)
  • Scotty McCreery, “In Between” (holds at #39, but loses its bullet)
  • Jake Owen, “Homemade” (down from #42 to #43 and loses its bullet)
  • Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” (down from #44 to #45 and loses its bullet with a sizable point loss)
  • Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” (down from #47 to #48, gained only four spins and seven spins)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Jason Aldean, “We Back” (debuts at #29)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving” (up from #40 to #26 and appears bent on world domination once again)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts:

“Bryan looks to be making himself comfortable at the top right now, but I don’t think that will stop things up.” Kyle last week

“This is what I get for not taking supervillains into account.” Kyle today

I still believe there was enough slack space to absorb Aldean’s big debut with “We Back,” but I didn’t expect Thanos to leap up fourteen spots and consume 900+ spins in the process, leaving everyone below him (and more than a few folks above him) scrambling for airtime. (As happy as I was to see Runaway June go all-out to score a Top 5 peak, their max-push didn’t help matters either.)

The repercussions of this week could be substantial: The shock seems to have finally jarred Rascal Flatts from the charts (and I expect McGraw to join them soon, with strong contenders like Old Dominion and Pardi lurking behind him), and HARDY’s sputtering “REDNECKER” might finally be doomed as well (and not a single tear will be shed when it leaves). A few other surprises include:

  • Some cracks are starting to appear in Blake Shelton, Inc., as “Dive Bar” seems to be stuck in the same rut as “Thought About You,” and “Hell Right” settling in on the edge of the Top 30 with little momentum (expect Andress to eat that song’s lunch next week).
  • Whatever momentum Gone West had a week or two ago seems to have evaporated as well, as “What Could’ve Been” took a substantial hit as it dropped back to #45. With Lady Antebellum back in the Top 15, perhaps no one is in the mood for a Lady A imitator?
  • I’m honestly surprised that “Nothing To Do Town”‘s losses weren’t bigger this week. This thing has been DOA for several months now (Allen was stuck with Scott during the early run of both songs, but he’s moved comfortably into the Top 20 while Scott has floundered), and after almost nine months, the track really doesn’t have a future. I’d say Curb should just drop this and move on to the next project, but I said that about Big Machine and Tyler Rich a few months ago, and Rich hasn’t been seen since, so…
  • Is it time for Gilbert and Ell to start thinking about an exit strategy? Their rough-week rebound lasted a whole one week, and while their gains weren’t terrible, they paled in comparison to the artists (Janson and Stell) that ran them over. With Dickerson, Lady A, and Rhett now in their rear-view mirror, I’m not sure this song has enough juice left to ascend much higher.

I think things should loosen up a bit next week, but with Chris Young and FGL looking to jump back into the fray, the chart may be in for another rough week.

So what do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Blessings”

Have the angels on the shoulders of Florida Georgia Line finally won out over the devils?

After being the standard bearers of Bro-Country for so long, Florida Georgia Line has been stuck in the middle of an identity crisis recently. Their last few singles have bounced between their usual Metro-Bro fare (“Smooth,” “Talk You Out Of It”) and simple love songs that mimic the styles of other artists (“God, Your Mama, And Me,” “Simple”). While Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were waffling, however, the radio made their preferences clear: The first two songs above didn’t crack the Top Ten on Billboard’s airplay chart, while the latter two both sneaked into the Top 5. It seems that the world has moved on from Bro bombast, and with “Blessings,” the third track from FGL’s Can’t Say I Ain’t Country album, suggests the pair has finally gotten the message. The song is a lightweight, wedding-ready love song, and while this ground has been plowed a million times before in the genre, this track at least has some feeling and earnestness behind it, and it’s a respectable rebound from “Talk You Out Of It.”

The difference in production is the first thing you’ll notice: It’s not the Mumford-esque nod to tradition that “Simple” was, but it’s also not the slick, synthetic sound of “Talk You Out Of It” either. The song opens with an organ and an acoustic guitar, mixes in some steel guitar and a real freaking drum set for a change, and that’s pretty much all you get (it doesn’t even bring in an electric guitar until the bridge solo!). There’s a softness to this mix that I’ve never really heard from an FGL track, and while the duo loses the distinctive sound that they’ve been known for (this is as contemporarily conventional as these two have ever sounded), I think the warmth and the mellow vibe of the arrangement here more than make up for it. (In fact, I’d say the sound adds credence to their declaration of commitment: They’re willing to change up their whole sound for the people they love!) It’s the kind of “d’awww…” sound you expect from a song like this, and having a group like FGL pull it off this well is no small feat.

As expected, Hubbard takes the leading role here, and I’m actually rather impressed by his performance this time around. Yes, there are still glimpses of his old Bro persona here (although this is mostly due to the writing), and no, the relaxed nature of the song means neither his range nor his flow are tested, but this song tests Hubbard’s charisma in a way that even the straight-shooting “Simple” didn’t do. The narrator is much more sentimental here, and the performer has to find the balance between showing enough emotion to be believed and not showing so much that it becomes sappy and saccharine. Amazingly, Hubbard actually finds that balance point, coming across as believable and emotional without laying it on so think that he invites suspicion. (Kelley is…well, present, although his harmony work is no more distinguishable than it ever was.) One wonders is the pair has been taking notes from Thomas Rhett, because FGL not only convinces the audience in their authenticity, they allow them to share in the happiness of the moment, and that’s pretty big for the people who brought you “Cruise” and “Sun Daze.”

There aren’t a lot of surprises hidden in the writing: The narrator is in love, they’ve been in love for a while, and said love has made them realize how fortunate they are (i.e., “it ain’t hard to count your blessings”). Everyone you expect to find is here: The ever-present religious imagery (angels, Amens, etc.), the “lucky man” on a “little house on a little land,” and so on. The song makes a point to explicitly point out the commitment level of the narrator (the ring, the “first year together,” the prediction of future children), which is probably needed given the reputation of the performers. Then again, just when you hear a line like “you always saw the blue skies past the rain clouds in my eyes” and think maybe FGL has turned over a new leaf, they go back to leaning on “girl” and drop a line like “we’re a lucky fam” that reminds you of who they are. It’s not a great piece of writing and it’s certainly not an original one, but it leaves enough hooks for the sound and singers to latch onto and elevate it with their own work.

“Blessings” is overall a pretty decent effort from Florida Georgia Line, one that I really wasn’t sure they were capable of pulling off. As paint-by-numbers as the lyrics are, the production is suitably sweet and the duo acquits themselves surprisingly well (well, at least Hubbard does; Kelley is just kind of there) and really make the audience believe they’re serious about what they’re saying. The Bro era that FGL ushered in forced a lot of other artists to conform or fall by the wayside, but now they’re the ones that have to do the conforming, and at least for one song, they’ve succeeded.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a spin and see how it sounds.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Drowning”

You know that awkward moment when a joke doesn’t land and everyone’s just staring blankly at the teller? That’s how this song makes me feel.

Chris Young has taken a lot of heat in recent years for his blatant trend-hopping, from the Bro-Country-inspired “Aw Naw” to the slick, synthetic “I’m Comin’ Over” to his recent “I’m so country!” declaration “Raised On Country” (which eventually got squeezed off the radio and had to settle for a #5 airplay peak). For his second offering off of his Raised On Country album, Young and his team went with “Drowning,” a lost-love lament with the trusty “death, not desire” twist that’s guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. Faced with this uncontested layup of a premise, however, Young ended up missing the backboard entirely, giving us a track that was so sterile and unfeeling that I felt absolutely nothing when the punch line landed, leaving me yawning instead of crying when the song finished.

The production deserves the majority of the blame for this misfire, because it comes across as “I’m Comin’ Over, Part 2” and just does not suit the story. The tracks opens with an electric axe so slick you have to play it with ice skates instead of picks, a couple of lightweight synth riffs that try (and fail) to establish some atmosphere, and a limp percussion line that mixes in both real and synthetic elements. A piano (of course!) jumps in to help with the verses, but it gets buried again on the chorus, and the overall atmosphere ends up feeling cold and lifeless instead of emotional. The brighter synths clash with the darker feel and minor chords of the rest of the track, and the slower tempo and lack of synergy with the writing leave the song without energy of any sort. This thing comes across as a leftover Metropolitan mix someone dug out of a closet and tried to retro-fit on this song, and it leaves the listener unmoved even in the face of tragedy.

Against a sound this robotic and frigid, even a singer as talented as Young is left shouting into a metaphorical blizzard. On the surface, his performance doesn’t sound much different from any of his other singles: Sure, he doesn’t get to show off his range, power, or flow, but he’s still got the smooth delivery, incredible tone, and easy, earnest charisma that have defined and powered his career up to this point. However, I wouldn’t call this the most emotional of Young’s performances either, as he seems a bit more stoic and subdued that someone coming off a mortality-forced breakup would be. Singers in this position either have to bring more raw energy (think Joe Diffie in “A Night To Remember”) or temper their sorrow with optimism (think Dierks Bentley’s “Gonna Get There Someday”), but there’s a calmness and polish to Young’s delivery that just doesn’t fit this situation and leaves him stuck in the mushy middle. He’s just not believable in this role, and he makes the audience question just how broken up he is about the relationship. With someone as capable as Young behind the mic, a placid performance like this is an absolute worst-case scenario.

The lyrics follow the well-worn playbook of this trope: Set the scene as if the narrator is mourning the loss of yet another relationship, and them bam! Hit them with the twist, reveal that the other person has passed away, and leave the audience to weep over the finality of the whole matter. So what when wrong here? For one thing, the writers give the game away way too early: Usually such a twist is left for the bridge or final verse, but here the curtain is anti-climatically pulled away on the first chorus when the narrator reference “how you were taken way too soon.” (At least Thomas Rhett waited until the final line of the chorus to provide the truth behind “Marry Me”; this bombshell was dropped so nonchalantly that I actually missed it during my first listen.) Beyond that, the song is fairly generic, with a lame hook and few details beyond predictable references like answering machines and religious allusions (“I know you’re in a better place/And one day I’ll see you again”). The writing doesn’t do anything explicit to sabotage itself (outside of not being able to keep a secret longer than fifty-five seconds), but it doesn’t do enough to help its case either, and when it gets saddled with poor production decisions and mediocre vocals, the whole thing collapses under its own weight.

With a title like “Drowning,” this song holds surprisingly little water: The production is recycled and bland, the lyrics are cookie-cutter and unsuspenseful, and Chris Young doesn’t do anything to sell the song to the listener. I was really surprised how little I was moved when the twist happened, but given the mediocre showing from all involved, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. When you get upstaged this badly by the other Young in the genre, it’s time to re-evaluate your marketing strategy and settle on a distinct sound rather than hopping between what’s popular.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler, no more, no les.

Ring Fit Adventure: Why Does This Exist?

In the middle of what’s turning out to be a crowded year-end release list for Nintendo, the company took a moment to drop a surprise trailer featuring a strange new Joy-Con accessory, and then following it up with a lengthy explanation a week later voiced by two overly-animated narrators. The truth, however, turned out to be much stranger than we anticipated: The new accessory (the Ring-Con) is a glorified hi-tech exercise band, and pairs with a leg strap to allow players to control a character in Ring Fit Adventure, an RPG-esque game that uses actual movements and exercises to explore the world and battle enemies. In other words, it’s Wii Fit meets Miitopia.

If your reaction is “Huh?”, trust me, you’re not alone. Such an off-the-wall move is so Nintendo-like that it’s kind of surprising that we didn’t see this coming, but this release feels exceptionally bizarre for a couple of reasons:

  • Back when I discussed the Switch Lite reveal, I confidently declared that we’d seen the last of crazy Joy-Con technology, because the Switch Lite’s unseparable chassis meant that any game that made unorthodox use of the Joy-Cons incompatible with the new console. Nintendo, however, decided to go the Ring Fit Adventure route anyway, thereby locking out a potentially-large new segment of its install base from being able to play it.
  • An accessory like the Ring-Con seems to run counter to the idea that the Switch is a system you can wherever and however you want. Sure, a Ring-Con is easier to carry around than a full home gym, but I have enough trouble as it is finding a convenient way to carry around my Pro Controller when I travel, to say nothing of a big plastic ring that eats up valuable carry-on space. On top of that, the use of separated Joy-Cons means that Ring Fit Adventure can at best be played in tabletop mode, and offers no handheld support at all. These feels like a game meant for home-use only, which feels a little awkward given the “play anywhere” mantra of the console.

While I don’t object to the the idea of an exercise-based adventure, it certainly raises a lot of questions in my mind. What’s really going on here? Why the purpose behind the release of Ring Fit Adventure? I can think of three possibilities:

  • Nintendo is still chasing the success of its biggest console. The Switch has undoubtedly been a success thus far, but it hasn’t reached the cultural icon status that the Wii did over a decade ago. Consequently, the sales of Nintendo’s second 8th-gen console (why does Wikipedia list both the Wii U and Switch as 8th-gen?) are lagging behind its 7th-gen machine:
Image from VGChartz

As cool as the Switch is, it’s still lacking that Wii Sports-like title that brought the Wii into retirement homes and other unexpected places. Ring Fit Adventure looks a bit too intense for those sorts of casual players, but it’s worth noting that Wii Fit was the sixth-best-selling game on the system. Nintendo seems to be betting that with the hardcore gaming crowd firmly in hand with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, they can take a chance on a title with mass-appeal potential and bring lapsed Wii players back into the fold.

  • Nintendo is still thinking hard about the VR and AR. As I watched the in-depth reveal trailer, I couldn’t shake one thought: Where the heck is the VR support for this thing? A game that has you running and exercising in place seems like the perfect time to dust off that old Nintendo Labo headset and really immerse yourself in the story. Even without it, however, Ring Fit Adventure offers Nintendo a safe opportunity to experiment with different control styles, which may pay off down the line if the company decides to make a big play in the virtual-reality space. (While it’s the less exciting of the new accessories, I think the leg strap has a bit more potential than the Ring-Con, as it frees up the lower body for more movements (while the upper-body is a bit more constrained by having to constantly interact with the Ring-Con).

If virtual reality gaming takes off in the next few years, Nintendo gets head start in claiming the space through the experience gained through Joy-Con and Ring-Con gaming. If it doesn’t, we’re left with a simple exercise game with a progression system and a weird peripheral. For Nintendo, I don’t see a lot of downside here, especially given that the Switch’s success buys them some flexibility to experiment.

  • With the entire industry under intense scrutiny, Nintendo is offering an argument for video games as a force for good. Let’s face it⁠, video games haven’t had the greatest the summers in 2019. In the wake of a wave of mass shooting in America, many of the talking heads and power brokers in Washington (including the president himself) are pointing the finger at violent video games and blaming them for the decay in society. While such a claim is unproven at best, it leads to a deeper question: Forget what video games are doing to society—what are they doing for it?

Playing a video game, much like listening to music or watching a sport on television, is a leisure activity whose primary goals are to kill time and offer a respite from the day-to-day grind. At the end of the day, however, it can be hard to argue that you’re a better person for playing the game. Your skills aren’t easily transferable (for all the Mario Kart I’ve played, I’m still a terrible driver), your accomplishments are ephemeral (congratulations, you saved a non-existent princess and their non-existent kingdom!), and unless you’re a top-tier streamer, you aren’t making any money. Fair or not, the stereotypical “gamer” is a lethargic loser who needs to go outside, get a job, and stop wasting their time on silly games.

With Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo has a chance to flip the narrative around gaming as an activity. It can point to its RFA and say “If you play this game, you will incorporate fitness into your life, become a healthier person, and live a better life.” How many games can you say that about? Because of this, the next time someone names video games as a plague upon society, Nintendo has a handy counterargument ready, one that (if it blows up) could change the entire conversation about what video games can do for the world.

Even if you’re a cynic like this who thinks gaming companies are thinking capitalistically instead of altruistically, there are a few good reasons why a game like Ring Fit Adventure could be an important arrow in Nintendo’s quiver. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move that has the potential to change our perception of what a video game can be, and if it falls flat, Pokémon will flush it from our memory banks by the end of November. That’s a fairly strong argument for existence in my book.

Song Review: Little Big Town, “Over Drinking”

Little Big Town may still be trend-hopping, but at least it’s a trend I can support this time.

I’ve already dug into the details of Little Big Town’s career up to this point, so I won’t repeat myself except to say that they haven’t been relevant on the radio for several years now. (Their last single “The Daughters” not only didn’t make enough noise to get on Billboard’s airplay chart, it didn’t motivate me to even bother reviewing it.) Now, however, the quartet is back with “Over Drinking,” the second single from their upcoming Nightfall album, and honestly, this is most positive vibes I’ve gotten from an LBT song since I started the blog nearly three years ago. It’s predictably in line with the trends of the day (a more traditional sound, a more confident narrator, and of course alcohol everywhere you look), but even a trendy tune can work if the execution is sharp, and this is the sharpest the group has sounded in quite some time.

The production here is pretty simple: A low-end hard-rock electric guitar keeping time with a real drum set, a Brad Paisley-esque axe throwing out some riffs to open the track and fill time between choruses (not to mention an admittedly-unimpressive bridge solo), and a steel guitar and Wurlitzer piano in the background to help establish the atmosphere. These aren’t the brightest-toned instruments I’ve ever heard, but the producer does a nice job putting them together to creating an uplifting vibe with a fair amount of positive energy (although the slower tempo and lower volume makes this energy more emotional than kinetic). The mix does a nice job adding weight and credence to the lyrics: The narrator may say that they’re “over drinking over you,” but the optimism in the sound really helps you believe it. (It gets additional points for passing the context text, because it actually sounds like something you’d hear in an old-school barroom.) It’s a solid piece of work, and it sets the rest of the song up for success.

Lead singer Karen Fairchild puts together an impressive performance here as well, especially given the tough spot the song puts her in start. The key is a bit low here and traps her deep in her lower range, and putting the narrator in an ambiguous situation where they could be drinking for any old reason puts the burden of proof on the vocalist to make the narrator believable. This would be a death knell for a weaker singer, but Fairchild manages to maintain her vocal presence here, and infuses her delivery with enough attitude and confidence that when she declares she’s drinking for fun and not to forget, the listener swallows the argument hook, line, and sinker. I’m not sure I would the rest of the group’s harmonies terribly distinct, but they provide cover on the choruses and complement Fairchild’s performance rather than detract from it. (I’m also not sure I would have hurried the hook endings to push them ahead of the beat, but it not only works, it adds a bit more emphasis to the punch line.) It’s a good showing overall, and demonstrates that while LBT may be out of sight, they aren’t quite over the hill just yet.

The lyrics tell the story of a narrator’s who is sick and tired of crying over a failed relationship, and is now drinking only for pleasure. It’s not the most novel or clever story (I’d call the “overdrinking” vs. “over drinking” hook slightly above-average), and it leaves a bit too much open for interpretation (Are they really over the pain? It’s left to Fairchild’s vocals to provide clarity), but it provides enough detail to get the listener a sense of the depths the narrator had sunk to, and there’s no doubt that their intent is to leave the past behind, regardless of how successful their attempt is. It’s the sort of sympathetic, confident declaration that puts the audience squarely in the narrator’s corner and makes them root for that person’s success, and leaves enough hooks for the sound and singer to really bite into the song and elevate it to another level. It’s a nice change of pace from the whiny “woe is me” songs that usually fall into this category, and it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t mind hearing of from the group.

“Over Drinking” reminds me a lot of Jason Aldean’s “Drowns The Whiskey”: It takes a tired, overdone trope and executes it to perfection, dotting every i and crossing ever t. The production is suitable and satisfying, the writing exudes confidence instead of cheesiness, and Little Big Town ties it all together with their easy, earnest delivery. I don’t expect this to gain much more traction than the group’s last few singles, but there’s still a place in country music for a talented quartet that can hit their marks, and if LBT insists on sticking around past their mainstream expiration date, with song like this, they’ll get no objections from me.

Rating: 7/10. Give this one a shot.