Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty”

Never has a song tried so hard and made me feel so little.

Despite running this blog for over a year and a half, this is my first chance to review a Carrie Underwood single, which seems impossible to fathom. Underwood exploded out of the gates with her American Idol victory in 2005 and has been a major force in country music for over a decade, but a lot has happened since her last single “Dirty Laundry” came out in late 2016: A family-driven hiatus, a label change, a slew of collaborations (“Forever Country,” “The Fighter,” “The Champion”), and a serious accident that left her with a broken wrist and over 40 stitches in her face. Now, however, Underwood is rested, recovered, and ready to return to the radio with “Cry Pretty,” the leadoff single for her upcoming sixth album, and…well…it’s okay, I guess? As much as I enjoyed Underwood’s material in the past, I have to admit: This song doesn’t move me at all.

The production starts small (a bit too small, honestly, as the guitar is really hard to hear), opening with only Underwood singing over a dark, methodical electric guitar. Things ramp up in a hurry, however, as an affected drum set and a steel guitar jump in halfway through the first verse, and the whole mix (including Underwood herself) gets cranked up to eleven for the choruses, guitar solo, and extended outro. For all the noise and volume, however, the song’s slow tempo and waltz time seem to drain it of all its energy, making the track feel hollow and superficial instead of deep and moving. You can practically feel the musicians straining as they try to pump life into the tune, and yet for me, it just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving any impression at all.

Carrie Underwood is perhaps the most talented artist we’ve seen in country music since the turn of the millennium, so her failure to connect with the listener here is completely baffling. Her range and power remain stellar and unmatched, and though some of the “cryyyyyyyyy pretty” phrases feel a bit awkward, she’s mostly on point here as well. She’s also as earnest and believable as ever, and plays the narrator’s role with plenty of conviction and charisma. Yet outside of her haunting pseudo-yodels on the outro, she just can’t seem to transmit her pain and feelings to the listener as she’s done in the past, a result so unexpected that it makes me wonder if the issue is with Underwood or with me. I suppose I’m not really part of the target audience here, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been part of Underwood’s target audience, and it’s never stopped me from absorbing her material in the past. I’m at a loss to explain this one.

The lyrics here feature the narrator matter-or-factly stating that sometimes their emotions get the best of them, and they need to let them out regardless of how it makes them look or how other people might view them. Though they “apologize if you don’t like what you see,” the song is anything but an apology, with the narrator declaring that a) sometime people get emotional, b) it’s not weak or impolite to show said emotions, and c) and if you don’t like seeing that, tough cookies. It’s a strong, positive message, but it gets obscured by the serious, minor-chord-heavy production (perhaps brighter, faster production like Terri Clark’s “Emotional Girl” would have delivered the message more effectively?) For a song that defiantly proclaims that showing emotion is okay, it draws surprisingly little emotion from its audience.

really want to like “Cry Pretty” and the song really wants me to like it, and I almost feel the need to apologize to Carrie Underwood because I don’t. The sad fact, however, is that I would rather listen to a fun no-op song like Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key” than this track, because I’ll at least feel something when it’s over. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’m going to let this pass by and hope Underwood’s next single is more interesting.

Rating: 5/10. I wasn’t impressed, but I’d still encourage people to check it out and make up their own mind on it.

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Song Review: Old Dominion, “Hotel Key”

Is it a shallow, inconsequential song about nothing? Yes…but at least it’s fun.

I’ve called out a bunch of artists whose output appears to be trending in the wrong direction, but Old Dominion is one of the few acts that seems to be getting better over time (then again, when you start with a tire fire like “Break Up With Him,” there’s really nowhere to go but up). “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a decent tune with a nice message, and while “Written In The Sand” didn’t thrill me upon first listen, it kinda-sorta grew on me as time went on. Now the group is back with “Hotel Key,” the third single from their Happy Endings album, and while it’s essentially a sequel to “Snapback,” it features sharper writing while still maintaining its  fun, lighthearted feel.

The production here is a near-exact copy of what we heard on “Snapback,” with a prominent electric guitar carrying the melody and a real drum set keeping time. Dig a bit deeper, however, and you find a few concessions to a more-traditional sound: The guitars feel a bit less slick and feature brighter tones with a bit more rollick, and the synthetic background tones on the chorus have been replaced with an actual organ. Regardless, however, the vibe of both songs is the same: Lighthearted, energetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. Rather than focus on the steamy, sultry side of a “happy ending,” the mix decides to own its role as a shallow summer song and takes a playful approach to the topic à la Garth and Midland, and the song stands out more as a result (and personally, I wish more wannabe sex jams would do this). It’s not a terribly unique or memorable mix, but at least it’s time well wasted.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey deserves a lot of credit for making this song work as well as it does, because the track does his no favors: It’s set a key or two too low for his vocals, causing him to bottom out at point during the verses, and the rapid-fire talk-singing nature of the lyrics really exposes how awkward and stilted his flow is. (He sounds much more comfortable on the choruses, where he’s allowed to stretch his range a bit and the rest of the band can help him out with their harmonies.) The key here is having enough charisma to sound believable as they revel in an old memory (the default reaction for most country singers is to lament the missed opportunity), and Ramsey has enough skill to get the job done despite the degree of difficulty. He doesn’t contribute anything unique to the sound, but he doesn’t screw it up and ruin the mood either.

The lyrics are where this song steps up and differentiates itself from “Snapback.” The narrator describes what is basically a one-night stand with a woman, but does so in a way that makes it feel less like a cheap hookup and more like a truly meaningful moment in the narrator’s life. There is no mention of “making out” or “making love,” and the only physical contact that’s even alluded to is when the pair “danced by the TV [they] never turned on.” (Also, in contrast to the “you’re so hot; let’s hook up” message of “Snapback,” here the introductions are already made and the woman is barely described at all.) Much more attention is given to the setting and the non-intercourse portions of the encounter: checking out three hours late, the way the woman sat on the bed and “talked about Austin and how she’d get back there someday” (an unintentional Blake Shelton reference?), and of course, the hotel key. The details are vivid and novel, and do a nice job painting a picture of the scene without diving into the R-rated specifics, accomplishing the amazing feat of producing a sex jam without any actual sex.

“Hotel Key” is a lightweight, uptempo summer song that has no designs are being anything more, but there’s also enough here in both the production and lyrics to withstand a deeper dissection without feeling too creepy or sleazy, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. If nothing else, the song avoids blunting Old Dominion’s trend towards respectability, and though it may not leave you with a lasting memory, it’ll at least leave you with a smile.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a shot and see what you think.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Get Along”

Personally, I’d “Get Along” a lot better if Kenny Chesney would give up trying to make a statement in increasingly uninteresting ways.

Over the last few years, Chesney has occasionally felt the need to make some sort of semi-socially-conscious statement about the world around him, and inevitably, the resulting track is disappointing and forgettable. There was the hamfisted, generic “Noise,” the synthetic, predictable laundry list “Rich And Miserable,” the lifeless David Lee Murphy collab “Everything’s Gonna Ba Alright,” and now we’ve got “Get Along,” a confusing, uninspiring track that implores us to go out and live our lives, but only succeeds in putting us to sleep.

To its credit, the song’s production is a sizable step up from Chesney’s prior motivational tunes. The electric guitars and synthetic percussion are still here, but their role is much smaller here, as the spotlight is turned over to a bright acoustic guitar and a much-more-than-token banjo (it even shares top billing with an electric guitar during the solo!). Similarly, the minor chords and dark-toned instruments are tossed in favor of an upbeat, optimistic atmosphere that looks to the future instead of bemoaning the present. While the weak writing shirks its duties and leaves the listener unsure of what to think (more on that later), the mix does a nice job stepping in and setting a clear tone, signaling to the listener that the song should leave them happy, even if they aren’t sure why. Unfortunately, the mix doesn’t quite deliver the energy to back up these feelings, and whatever sugar rush it gives its audience is short-lived.

I’ve been a little nervous about Chesney since his mailed-in performance on “Bar At The End Of The World,” but he puts in enough effort here to at least sound earnest, if not convincing. The song places few strains on his range or flow, so Chesney’s charisma has to carry the day, and…well, his delivery might have been enough to pull it off if the song had been a bit more coherent. He sounds genuinely curious when posing questions to the phone sex billboard, and seems genuinely tickled by his “getting rained on with an old man” anecdote. That said, his claim that we should all just “get along” feels a bit hollow, and he doesn’t bring the evidence or the energy to really sell the audience on the idea.

And then there’s the writing, which is less of a kumbaya, “let’s all get along” song and more of an escapist, “ignore the noise” song (think Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink,” but with a lot less alcohol). Frankly, this thing is scattered all over the place: The narrator tells his wet-old-man story, ponders the background of a 900-number woman, and oh yeah, you should go out and life your life, you know? The verses seem to have no connection to the chorus whatsoever (the phone sex story stands out for its lack of a punch line), and the chorus’s proposed laundry bucket list is boilerplate and boring (Drink! Paint! Sing! And don’t forget to call home!) It’s like listening to my grandfather take fifteen minutes to tell a story because he keeps getting sidetracked and telling other stories, except my grandfather doesn’t put people to sleep nearly as quickly.

“Get Along” is yet another attempt by Kenny Chesney to prove that he has something to say, and winds up as yet another piece of evidence that he actually doesn’t. It’s a small step up from his last few sermons thanks to the production, but it’s a large step backwards from “All The Pretty Girls” thanks to its bizarre lyrics. Given the choice, I’d rather sit around and worry about the world’s problems than listen to this incoherent snoozefest.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a decent replacement for Zzzquil, I suppose.

Song Review: Craig Campbell, “See You Try”

Dear Craig Campbell: If you’re putting lipstick on a pig, making sure the shade matches its eyes doesn’t make it any better.

I like to think of Campbell as the answer to the question “What would have happened if Chris Young stuck to more-traditional country music instead of trend-hopping?” From that angle, Young’s decisions make a lot more sense: Both men have a similar voice and style, but while Young has managed to maintain his momentum and radio presence throughout the decade, Campbell is perpetually stuck on the outside looking in, with only a single Top Ten to his credit. After years of banging his head against a radio wall, Campbell’s latest single release “See You Try” feels like a bit of a white flag: It’s a Bro-lite, nothing-to-see-here, heard-it-a-million-times-before track that fits nicely into today’s radio climate, at the cost of being perhaps Campbell’s weakest single to date.

The first compromise you notice is in the production: The fiddle and steel that characterized much of Campbell’s prior work are gone, replaced by post-chorus hand claps, a token banjo, and the same wall of drums and guitars that you’ll find on nearly every contemporary country track. In truth, however, it’s not all bad: The drums are mostly real, and the electric guitars are rough and rollicking enough to give a song a decent groove and a nice shot of energy. I hate to use “the a-word” here (authenticity), but the atmosphere feels a bit more organic and real than most tracks in this lane, conjuring up the image/atmosphere of an old-school roadhouse rather than an urban nightclub. Unfortunately, it’s not really enough to make the song stand out from its peers, and it’s generally overwhelmed by the awfulness of the writing.

Save for some light echo effects, Campbell sounds about the same as he always does: An earnest, effortless delivery, solid vocal tone and presence, and plenty of charisma to help sell the track. (The song’s mid/slow tempo and constrained range don’t test Campbell’s technical abilities much, but he handles what’s there with ease.) The problem, however, is that the narrator is not the most sympathetic in the world (he comes across as equal parts creepy and lazy), and the directness of some of the language keeps him from elevating the song beyond its Bro roots (there’s only so far you can spin a phrase like “takin’ you home, gettin’ it on”). It’s the same problem that has plagued Jake Owen’s last few singles: What good is being a charismatic, believable singer if you’re playing the role of a douchebag? In short, it’s a good performance wasted on a bad role.

The lyrics are what really ruin this track. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The narrator spots a woman at a bar, likes what they see, and starts inquiring about nighttime drive and hay-rolling. It’s generic and uninteresting, sure, but what bothers me more about this track than other creeping-from-a-distance songs is how it puts all the onus on the woman to kick-start the relationship. The narrator wants to “see [her] try” to make him dance, go for a ride, and lead him out of the bar and into the sack, and doesn’t even make a token offering of “hey baby, my love is worth the work!” (Personally, I’d like to see him try to be less creepy and take some initiative for a change.) There’s no explicit or overtly misogynistic language here, but the implication that the narrator just sees this woman as a sex object is so think you could cut it with a knife. It’s the sort of lyrical disaster that irritates me more and more every time I listen to it, and given the choice I’d rather just turn the radio off.

Frankly, “See You Try” is a sleaze sandwich, and slapping such rancid writing between palatable production and a strong singer doesn’t help it pass the smell test. I understand what Craig Campbell is trying to accomplish here, and the efforts both he and the producer put in are admirable, but there are less-offensive ways to gain radio relevance, and Campbell, much like Chris Young, has more than enough talent to pursue other options and make them work.

I’m not mad, Craig. I’m just disappointed.

Rating: 4/10. Go back and listen to “Outskirts Of Heaven” instead.

Song Review: Midland, “Burn Out”

Good grief, could these guys steal my Song of the Year award again?

Midland struck gold with their debut single “Drinkin’ Problem,” establishing themselves as the latest face of the traditionalist movement within country music. However, their follow-up single “Make A Little” didn’t make nearly as big a splash: I noted that the song “isn’t written for critics,” but it turned out the song wasn’t written for anyone at all, hitting a wall on Billboard’s airplay chart and settling for a disappointing #15 peak. Faced with the prospect of ceding their title as a traditionalist leader (and honestly, who’s left to pick it the mantle at this point? Jon Pardi? Ashley McBryde? Cole Swindell!?), Midland brought out the big guns for single #3 from On The Rocks: “Burn Out,” a sad, mid-tempo tune in the vein of “Drinkin’ Problem” that features old-school production, strong harmonies, and sharp writing. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and will probably challenge for the title of my favorite single of 2018.

The production gives off the same 70s-era barroom vibe that “Drinkin’ Problem” did, and features most of the same instruments: a pair of guitars carrying the melody (an acoustic on the verses, an electric stepping up on the chorus), some steel guitar for atmospheric stabs and a haunting solo, a piano doing some rhythmic chord work, and a real drum set laying a foundation for the whole thing. The track features a plethora of minor chords (in fact, they outnumber the major ones) that take some of the shine off of the instrument tones and create a sad, somber mood, complementing the lyrics while taking great care not to get in their way. The way the mix uses all these elements to set a last-call, last-smoke atmosphere is really impressive, and probably accounts for a fair chunk of this band’s appeal.

As far as vocal analyses go, you might as well go back and read what I said about Mark Wystrach and his bandmates in my “Drinkin’ Problem” review, because everything I said then applies now: Wystrach’s smooth, charismatic delivery, the mastery of what admittedly isn’t a technically-demanding song, and the strong harmony work. (I will, however, single out the choral harmonies on “Burn Out” for special recognition, as they feel especially poignant and moving on this track relative to “Drinkin’ Problem.”) The trio has found an effective formula to connect with listeners and let them share in their pain and joy, and with the exception of one or two tracks on On The Rocks, they don’t mess with it.

The narrator is basically the same person that was crying into his beer on “Drinkin’ Problem,” except they’ve picked up a nasty cigarette habit to boot, watching them “burn out” and relating the process to a gone-too-soon romance. What makes me put “Burn Out” above “Drinkin’ Problem,” however, is that the writing feels a lot sharper and wittier. The imagery is both vivid and unique (“Watching rivers run/down the side of my bottle/It’s almost like they’re crying my tears”), and while using a cigarette for a romantic analogy isn’t unheard of (see: Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby”), the writers seem to do a lot more with than most songs, comparing the desire for another smoke to the constant need to find a romantic partner and noting that those that play too close the flame “got no right to complain” if they get burned. (I also like how they at least change the wording from what you might expect; you don’t “get burned,” but “you know it’s gonna leave a mark.”) The whole thing feels a bit more specific and personal than “Drinkin’ Problem,” and as good at that track was, that’s really saying something.

I recognize that a cynic (or someone who’s sore about my LoCash review) could raise the point that “Hey, this and ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ are basically the same song; why do we need two of them?” My response is that “Drinkin’ Problem” was the best single released in 2017, and that you can never get enough of quality tracks like this. I enjoyed everything about this track, from the sound to the singers, and it’ll be a clear favorite for my Song of the Year title…right up until they release “Out Of Sight.” 😉

Rating: 10/10. Alan Jackson‘s got some company at the top.

Song Review: Trent Harmon, “You Got ‘Em All”

If this is the best American Idol could do, I can see why the show got canceled the first time.

Trent Harmon is a Mississippi native whose big break came in 2016 when he voted the winner of the “final” season of Idol (final, at least, until the lukewarm ABC reboot this year). I’ve generally been pretty impressed with the singing competition alumni that make their way into country music (Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, Danielle Bradbery, etc.), but Harmon hasn’t impressed me at all so far. I found his official debut single “There’s A Girl” to be pretty meh, and his follow-up “You Got ‘Em All” comes across as an off-brand, inferior version of Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” that stretches Harmon’s voice far past its breaking point (and breaks my ears in the process).

The production, for its part, isn’t the problem here—in fact, its biggest sin is that there isn’t enough of it here! The song starts out with a light, methodical piano and a barely-there snare drum, and slowly ramps up with some atmospheric organ swells and background electric guitar riffs (the guitar eventually steps up and delivers a tolerable solo). The result is a minimal, reflective atmosphere with a thoughtful vibe that encourages the listener to pay close attention to the lyrics (a poor decision in hindsight, sadly). I wouldn’t call it terribly memorable or interesting, but my biggest issue here is that the volume balance is way out of whack, causing Harmon’s vocals to completely drown out the instruments and forcing listeners to choose between not hearing them at all or having their speakers blown out by Harmon’s subpar vocal performance. My decision was easy: I just hit the mute button.

As far as the vocals, there’s no other way to put this: Harmon sounds terrible on this track. His voice gives off a strong Keith Urban vibe, much like Hunter Hayes on “Yesterday’s Song,” but his voice is trapped in his upper range for much of the song, where his voice become painfully thin and shrill, reaching a nails-on-a-chalkboard level of annoying really fast. While “There’s A Girl” protected Harmon by rarely pushing him to his range limit and backing with some decent harmony vocals, this track basically hangs him out to dry, with neither the production nor the harmony vocals packing enough raw volume to help cover him. If you can get past Harmon’s upper-range struggles, there are still some promising signs here: His flow is decent, his lower range is passable, and he brings enough charisma to allow him to sell the song. None of this matters, however, when the song take the singer’s weakest part of his repertoire and continuously shoves it in your face.

The lyrics here are nothing special, as they tell the tale of a sad narrator whose partner left them in a small town to chase the brights lights of the city. Although it’s the same premise as Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” the writing isn’t as effective or impactful because it lacks the interesting environmental details that Church included, leaning on clichéd lines involving “West Coast lights” and “spread[ing] your wings.” Furthermore, the narrator comes off as a bit lazy and unsympathetic, as they’re just sitting around “waiting for life to begin again” for “waiting on love to give a second chance” when they probably could have, say, just followed their partner to the West Coast? (There’s also a line early in the song talking about “the things you always thought that I could be,” implying that the partner who left town was fed up with the narrator’s lack of drive.) It’s not a terrible song, but it’s not interesting either, and it’s certainly not enough to make you overlook Harmon’s earache of a performance.

“You Got ‘Em All” isn’t an inherently bad song, but it demonstrates what can happen when you put a singer in an uncomfortable position and leave them there for an entire track. Harmon may deserve some of the blame for his awful delivery, but ultimately the buck stops with whoever made the decision to make Harmon sing a song that makes him use a faux falsetto for the majority of the lyrics. He made have had the skills the win American Idol, but he needs more help if he’s going to win over country radio.

Rating: 5/10. “You Got ‘Em All”? More like “You Got Nothing.”

Song Review: Dean Summerwind, “Parked Out By The Lake”

If this is the first time you’ve heard this song, take a good look around, because you’re going to remember this moment for the rest of your life.

Dean Summerwind has been kicking around country music for several years ago, performing on The Voice and releasing several albums under the pseudonym “Dustin Christensen.” This year, however, Summerwind cast aside his alter ego and stopped trying to sound like everyone else, and instead followed his heart and struck out in a fresh new musical direction. The result is a humble song that will someday rival Jefferson’s declaration, Lincoln’s address, and King’s dream as one of the most monumental masterpieces in American history: “Parked By The Lake,” a bold, innovative piece of country music that will melt even the hardest of hearts. (Seriously, step away from your computer before you put this on—I went through four laptops trying to write this because my tears kept shorting out the circuitry.)

The production is an unconventional mix that laughs at genre trends and traditions, delivering a unique, moving sound that the listener never sees coming. The melody is carried by (gasp!) a rough-edged electric guitar, one played in a novel and unorthodox style that manages to take the track’s pain and drive it directly into your soul like a roofing nail (which is then hammered home by a prominent percussion set). Together, the guitar and drums create a somber, sorrowful atmosphere (almost dangerously so), brilliantly using minor chords to signal to the listener that a deep, substantive song is coming. (The technique is so effective that it’s a wonder no else had thought to do it before!) The track’s volume management is yet another innovation, as it steps back during the verses to let the lyrics sink in before ramping back up on the choruses to maintain its energy and momentum. It’s the kind of mix that stops you in your tracks the moment you hear in, drawing listeners in like flies and leaving a deep impression that lasts long after the song has ended. I’m calling it right now: You’re going to hear a lot of artists jumping on the bandwagon and imitating this fresh new style in in not-so-distant future.

We already knew that “Dustin Christensen” was a decent singer with suitable range and flow, but embracing his true identity seems to have freed Summerwind’s mind and soul, enabling him to deliver the kind of moving, emotional performance that would make “King” George Strait abdicate his throne after a single playthrough. Summerwind demonstrates an incredible ability to transfer the pain he feels to the listener, and his ability to paint pictures with his voice is simply unmatched. By the second verse, you feel as if you’re sitting there beside him in the truck, crying over his lost love as you stare out across the clear blue waters of Lake David.* “Vacant Motel Heart” was a sad song, sure, but on “Parked Out By The Lake,” Summerwind ups the ante and takes the misery quotient to a while new level.

*Clearly the song is referring to Lake David; even if you didn’t know David was 80 miles from Santa Fe by way of I-25, the writing is so sharp and specific that you can distinguish it even from next-door Lake Isabel.

And the writing…my goodness, just look at it:

And I’m parked out by the lake
Eighty miles from Santa Fe
It’s the lake that’s parked where I’m at out by the lake
And this lake is where I’m parked
Eighty miles from Santa Fe
And I’m still parked out here by this lake
Eighty miles from Santa Fe

Such wit! Such eloquence! Why, if Shakespeare were writing Romeo and Juliet today, he’d be begging Summerwind to be a co-writer (along with Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, and Dallas Davidson, of course).

The story here is unlike anything you’ve ever heard: The narrator has parked his vehicle next to a large body of water, and is just sitting there thinking about the women who left him. Everything here is avant-garde and perfectly executed, from the novel inclusion of trucks, lakes, and parking to the vivid imagery that lets you see the ripples on the lake. This holds especially true for the unheard amount of subject variation found here—in fact, there might be a bit too much variation in the lyrics, as throwing in that bit about “someday I’m gonna move” might be too much for normal listeners to handle! It’s an incredible achievement, one that make us proud that we were here to witness it.

“Parked By The Lake” is more than just a country song. It’s the kind of transformative, meaningful statement that sixth-graders will someday be memorizing to recite during school assemblies. From the pen to the mixing board, we’ve never seen or heard anything like this incredible track, and the ramifications for country music are going to be huge and long-lasting. In a way, I feel a bit bad for Mr. Summerwind: When you put together a track this good, how could you ever follow it up?

Rating: 11/10. Perhaps the greatest song I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing.

(Happy April Fools Day, everyone!)