“What happens in a small town stays in a small town”…unless it gets the chance to wreck my year-end schedule. 😐
Just when I thought I had finished all of my reviews for 2018, Mediabase decided to troll me by suddenly tossing two songs that had been camping in the top five into the recurrent pile, leaving an opening for Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell to sneak into the Top 50. Neither artist has had much luck on the airplay charts lately (Gilbert’s “The Ones That Like Me” only made it to #15, while Ell saw “Criminal” stall at #19 and “Champagne” miss the chart completely), so the two decided to join forces on “What Happens In A Small Town,” a lament to the memories that linger in a place after the people have moved on. It’s a song that plows the same old tired ground as a number of recent singles, and while there’s really nothing new here that demands your attention, at least the execution is better than I expected.
After some of the halfhearted and ill-fitting mixes I’ve heard recently, it’s nice to hear production with some punch behind it for a change. While on some level this is the same old guitar-and-drum mixture everyone else uses (there’s also a piano floating around in the background), at least the guitars are given even leash to flex their muscle and bring their power to bear, and the drums (at least the real ones) have enough pop to match the guitars’ intensity and drive their point home. The darker tones and textures of the instruments, combined with the I-vi-IV-V chord structure, gives the sound a sobering feel that complements the writing well, and the tempo and volume provide enough energy to keep the song from bogging down. (I would, however, have liked to hear a bit more from the guitar solo, especially since Ell is one of the few artists in the genre that can credibly play an axe with authority.) You could argue that the production goes a little overboard in trying to impress the narrator’s pain on you, but after some of the songs I’ve heard recently, it’s probably better to make sure your point gets across rather than potentially leave it unmade.
This song didn’t need to be a duet and including the perspective of both players doesn’t add a whole lot to the story, but I feel like it added a lot to the vocal performance. Unlike the production, Gilbert smartly reigns in his usual attitude and machismo and shows some vulnerability for a change, making him much more of a sympathetic character than he usually is. While Ell, who actually shares top billing with Gilbert instead of just being “featured,” doesn’t get as much airtime, she capably covers the second verse and provides some solid harmony work (Gilbert’s voice forces her both high and low at times, but she manages to maintain her tone fairly well), and the pair showcases a surprising amount of vocal chemistry when they share the mic. Neither artist is who I’d call a power vocalist, but that fact actually works in their favor here (especially Gilbert’s), as you can really feel them work to match the production’s intensity on the chorus, making them feel invested in the story and more believable when they tell it. Granted, it’s a story I’ve heard a million times before, but if you’re going to re-tell it, you could do a lot worse than this.
So what about that story? Well, the song is the tale of two post-breakup narrators who struggle to move past their failed relationship because everything and everyone around them constantly reminds them of the romance that was, all the while wondering if the other person feels the same way. In the last few years, we’ve heard Eric Church (“Give Me Back My Hometown” and kinda-sorta “Round Here Buzz”), Sam Hunt (“Break Up In A Small Town”), Chris Young (“Think Of You”), Luke Combs (“One Number Away”), and a host of other artists address this same topic, and frankly I’m getting really tired of it. (The constant wondering about the other person’s feeling gets frustrating after a while: If you’re so obsessed about the subject, how about you try reaching out and communicating with them instead of just sitting around talking to yourself?) The lyrics are chock-full of the same vague proclamations we always get, and despite its role of the story, the only details we get about the fabled “small town” are “Friday night bleachers, [and] Sunday pews,” and thus we’re mostly left guessing about the memories the place inspires (heck, the narrator’s car is fleshed out more than the town!). Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell deserve some credit for trying to inject some life into “What Happens In A Small Town,” but ultimately the lyrics don’t really justify the song’s existence.
Ultimately, “What Happens In A Small Town” is a decent house built on a poor foundation, and while you’ll forget about it soon after you hear it, I suppose there are worse ways to end the year. (After all, ’tis the season to bring all the old songs and holiday specials back out of mothballs for one last hurrah before the calendar changes.) Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell are banking on Santa bringing them the gift of chart success and continued relevance, and honestly, I wouldn’t object too loudly if they got it…as long as I get a Switch Pro Controller out of the deal too. 😉
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing a few times, but don’t expect a holiday miracle.