Apparently “What Whiskey Does” is send you rambling aimlessly across the country.
Ever since the Bro-Country boom went bust, Randy Houser has been floundering trying to chart a new direction for his music. His last gasp of success came when “We Went” took over forty weeks to top the charts over three years ago, and his career has been in a nosedive ever since: “Song Number 7” peaked at an awful #43, “Chasing Down A Good Time” didn’t make the Billboard chart at all, and even the typical leadoff-single bump couldn’t get “What Whiskey Does” any higher than #31 (which, frankly, was a higher peak than it deserved anyway). Now, with his mainstream career at the edge of a metaphorical plank staring down at the sharks circling below, Houser and Stony Creek Records are putting all their chips on “No Stone Unturned,” the second single from Houser’s latest album Magnolia. The track is a welcome change of pace after the Kavanaugh-stained soliloquy that was “What Whiskey Does,” but that’s about all it is, and a reflective look on his path to this moment doesn’t strike me as the kind of track that’s going to provide a liferaft to catch him when he falls.
The production here adheres to the “less is more” philosophy, and actually executes it rather well. The primary melody carrier is…a banjo? A dobro? It’s hard to tell because it’s drowned in muting audio effects, in contrast to the sharp, clear acoustic guitar that joins in sporadically throughout the track. Beyond a marching-band snare holding down the percussion line, that’s pretty much everything you hear (some electric guitars and keyboards jump in from time to time, but they don’t add much of anything to the mix (the electric axe deserving special calling out for that weaksauce attempt at a solo). The track maintains a bright feel despite the regular minor chords tossed in, but the energy level is hard to describe: The sound feels like it wants to slow down and drag, but it generally doesn’t, as if the drums (especially that marching snare) are dragging the song reluctantly along at a semi-brisk clip. While the arrangement deserves props for stepping back and letting the lyrics take the lead (and giving them an optimistic, forward-looking glow with the sound), the writing isn’t really strong enough to handle the spotlight it’s given (more on that later). It’s not bad, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression either.
Houser’s ace in the hole has long been his underrated power vocals, but much like the production, he holds himself back on “No Stone Unturned” to let the writing steer the conversation. It’s not a terrible decision on its own, but it seems to limit his charismatic influence here: I can buy him in the narrator’s role as a music-driven drifter, but I really don’t feel anything in his story. He’s just recounting his story at a high level, and I’m just yeah-ing and uh-huh-ing along while not really paying attention to him. It’s a fine performance on a technical level (easy, smooth delivery, effortless range, and a moderate flow that doesn’t seem to test him), but it lacks that special something to make the song distinct or memorable (which is a problem given how much of a trope the wandering cowboy is in this genre). If you put anyone else behind the microphone for this track, you would never notice the difference, and when you’re as talented a vocalist as Houser is, that should never be the case.
The lyrics here are a mixed bag, as the narrator recounts the high-level tale of their journey through life and love, and the occasional mind-altering substance. The “no stone unturned” hook feels like the writers being too clever by half, as very little in the rest of the song validates the “no turn un-stoned” flip: There’s “Tennessee booze,” a few allusions to Colorado tripping and California partying, and that’s it. The length of the trek also forces the writers to spend very little time talking about each stop along the way, mostly leaving out the details that the audience might grab onto and visualize the scenes as they played out. (I liked the “broken guitar through the heart” line, but that’s the only line that really stuck with me.) The whole song feels very neutral to me: There are no offensive descriptions or sleazy undertones, but there aren’t any deep emotions here either, as the song rolls right through the passing joy and sadness like a freight train steaming towards its next destination. It’s like the song wants you to feel something, but doesn’t give you the time to actually feel it before whisking you away. For a track that really needs to hit its marks, this is a bit concerning.
“No Stone Unturned” is an okay song on balance, but it’s a long way from being the showstopping, heart-in-your-throat track that Randy Houser needed. The production tries to write a check that the writing can’t cash, and Houser doesn’t have the emotional presence here to tie all the pieces together. I sincerely hope Houser’s ready to turn over a few more stones, because with the way his career is going, he’ll be a train out of Nashville before too long.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins, but not much more.