Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 8: Quarantine Fatigue

After a crazy week and a looong deep dive into Randy Travis’s career, I am honestly burnt down to cinders right now, and would like nothing more than a good three-day siesta.  —Kyle, Jan. 24th, 2020

Oh boohoo, past Kyle. You can’t even spell “coronavirus.” I don’t wanna f—ing hear about it.  —Kyle today

So…yeah. The last few weeks have happened, and I don’t even recognize the face I see in the mirror anymore (mostly because of this “lockdown beard” that’s threatening to reach playoff-hockey proportions). In-depth single reviews feel more and more out of place every day, so tonight I’m turning the keys back over to my iPad and letting it write a post for a change.

The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, 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 this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also 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. (And frankly, everything I do nowadays feels silly and without purpose. Sure, this is the cleanest my microwave’s been in months, but what’s the point?) Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

The Contenders

Song #1: The Beatles, “Something”

Is it bad that I’m more familiar with Johnny Rodriguez’s 1974 cover of this than The Beatles’s 1969 original? This has always struck me as a very weird song: The narrator is certainly attracted to this other person and struggling to understand their feelings, but they’re not ready to make any hard declarations (every answer is “I don’t know, I don’t know!“) and saying “you know I believe her now” doesn’t make much sense when we’re never told what she said/did in the first place. The production has a very unsettled feel to it, especially with the chord change for the “chorus” portion, which doesn’t make it feel especially romantic. I suppose that love is a complicated emotion and this track certainly reflects that, but if the listener feels the same way as the narrator and is looking for some guidance, they aren’t going to find it here. It’s all right, but I wouldn’t expect it to climb too high on tonight’s rankings.

Song #2: Vince Gill & Paul Franklin, “Together Again”

This is more my speed when it comes to love songs. This 2013 cover of Buck Owens’s 1964 classic is one of the rare occasions where a re-recording actually holds up against its predecessor, primarily because of how closely Gill and Franklin stuck to the playbook: Owens’s track was dominated by the incredible steel guitar wizardry of Tom Brumley, and Franklin (perhaps the best steel player of the modern era) is given the same leading role here, and he doesn’t disappoint. Gill isn’t in his peak-90s form here, but he’s darn close, and the writing’s simple, straightforward sentiment gets the narrator’s message of love and happiness across without a hitch. (Both Owens and George Harrison do a nice job conveying their raw feelings about romance, although Harrison’s seem a bit more conflicted than Owens’s.) This has a chance for a decent placing tonight, but we’ll see how the competition stacks up.

Song #3: Weird Al Yankovic, “Don’t Download This Song”

Welp, so much for that serious vibe the iPad had going…

This 2006 cut from Yankovic’s Straight Outta Lynwood album (but, naturally, was put out as a free download first) was modeled after  overproduced charity ballads like “We Are The World,” but this time the message was not to support impoverished people in faraway lands, but to support impoverish musicians and the labels who build their fortunes on the backs of said musicians. In typical Weird Al style, this style is hilariously over-the-top, from the crime sprees that would inevitably spawn for such behavior (robbing liquor stores, selling drugs, running over people) and the items that he would no longer be able to afford (“how else can I afford another solid-gold Humvee?” There’s a reason Yankovic has stuck around for so long: He’s a master of capturing production styles and taking ideas like this one to their logical extreme (having a voice as flexible as his doesn’t hurt either)B, and the result is pure comedy gold. Songs like “Together Again” have their place, but in times like these, sometimes a good laugh is worth its weight in gold (or platinum).

Song #4: Brandy Clark, “Hold My Hand”

Clark has written some incredible songs over her career (“Take A Little Pill” is my personal favorite), but I find this one to be one of more forgettable tracks from her 2013 12 Stories album. The sad thing is that the more I listen to it, the more I think that it isn’t the song’s fault: The writing is absolutely superb in capturing both the scene and the narrator’s insecurity, the sparse production sets a suitable mood and stays out of the way of the lyrics, and Clark acquits herself capably and charismatically. The issue for me is that the song is just not relatable: I’m not part of the the target audience and I’ve personally never found myself in this situation, so the track doesn’t resonate with me the way it would with someone who has ever held love and was deathly afraid of losing it. It’s a solid song that likely won’t get the credit it deserves on this list, but I’d still recommend that people check it out (and tbh, you should check out the rest of this album too).

Song #5: …Richard Akers, “Bury Me Beneath The Willow”?

There’s no YouTube link to this song because there are MAYBE five copies of this recording in existence.

Okay, this LITS volume has officially cemented itself as the most eclectic of the bunch.

Uncle Rich has been dead for almost 20 years now, but back in his day he was known for three things: Working on cars, brawling in bars, and picking the meanest banjo in the county, and he and a crack band of part-time musicians (and there are more of these people hidden in the woodwork than you might think) would get together on the weekends over a few adult beverages and pick & grin until the sun came back around. Occasionally someone would record these sessions, and somewhere along the line one such recording got converted to a CD and wound up as an MP3 buried on my iPad. The recording quality is predictably poor and the vocals are hard to decipher ( I don’t know whether to blame the tape or the alcohol), but the musicianship is surprisingly good, with guitars, mandolins, and even steel guitars joining in the action. Uncle Rich’s banjo is the most prominent instrument here, and while I don’t recall ever hearing him play in person, the tape suggests he was as good a five-string player as the legends say. I have no idea where this will wind up on my list tonight, but in this time of extreme social distancing, it’s a reminder that home is never that far away if it’s still in your heart.

Song #6: Thomas Rhett, “Renegades”

Man, what a letdown after that last tune…

Rhett’s 2017 album Life Changes was front-loaded and a mixed bag overall, and this song was #12 out of 14. The opening line is “poor boy rich girl, what a cliché” and he’s not kidding: This is a generic young-love, wrong-side-of-the-tracks anthem with a slight James Dean flair, and it’s as underwhelming as you might think. Rhett is good-but-not-great in the narrator’s role (it kind of clashes with the title track’s picture of a family man), and the production is more of a rock mix dominated by heavy guitars, but there’s nothing in the arrangement or vocals that makes it stand out or stick out in the listener’s mind (at least “Sweetheart” sold out fully to be a tolerable doo-wap facsimile). There are much better tracks to check out on this album (“Marry Me,” anyone?), and this one will end up near the back on this list too.

Song #7: Joey + Rory, “Suppertime”

Okay, so the only theme tonight is the complete lack of a theme.

The “official” closing track from the duo’s final album before Joey Feek passed away from cancer (“When I’m Gone” is listed as a bonus track), “Suppertime” is a gospel standard that always felt like one of Joey + Rory’s signature tunes (it seemed like they were always playing it on their TV show, although that might just be because of re-runs). This version feels a tad overproduced (the atmospheric synths and deeper drums that opened the track feel unnecessary), but generally the mix stays in the background while the lyrics lean on warm (and perhaps manufactured) nostalgia to draw folks to reminisce on their childhood. Even in her weakened state, Joey Feek remained a potent force behind the mic, and while Joey doesn’t do a lot vocally here, their chemistry is apparent during their brief moments of harmony. I’m feeling a middle-of-the-road placement for this track: not bad, but with Uncle Rich around, the nostalgia lane is already pretty crowded.

Song #8: Toby Keith, “Big Blue Note”

Well, at least we got mildly-amusing Toby Keith instead of jingoistic obnoxious Toby Keith.

“Big Blue Note” stems from Keith’s 2005 Honkytonk University album, and as far as kiss-off songs go, it’s…okay I guess. Much like “Something,” it doesn’t really establish a consistent mood (one moment the narrator loves the ex, the next moment they hate them, and back and forth it goes), and writing gets a little bizarre at point (the psychiatrist bit feels like an awkward fit with the rest of the song). I appreciate the offbeat-but-upbeat vibe of the production (man, where have all the harmonicas gone?), and Keith’s dry delivery is better than much of what we got from him during this era, but overall it falls into the “just another breakup song” category for me. It’s fine, but I don’t see it placing too high tonight.

Song #9: Southern Rail, “Drive By Night”

(This one doesn’t seem to be on YouTube either, so have a link to one of their more-recent tunes, “Gone For Way Too Long.”)

Sweet, I’ve been waiting for this group to show up here! Southern Rail is a rare Northeast-based bluegrass group front by husband-and-wife duo Jim Muller and Sharon Horovitch (who were recently inducted into the Rhode Island Bluegrass Alliance Hall of Fame) that have been active for over forty years. “Drive By Night” is the title track for their 1991 album, and it’s a sizzling instrumental drive by some fantastic banjo work. The minor-chord-based mix and blazing fast tempo make this thing a pure sugar rush that begs to backstop an old-school car chase scene, and while the banjo is the spotlight instrument, the mandolin and violin that step up hold their own and don’t miss a beat as the beat rolls (literally) along. This is neck and neck with “I Didn’t Ask” for the best track on the album, and this is a group I never get tired of stumping for. Dig them up on YouTube or iTunes; it’s absolutely worth your time if you like bluegrass, country, gospel, or anything in between.

Song #10: Dwight Yoakam, “Dangerous Man”

Yoakam’s 1990 album If There Was A Way is probably my favorite record of his, but this track was left off of the cassette version of the album, and you can kind of see why as you look back: It’s a slicker sugar rush that doesn’t really fit well with the rest of the album, and the writing is weirdly obtuse and only seem partially finished (Yoakam has to really stretch some lines to fit the required space). The “dangerous man” certainly seems like a bad dude, but the story is so vague that you never really figure out why the dude is so bad. It’s one of those classic Finebut award winners: “It’s fine, but” it doesn’t really stack up against tonight’s competition.

The Results

Position Song
1. “Don’t Download This Song”
2. “Drive By Night”
3. “Together Again”
4. “Bury Me Beneath The Willow”
5. “Hold My Hand”
6. “Something”
7. “Suppertime”
8. “Dangerous Man”
9. “Big Blue Note”
10. “Renegades”

I love Southern Rail to death (and you should too), but I’m giving Weird Al the victory tonight because “Don’t Download This Song” is a master class in production, vocals, and comedic songwriting. In some sense, there was actually a theme tonight, as old-school songs and sounds mostly carried the day (though it pains me to think the 1990s qualify as “old-school” now that we’ve reached 2020). I’ve been leaning on my musical library a lot since this whole COVID-19 business shut the world down, and it’s strangely reassuring to know that no matter how long we’re stuck six feet apart from one another, we’ll have quality tracks like (most of) these help sustain us and buoy our spirits.

Hang in there, everyone. There’s light somewhere out there in this darkness, and if we stick it out long enough, we’ll find it.