Mahatma Gandhi once said that “no human being is so bad as to be beyond redemption.” It’s time to put that theory to the test.
The Korner has had many antagonists over the years (Jake Owen, Dustin Lynch, Jordan Davis, Blake Shelton), but the true villain in this story is actually Michael Ray, who is responsible for the lowest-ever review grade handed out on the site (and dropped singles that were even worse before the blog started). His attempts to dig himself out of this hole has been a failure so far: “Her World Or Mine” spent roughly a year on the charts just to stall out at #22, and he’s been silent ever since. In a bizarro year like 2020 where up is down, day is night, and Republicans can chant “count the votes” and “stop the count” over the same dang election, Ray and Atlantic Records have been decided that there’s no better time to launch a rehabilitation campaign, tossing Amos in the trash and jumping onto the new mini-trend of interchangeable heartbreak songs with Ray’s new single “Whiskey And Rain.” Unfortunately, the result is no more successful than “Her World Or Mine” was: This is just another uninteresting track from an uninteresting singer, and it offers little reason to care.
The good news is that the production is an upgrade from Ray’s last project, as it opts for a more classic and less synthetic feel this time. Yes, it’s fundamentally the same guitar-and-drum arrangement that everyone else is using, but at least the guitars have some actual texture this time around, creating an old-school beer-joint atmosphere that’s surprisingly-good for a modern track. (The producer does not, however, get credit for the token fiddle, which repeats the same riff over and over so methodically that it sounds more like a Garageband loop than a live instrument.) The minor chords and darker instrument tones help sell the narrator’s sadness, and the energy level is just high enough to keep the song from bogging down under its own weight. That said, even with the random fiddle riffs thrown out, the mix is still a little too thin and flavorless to really catch the listener’s ear, and I wish the producer had done a bit more to lean into the atmosphere and make the track stand out.
For better or worse, Michael Ray is a vocal chameleon: He attempted a Chris Young impression on “Her World Or Mine,” and this time he falls somewhere in between Young and Eli Young frontman Make Eli with his performance. (One could argue that Ray has lost his vocal identity, but I’m not sure he had one in the first place.) Technically, there’s no problem here: The song’s range, flow, and power demands are minimal, and Ray breezes through it without an issue. The issue is Ray’s charisma: He’s improved on this front (partially because he’s copying better artists, and partially because it’s now been over two years since he released “One That Got Away”), but he’s still not able to bridge the partisan divide and convince listeners to invest themselves in his woe-is-me story (the lyrics are a big reason for this, but we’ll get to that). Stick any other person from Nashville’s faceless young male singer assembly line behind the mic, and this thing sounds the exact same (and if you stick, say, the real Chris Young or Mike Eli back there, it probably sounds better). I said that “Ray needs to get the heck out of country music and not let the door hit him on the way out” two years ago, and nothing I’m hearing here convinces me to change my mind.
The main problem with the lyrics is that “Whiskey And Rain” gives away the whole story: It’s raining, and the narrator is drinking. Sure, their “blue sky sunshine whole life” walked out on them and made them sad, but that line is the only context we get about the relationship—we don’t know what happened, we don’t know whose fault it was, and we don’t get much sense of how deep the feelings were at all. (Heck, the most fleshed-out character in this story is the whiskey!) It’s up to the listener to fill in the details with their own memories, because this entire song is just a guy singing drinking in the rain, and it gets old fast. (You could argue that there’s some symbolism in the writing—the song is stuck on this scene like the narrator is stuck on their ex—but that doesn’t make the track any more interesting.) When you’re taking on the trope in country music, you’ve got to bring your A-game to stand out from a crowd this big, and just providing nothing but the alcohol and the weather doesn’t cut it.
“Whiskey And Rain,” to borrow a line from the chorus, is “just whiskey and rain,” no more, no less. The production tries its best to put a fresh spin on a generic arrangement, but neither Michael Ray nor the writers bother to rise to that level of effort, and we’re left with simple radio filler as a result. For a guy who’s hanging on to the genre by a thread right now, Ray isn’t providing a reason to keep him around besides “hey, I can do the same stuff that everybody else is doing.” Redemptive arcs don’t write themselves, and Ray needs to put in a bit more work if he wants to keep his place in country music.
Rating: 5/10. Nothing to hear here.