Song Reviews: The Lightning Round

2020 was many things (isolating, aggravating, a tragedy on a global scale), but it was also super busy for me, and it forced me to cut down my blog posting schedule from five days a week to three. The result of this is that the Mediabase charts started to outrun my schedule, forcing me to play catch-up and use preliminary grades for the weekly Pulse posts. Now, with time running out and the year-end lists approaching, it’s time to clear the queue and catch up on some tracks that I should have covered a while ago.

With so many songs to cover, I can’t go as in-depth as my usual reviews do, but honestly many of these songs don’t merit that deep a dive anyway. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the end of my 2020 review list…

Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

This thing was released back in September, but it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t really taken off after three months: It’s a run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track dedicated to drinking yourself into a stupor, released several months after the trend fizzled out. The mix is the usual guitar-and-drum mix, with the classic Bro instruments (clap track, token banjo) tossed in for seasoning. Janson’s performance is nothing to write home about (the dude really needs to stop talk-singing like he does on the bridge), and the writing checks all the usual Bro boxes (and that “waitin’ on five to start on six” is just groan-inducing). This trend has already been tossed into the dustbin of history, and this song belong right there next to it.

Score: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name”

Country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, so Rodgers decided to try and break the sophomore slump by recruiting Thanos himself for his follow-up single. Unfortunately, not only is this thing yet another  run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track, it’s actually worse than Janson’s lame attempt. For one thing, the guitar-and-drum mix here is oddly dark and lethargicwhere Janson at least tried to establish a fun, lighthearted atmosphere, this lethargic death march isn’t fun at all. Rodgers’s turn behind the mic is utterly replaceable, and Combs adds nothing but star power to the song (he’s trapped mostly in his lower range, and he sounds both oddly restrained and a little uncomfortable). Once again, the writing aims to check all the Bro boxes, and includes a couple a cringey moments (“my baby puttin’ sugar on me”? Ick, just say she kissed you and leave it there). If you asked me to sum this track up in one word, I’d just start snoring.

Score: 5/10. *yawn* Quick, let’s move on before I fall asleep.

Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”

Robb is an Ohio native who signed with Monument Records in 2018, but he only dropped his debut EP back in April, and it’s already being dumped for a new song. It’s a generic nostalgia track, one that features none of the interesting details that Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” or Justin Moore’s “We Didn’t Have Much” brought to the table. The story is pretty boilerplate, and doesn’t do anything to convince the listener of the hallowedness of the ground (the place sounds more like purgatory than heaven to me). The “heaven on dirt” hook is even more groan-inducing than Janson’s drivel, and there’s nothing special about Robb’s vocal performance (there are hints of Brett Eldredge in his tone, but Robb has none of Eldredge’s power or charisma). The acoustic guitar/banjo foundation of the mix is the best of the songs we’ve looked at so far, but the electric guitar that gets tossed in on the bridge feels really out of place. The whole thing feels incredibly bland and boring, and doesn’t encourage repeat listens.

Score: 5/10. Don’t tell me we’re starting this streak again…

Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat”

Corbin still can’t seem to find an actual record label that will sign him, but he’s managed to cobble together a new EP and release a new single. Yes, it’s the same darn guitar-and-drum mix I’ve been ranting about for months (years?), but at least this thing’s got some tempo and a decent groove that helps it generate energy and build momentum over time. I like the framing of the the writing on this one: Instead of wasting time drinking themselves to death and pining over a lost partner, we explore the much-more-enjoyable scenario where said person actually comes back and picks up an old relationship where it left off. No, there’s nothing deep or poignant here (the narrator asks why their partner came back, but we never get an answer), and the overall relationship still feels kind of ephemeral, but Corbin’s still a likeable guy with charisma to burn, and he persuades the listener to forget about the future and get lost in the moment for a while. It’s a decent effort overall, and given the songs it’s rated above in this post alone, I’m still surprised that this guy hasn’t found a new permanent home in Nashville yet.

Score: 6/10. It’s a fun little spin that’s worth hearing again.

Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her”

Bandi is a Missouri native who, like Robb, dropped a debut EP and single earlier this year, but never found any traction on the airwaves. The production is one of those piano ballads I’m generally a sucker for, but the electric guitar and drum machine make the song feel a lot slicker than it should. There’s a very neutral feel to both the mix and Bandi’s raspy vocal performanceinstead of balancing the happiness of gaining a wife and baby daughter and the sadness of wondering how the narrator’s dead father would have felt (Bandi thinks he “would have loved her,” of course), it feels like neither emotion is really present here, and it’s really hard to tell who the focus of the story is: Is it the people the narrator is gushing about, or the ghost he’s gushing to? It’s mostly predictable and kind of sappy, but I’ll admit that the inclusion of the child’s birth was an unexpected and appreciated twist (otherwise it would felt like an awkward Boyfriend country song). Cole Swindell may run circles around this song with “You Should Be Here,” but at least it features some story progression and maturity, and no one’s encouraging you to drink the world’s problems off your mind.

Score: 6/10. Corbin’s song is better, but I guess this one is okay.

Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair”

It killed me that this thing didn’t get more attention when it released back in July, because I consider Randy Travis the GOAT when it comes to country singers.The song was a demo that Travis had been recruited to sing back in the early 1980s, but it got pushed aside during the Urban Cowboy movement and mostly forgotten until recently, where it was touched up with 2020 production and released into the wild.

The production here is reminiscent of Randy’s most-recent work (no surprise, given that his longtime producer Kyle Lehning put it together), and it features the kind of arrangement diversity that modern country music lacks (it’s got fiddle, steel guitar, and piano, with the light-touch drums and understated electric guitar serving as complementary pieces rather than the main attraction). The overall feel is more polished than slick, and it does a really nice job capturing and accentuating the emptiness of the narrator’s feelings.

You can tell that early-career Randy in behind the mic here (the voice wouldn’t be out of place on Storms Of Life or Always & Forever), but the recording feels a little awkward with 2020 production values (Travis almost sounds auto-tuned at points). The subject matter is pretty standard as far as cheating songs go, but you never hear these sorts of songs anymore (Midland tried to push one and failed), and it provides enough detail to bring the listener into the story and let them imagine the scenes as they go alone. Overall, it’s a well-executed track with a legendary voice, and if any of the songs we’ve covered here really deserved a full review, it was this one.

Score: 8/10. Is it better than “Cheatin’ Songs”? I’d say they’re about equal in quality, though they approach the topic in different ways.

With that, I think I’m finally ready to tally up the scores and put together my year-end song rankings. Look for them to come out next week!