Song Review: Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t”

Sorry, but “I Can’t” get into this one.

Caitlyn Smith is a Minnesota native who’s maintained a fairly active songwriting presence for nearly a decade now, but has only recently established herself as a singer, with two albums released since 2018 (the second of which, titled Supernova, dropped at about the same time the world locked down for the pandemic, destroying whatever momentum it might have generated). Last month, Smith finally made a move for radio airplay be releasing “I Can’t,” a collaboration with Old Dominion (whose stock is dropping so fast that hedge funds are starting to short it). Unfortunately, this seems to be yet another bad decision for an artist trying to introduce themselves to the airwaves: The song is just another forgettable love-lost song with little beyond Smith’s own performance to encourage unfamiliar listeners to tune in.

The production is a unremarkable offering that sets a suitably melancholy mood but does little else to encourage the audience to tune in. The arrangement is pretty much what you would expect: A prominent piano that does most of the melody-carrying, some slick electric guitars that offer support but no sizzle (even the bridge solo is relatively tame, and it’s buried so deeply in the mix that you barely notice it at all), and a drum set that impassionately keeps time. The volume balance feels way off here (the piano drowns out everything except Smith herself), and while its darker tone signals an appropriate level of seriousness and depression, it doesn’t do a great job grabbing the listener and drawing them into the song (honestly, it feels like it pushes people away like they’re too close to the stage speakers). It’s a solemn-yet-safe mix that does little besides exist, and it doesn’t do enough to make the song stand out from the crowd.

Vocally, Smith falls somewhere between Ashley Monroe and Ingrid Andress with her bluesy sound, and while she delivers a technically-solid performance here (no range or flow hiccups to note), it’s lacking that extra push to really sell the story to the audience. She seems to lack a real presence behind the mic, and when saddled with trendy, mediocre material like this track (we’re get into that later), she isn’t able to elevate the song and make it memorable (which isn’t a good sign, considering a sad song like this one should fit well with her delivery). It’s one of those classic halfway performances: You get the sense that the narrator feels deeply about the failed relationship, but they can’t transmit their emotions and get the listener to care about the story in the same way. (As for Old Dominion, only lead singer Matthew Ramsey is distinguishable here, and he feels a bit out of place on the track, as the song seems a bit too high for his vocal range and the chemistry between he and Smith is not that strong. There’s also no real reason for a second singer to be included, aside from trying to trade on an established act’s rapidly-diminishing clout.) There are certainly flashes of potential here, but I’d really like to hear more from an artist on a “debut” single, and we just don’t get it.

I know that heartbreak has been the bread and butter of country music forever, but with the recent spate of lightweight love-lost tracks, songs like this one are getting dangerously close to trendy territory (call it an overcorrection from the Cobronavirus movement). You know the drill be now: The narrator has suffered a painful breakup that they just can’t get think or drink their way through, and they just keep saying “I can’t” adjust to all the changes around them. (The opening verse tries to expend the hook by talking about how the narrator’s hometown has changed, but the concept is never revisited or even tied back to the song that well, so it comes across as irrelevant and out-of-place.) I think it’s the defeatist attitude of these tracks that’s wearing on me: The narrator retreats into a shell and stays planted to the bench instead of stepping back up to the plate, and while you feel for them, just listening to them recount their tale of woe gets old pretty quickly. Cookie-cutter hard-luck tracks like this just don’t catch the listener’s interest, which is not good when you’re trying to find traction on the airwaves.

“I Can’t” is the sort of frustratingly-bland track that Nashville keeps feeding us when they’re trying to push a new artist, and often ends up backfiring when the artist can’t distinguish themselves. (It’s almost like the label is trying to sneak something past us, making their new singer blend in with the rest of the radio until it’s too late and they’ve been on the chart for a year yet are still only around #15.) The production and writing are unremarkable, and while Caitlyn Smith is a decent vocalist, she simply can’t escape the mediocrity that surrounds her. I know the field seems wide open for new acts to break through right now, but uninteresting stuff like this is the problem rather than the solution, and if you’re not taking a big swing, I’d prefer to wait for someone who is.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

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