Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2021 Edition)

With the end of the year approaching and song reviews being some of the least-interesting posts that I make, it’s time to take a wider view of the genre and try to cover our bases for the end-of-year lists coming next month. I think the genre has improved slightly overall from the bland soundalike tracks we got for most of the year, but if the Pulse scores are any indication, there’s still a lot of uninteresting junk flooding the airwaves right now. So how does our latest crop of singles fare? Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch:

Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me”

This song has dominated the Hot 100 basically since it arrived on the scene, and bringing in Chris Stapleton seems like a dream pairing of two of the best power vocalists in the business today…so why is my reaction to it so muted? Part of it is that the writing here is surprisingly weak and vague, as it doesn’t really make it clear who the song is aimed at (I thought it was at her ex, but apparently it’s for their son?), and the narrator’s story and explanation just isn’t that compelling or interesting (people making relationship decisions that they later come to regret makes up at least 25% of Nashville’s entire catalog). The two artists have decent vocal chemistry and it’s nice to see a Stapleton feature that actually uses him to push the song’s emotional boundaries (probably because Adele is one of the few singers in the planet he can’t out-sing), but he adds a rougher edge to the vocals (especially when he’s screaming them out on the bridge) that clashes with the softer, slicker feel of the piano (which is the only non-vocal instrument present here), and the tracks veers hard into ear-splitting territory when both singers turn it loose on the bridge. In the end, the song is okay, but there are a surprising number of tracks on the Mediabase chart right now that I’d pick over it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, I suppose.

Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never”

This song is trying way too hard to be something it’s not. The tale of two star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to makes things work beyond the physical attraction is a tale old as time, and the song tries to use minor chords, dark, foreboding instrument tones, and loud, hard-edged guitars and percussion (which bounces between a drum set and a slicker beat) to inject a sense of drama and danger into the song. Unfortunately, the garden-variety off-and-on relationship in the lyrics simply doesn’t warrant the hype (it reminds me a lot of Travis Denning’s boring “After A Few”), and while both Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell put their hearts into their performance (honestly, I like their vocal chemistry far more than Adele and Stapleton’s), they can’t convince the audience of the story’s importance. It’s just an oversung, overproduced batch of empty sonic calories, and I sincerely hope that Swindell and Wilson find some stronger material to work with the next time around.

Rating: 5/10. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to remember this one.

Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”

Parker is a Georgia native who’s attempting to make to leap from songwriter to performer after signing with Warner Bros. in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the source you find, but he’s not going anywhere with his debut drivel. The song features yet another delusional narrator waiting for a traveling ex to come back and imagining how much she misses him (give it up bro, she ain’t coming back), and the fact that he occasionally admits the futility of his feelings (“maybe you really are long gone and I’m just fooling myself”) isn’t enough to make him a likeable or sympathetic character. Everything else here is cookie-cutter and generic: The reliance on a buzzword-filled waiting spot featuring beer and trucks in the evening (also, what’s the point of specifying that he has a “BP PBR”? It sounds as dumb as me saying I’m drinking a Hannaford’s Powerade), the bland guitar-and-drum production, and Parker’s undistinctive voice that could be mistaken for five other singers in the genre (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song wouldn’t change at all). The song offers no compelling reason to listen or pay attention to it, and I’m getting really tired of indistinguishable tracks like this, especially one that feature an annoyingly-presumptuous attitude from the narrator. I didn’t put up with it from Tucker Beathard or Taylor Swift, and I won’t do it here either.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait”

George Strait’s gotten enough name-drops in the last ten years to fill an encyclopedia, and has been around so long that this isn’t even the first song built around his song titles (forget Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off,” I remember Tim McGraw singing “Give It To Me Strait” all the way back in 1994). I’m kind of torn on this one:

  • McCreery is a talented vocalist, but he’s not terribly believable in this role (he’s seven years younger than “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” so was it really his ex’s favorite song?)
  • The song is just a by-the-book lost-love song, but it does a decent job balancing the genuine sentimentality of a breakup and the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of hating a singer because of it.
  • The song title references are hit or miss: Some work okay (“Blue Clear Sky” is probably the best of the bunch), but some feel really forced (the “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” ones especially).

I think what sells me on this one in the end is the production: It starts as your typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, but once the steel guitar shows up it becomes the defining feature of the mix. It gives the sound some warmth and texture, while also helping it stand out from other tracks around it, most of which sprinkle the instrument in just enough to convince Billboard it’s “country.” It allows the song to pass the context test, as it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Strait’s own material. That’s enough to elevate it above the mediocre masses for me.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it hits you.

Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”

While McCreery paid homage to Strait, Rice tried to tip his cap to the latest member of the name-drop club, Eric Church…except Church’s material is far better than anything Rice could dream of putting together. From the filtered guitars to the textured drums to the restrained vocal delivery, Rice and his producer do their darnedest to copy Church’s signature country-rock style on this track, and while they end up with a half-decent reproduction in the end, the song falls completely flat thanks to its random, pandering, borderline-nonsensical lyrics: It uses an overly-simplistic “if I was X, I’d be Y” setup to work in references to Dale Earnhardt, the SEC, Johnny Cash, and Jesus Christ, it uses a bizarre flag-patch reference to shout out the military, and it throws in a grandfather/grandson bit that is both blatantly obvious and completely pointless. This is about a scattershot a track as you’ll ever hear, and its weak attempt to bring it all together on the chorus as a lost-love song doesn’t work at all (and the generally-upbeat production doesn’t help matters). The bridge is the closest the song comes to tying everything together, but it paints the narrator is an unflattering light: It lays out a blueprint for what he should do if he was “a smart man,” while at the same time insinuating that that’s exactly what he didn’t do. Listening to this track is an exercise in frustration, and the only good thing that could come of it would be for Church to sue Rice for trademark infringement and doing damage to his brand.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

While this track is at least up front that it won’t be plowing new ground, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to. My first question is why Mitchell Tenpenny was allowed anywhere near this thing: It wasn’t written as a duet, the presence of a second person adds nothing to the song, and Tenpenny’s weak, raspy voice is completely outclassed by Young’s solid baritone. Where McCreery passes the context test, this song really doesn’t, as its paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum doesn’t fit in with either a classic bar setting or the 90s song it name-drops (“Brand New Man,” “Time Marches On”), and by taking a more-neutral and serious approach to a bar song, it deftly avoids all the reasons people actually listen to a bar song in the first place (i.e, it’s either to party hardy or cry in your beer). The imagery and scenes are exactly what you’d expect to see: Love being found, love being lost, bartender stories and (of course) lost and lots and lots of alcohol. By focusing on what happens in the bar, the song fails to give the place any atmosphere, or make it seem like somewhere that you would actually want to go. Toss in the fact that the song feels half-written with only one-and-a-half verses, and you’re left with a bland snorefest that exists merely for the sake of existing.

Rating: 5/10. There are way better beer-joint odes to spend your time listening to.

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