Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (March 2021 Edition)

With spring in full swing and a major turnover imminent on the country charts, it’s time to see what songs are preparing to take over the airwaves this summer. Will they be good, or will they be bad? …The chances are that if I’ve decided to shove them into a single post, they’re probably going to end up somewhere in the middle, which brings us to our first song…

Zac Brown Band, “Out In The Middle”

Zac Brown and the crew get back to their sonic roots with this song, leaning on a swampy acoustic guitar and some punchy, bass-drum-heavy percussion to set the mood. They eventually mix in some electric guitars and the band’s trademark fiddle even gets a few licks in, but the resulting mood here feels overly dour and defensive. This song is a stereotypical “country” glorification track, bringing out the same old tired imagery we always get (tractors, two-lane roads, and booze-soaked Friday nights), and instead of feeling celebratory and proud, the vibe is defiant and forceful, as if they’re responding to an attack on their character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brown’s vocals, which are delivered with what can best be described as “controlled anger” as he methodically walks us through the various country tropes that make up life “out in the middle [of nowhere].” The edgy approach of both the sound and singer make the song more off-putting than appealing, and the hard truth is that the song is neither interesting nor memorable.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Gabby Barrett, “Pick Me Up”

Are we really still releasing singles from Goldmine? Technically “Pick Me Up” is the fourth single from an album that’s a few months shy of two years old, but given that “I Hope” came out in the middle of 2019 and dominated the radio for a good year, it feels like this disc has been out forever. Sadly, you can file “Pick Me Up” under “more of the same,” and nothing here stand out to warrant your attention. The sound is dominated by a token banjo and washed-out reverb effects that dilute the whole mix into a bland wall of noise (even the steel guitar doesn’t really stand out!). The writing has its moments (“Watch the full moon crash on some sunrise wheat” is a decent line), but the story takes us along the same path as every other country song: a nighttime pickup ride “down a back two-lane” somewhere near the ZBB out in the middle of nowhere. Barrett herself is a decent vocalist, but she can’t tell a compelling story when there isn’t one to tell, and her restrained, understated delivery just doesn’t do enough to convince people to pay attention. She and her team would be better off hanging this album on the wall and bringing out some fresh material, because after “Footprints On The Moon,” crashed and burned, Barrett needed a much better rebound track than this drivel.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzzzz…

Mitchell Tenpenny, “Truth About You”

Believe it or not, this song has actually got a lot going for it. The production brings in both a mandolin and steel guitar, and manages to mix in their brighter tones without detracting from the serious tone of the song, and the writing at least tries to shine a positive light on the narrator (they wish their partner the best and that they want the bad blood between them to end, but they also bring a receipt or two to show that they hold the moral high ground). However, there’s one big problem here, and his name is Mitchell Tenpenny: The man has absolutely no charisma or credibility, and doesn’t come across as the least bit believable as he tries to tell his side of the story. Instead, there’s a malicious, even whiny feel to his delivery, as if he’s relishing the chance to throw some barbs at his ex. I really would have liked to see this song in the hands of an artist that could sell it (say, Dillon Carmichael?), and after listening to Tenpenny run this track into the ground, I really don’t see why Riser House and Columbia keep trying to make him a thing in this genre.

Rating: 5/10. Next!

Jackson Dean, “Don’t Come Lookin'”

Zac Brown and the crew get back to their sonic roots with this song, leaning on a swampy acoustic guitar and some punchy, bass-drum-heavy percussion to set the mood…except this isn’t the ZBB, it’s Maryland native Jackson Dean, who signed with Big Machine back in 2020 but is only dropping a debut album and a debut single. In truth, the acoustic guitar feels more raw than swampy here, and while the vibe here is overly grim and serious (the dude really doesn’t sound like he’s having fun with this lifestyle), the track comes across as more of a personal creed than a defense of a way of life, and thus it doesn’t feel as preachy or angry as “Out In The Middle.” The buzzwords are all here, of course (it seems like the narrator’s lifestyle revolves around beer, trucks, and “a mind in the gutter”), and while it does a good job pushing the protagonist as a free-spirited rambler, it really doesn’t a whole lot to sell the lifestyle (or the story) to the audience. The biggest difference here in Dean himself: He embraces the rough-edged persona and has enough charm and charisma to feel believable as a Ward Davis soundalike. He’s the biggest reason to bother tuning in to the tale, and if nothing else, given how badly Nashville keeps botching the launch of new artists, this feels like the closest they’ve come to success in quite some time.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see what you think.

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