Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2022 Edition: Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Dylan Scott, Elle King & Dierks Bentley)

I haven’t been thrilled with the state of country radio in 2022, and while there have been some better songs introduced lately, there have also been a number of unremarkable soundalike tracks released more recently as well. With the end of the year fast approaching and my review backlog starting to grow, I think it’s time for another lightning round of reviews to cleanse the pallet and clear the slate as we head into the homestretch. YouTube is forever pushing creators to shorten their intros, so let’s follow their lead and get right into the content. Onwards!

Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, “Never ‘Til Now”

Cooke is a Florida native who developed a following on TikTok during the pandemic and leveraged it to score a record deal with Big Loud earlier this year. “Never ‘Til Now” was originally recorded as a Cooke solo, but because you can’t get on the airwaves without a collab these days, Brett Young was brought in to cover the second verse for the radio release. The song starts out with a self-portrait that’s piques the listener’s interest, but quickly pivots to a standard “didn’t think I’d find love until I found you” track that fails to hold the listener’s interest. Vocally, Cooke is a carbon copy of Kelsea Ballerini (with “HEARTFIRST” struggling, are they already trying to release KB?), but Ballerini has a knack for making songs feel personal and meaningful, and Cooke doesn’t quite get there with this track – it just feels like yet another song about unexpected love. (For Young’s part…well, there’s a reason this wasn’t a duet to begin with, and his performance here is utterly replaceable.) The sound suffers from the same issues: The acoustic guitar driving the melody at the start is decent, but it get overshadowed by some synths, strings, and a piano that feel a bit lightweight, and in the end the mix doesn’t create much of an atmosphere at all. I like some of the early lines in the writing, but it gets more and more predictable over time, and without the necessary emotion to move the listener, I wound up being pretty bored by this track. It’s not bad, but it’s not much of a debut either.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Jon Pardi, “Your Heart Or Mine”

The TL;DR of what’s admittedly a TL;DR review is that this is basically “After A Few” with heavier guitars, and no more interesting (in fact, I think I like Denning’s track better). I called out Pardi on “Last Night Lonely” for drifting back towards the mainstream with his sound and minimizing the fiddle-and-steel elements, and this trend continues on “Your Heart Or Mine.” The dominating instrument here is a raunchy hard-rock guitar that tries (and half-succeeds) to give the song a sensual feel, with the fiddle and steel guitar relegated to supporting riff duty. The dark tones and plentiful minor chords give the off-and-on romance an ominous feel, but Pardi doesn’t seem to be bothered by the situation at all—in fact, his vocals give us the impression that he’s enjoying all the sexual encounters, which makes him seem significantly more sleazy and significantly less endearing as a narrator. He’s asking questions about who’s responsible (“is it your heart or mine?”) but he doesn’t seem like he’s all that interested in the answer as long as the trend continues. As far as the writing, there’s nothing terrible clever or attention-grabbing here: The narrator and their partner are being drawn in an relationship that neither one can bring themselves to end because the sex is too darn hot, and that’s pretty much the story. (When they claim “we swear it ain’t love, love, love,” they’re trying to imply that it is love, but given that there’s nothing else to this pairing besides getting it on, I actually take them at their word: This is pure lust, and nothing more.) In the end, this one’s kind of a nothingburger to me, and should get tossed into the bin with all the other mediocre country sex jams Nashville keeps dumping on us.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Dylan Scott, “Can’t Have Mine (Find You A Girl)”

This is one of those songs that uses a lot of words but doesn’t actually have that much to say. “Find You A Girl” ought to be the actual title instead of a parenthetical, because that’s really all the song says: It brings to mind a bad Dr. Seuss book: Find a girl on a date, find a girl who is late, find a girl who is wild, find a girl who wants a child, in a box, with a fox, etc. The whole thing puts the listener to sleep by the second verse, and the production doesn’t help matters with its relaxed tempo, limp guitars, and punchless drums. I get that’s trying to create a soft, positive vibe, but it overshoots the mark and winds up feeling so laid-back that it encourages the listener to disengage and fail to absorb (or care about) the message. (There are a few rapid-fire moments that try to inject a little energy in the track, but they just feel kind of jarring and don’t actually add anything to the song, and only make the listener feel like the writers were just trying to cram too many syllables into a line.) The only thing weaker than the sound is the “can’t have mine” hook, which feels like a bolted-on aftermarket part that barely ties back to the rest of the song at all. Scott’s performance is similarly meh: You can feel his affection towards his partner and that he’d like everyone to find the happiness that he has, but he doesn’t sell his idea of paradise very well, and the writing doesn’t help matters by never discussing the narrator’s own relationship directly (all we get is “I got so lucky”). It is what it is, and what it is isn’t much, unless you’re looking for a drug-free, non-habit-forming sleep aid.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzz…

Elle King & Dierks Bentley, “Worth A Shot”

King was featured on Bentley’s “Different For Girls” back in 2016, and six years later Bentley is repaying the favor by backing King on her latest single “Worth A Shot.” Frankly, the premise of this song annoys me to no end: The two speakers have a relationship that appears to be on the way out, and they need to find a way to reconnect and repair the connection…so they decide to get wasted together and see what happens. Could country music please give up this charade around alcohol being a cure-all for everything? It’s a substance that tends to make situations like these worse rather than better, and everything that they want to do (“say what we need to say,” “get our pride out of the way,” even “lose our inhibitions”) could be done without involving inebriation. To its credit, the song at least feels more like a duet than “Never ‘Til Now” did, but I question just how much chemistry these artists have: Bentley is barely audible when the pair sings together, so much so that it feel like an intentional production decision (which seems like a bizarre choice, since there’s no way Bentley could overwhelm King the way, say, Jordin Sparks would have overwhelmed Thomas Rhett on “Playing With Fire”). Speaking of production, we get a guitar-and-drum mix that feels a bit too slick on the verses and then roughs up the sound slightly with some harder electric axes on the chorus. The resulting vibe feels surprisingly upbeat and even a little celebratory at times, which feels like an awkward fit for a song trying to get a rocky relationship back on course. In the end, this is a story that I’m not interested in hearing about people drinking themselves into oblivion in an attempt to bring them back together, and if that’s what it takes to make a relationship work, maybe this pair is better off going their separate ways.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth a shot.

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