Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2022, Side A: Toby Keith, Justin Moore & Priscilla Block, Eli Young Band, Tyler Hubbard, Bailey Zimmerman)

It’s that time of year again folks: That magical month when we’ve got too many songs to review and not enough year left to review them. Only reviewed tracks are eligible for a coveted spot on my barely-anticipated year-end single rankings, so we’ve got no choice but to crank up the storm and and crank out a few lightning-round review sessions.

With that, this introduction has dragged on long enough already. Roll the tape!

Toby Keith, “Oklahoma Breakdown”

Okay, this thing is just sad. Keith is at least two decades too old to sing a Bro-Country-Lite song like this, and he sounds tired and even a little pathetic trying to pull it off (his mentioning of the other’s person parents pushes this song deep into cringe territory, and the writing indicates this is happening in the present tense). As for the story itself, it’s pretty basic even by the standards of Bro-Country: You get a nighttime ride down to the river, and then…you get a nighttime ride back from the river. (At least the alcohol is reduced to a few “get juiced” allusions.) The hook doesn’t seem to be connected to the story at all, and we don’t get any details about the river excursion (besides the fact that the truck is Fred’s, whoever the heck that is) that would actually draw us into the tale. At the end of the day, this is a badly-executed attempt at an overdone trope from a singer who should know better, and there’s no reason to give it the time of day.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Justin Moore & Priscilla Block, “You, Me, And Whiskey”

Honestly, I kind of feel bad for Moore: His last track got stuffed into a year-end lightning-round post too, and excited the country music community so little that it took ten months to get to #1 and never even cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Still, that’s better than anything Block has achieved thus far, with “My Bar” crashing and burning at #26 on the airplay chart and #50 on the Hot Country Songs chart. I know that collabs are the hottest trend right now, but I’m not sure where the idea to combine them on this song came from, because neither artists has much buzz and their chemistry here is passable at best (I don’t feel like their voices blend together all that well). The vibe here is too static for my tastes: Sure, the overly dark instrument tones and regular minor chords make sense when conveying the frustrations of too much work and not enough intimacy on the first verse, but using that same tone on the second verse and choruses make the track feel a bit too ominous, as if the sex that’s coming is an undesirable thing. (The slicker guitars and programmed beat don’t help matters, making the song feel clinical and businesslike instead of passionate and emotional.) Neither Moore nor Block bring any feeling to the table either: Their deliveries are stilted and didactic, telling us what’s going on but not allowing us to actually feel it. The writing feels a little undercooked here as well: It doesn’t offer a ton of opportunities to indicate passion (“your hands are all over me, “you’re already talkin’ dirty,” and that’s about it), some images feel a little forced (“sinkin’ to the bottom of them country songs” comes across as a bolted-on time-filler), and it doesn’t do enough to sell us on the idea of whiskey as a suitable catalyst (because given what we’re hearing from the sound and singer, as Travis Tritt might say, “the whiskey ain’t workin'” here). In the end, we’re left with yet another unsexy sex jam from a town that needed to get out of this business yesterday, and two artists who will probably get stuck in this cleanup round again next year.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Eli Young Band, “Love Talking”

This song popped up on Mediabase over six months ago, and while it got a preliminary grade from me, it didn’t stick around long enough to warrant writing a full review. It’s just as well: The EYB hasn’t been relevant in Nashville since 2018, and this track does nothing to change that. My biggest problem with this track is that I have no idea what it’s trying to say: Is it a roundabout way to say the speaker really loves their partner, do they actually regret expressing their feelings the night before, or do they fall somewhere in between? The production offers few clues, because it suffers from the same problem as Moore/Block’s song did: Its dark instrument tones and tendency to bury the instruments in audio effects gives the mix a cold, hard, unfeeling vibe, keeping the audience from getting a good emotional read on the track. Similarly, lead singer Mike Eli keeps his cards a bit too close to his vest, and while he occasionally dials up the intensity and volume of his delivery, his tone is so even-keel most of the time (even on the chorus!) that the question of what he actually feels about the whole ordeal remains a mystery. Perhaps this is the point—the narrator might be as in the dark as we are in terms of what to make of their predicament—but the writing also fails to give us a picture of what said predicament actually is! Did the pair go to bed together and wake up unsure about the decision? Did the other person walk away and force the narrator to sing to an answering machine? We’ve got absolutely no clue what’s going on here, and thus don’t have enough information to make any judgements, or really even care about the situation at all. The truth is that this is just not an interesting song to listen to, and whether or not the EYB will exist in mainstream Nashville much longer remains as unclear as this song’s story.

Rating: 5/10. Whatever.

Tyler Hubbard, “Dancin’ In The Country”

Just when you thought we were done with Florida Georgia Line forever, Tyler Hubbard appears to be reinventing himself as a solo artist (not exactly a surprise, given how little Brian Kelley actually contributed to that pair) for another run at country stardom. I called Keith’s track “Bro-Country-Lite” earlier, but this drivel is just Bro-Country minus the misogyny and the louder/heavier elements of the sound (the electric guitars aren’t as prominent or as loud, and the beats don’t feel as programmed or as deep), although admittedly there are some benefits to this change (I feel like a actual drums and slightly-faster tempo give this song more energy). Beyond that, however, this is the same schlock that was being dumped on us a decade ago: Same neon lights, same red dirt, same blue jeans, same token banjo, same pickup trucks, same name-drops (Alabama and Alan Jackson seem to have passed George Strait as the artists of the moment), and the same nighttime headlight party-in-a-field that we’ve been offered over and over and over again. Unsurprisingly, Hubbard’s back in his element at the Bro-in-chief, and he’s no more interesting or likable than he ever was in that role. The writing is mostly boilerplate and brings back all the “greatest hits” of the era (except for drinking, which is a bit surprising), but also mixes in some confusion for flavor (what the heck is a “watermelon summer” supposed to mean, and why is that line even here?). My sense is that Nashville is trying to find a version of the old Bro-Country formula that doesn’t offend our sensibilities, but if that’s the goal, my response is “keep trying,” because they aren’t there yet.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t waste your time with this one.

Bailey Zimmerman, “Rock And A Hard Place”

If there’s one good thing I can say about “Rock And A Hard Place,” it’s that it’s not “Fall In Love”, which is going to wind up very close to the bottom (if not at the bottom) of my song rankings this year. Zimmerman isn’t as dour or angry this time around (thank goodness), but he’s still got a bit of an attitude problem: The narrator is frustrated by the on-again, off-again nature of the relationship and how painful and draining it is, but he’s not actually interested in doing anything about it. He won’t walk away because “throwin’ in the towel takes some effort,” but he chooses just to “ride it out for better weather” instead of taking any proactive steps to make things better. (When he says “is there where it mends or it breaks?” you want to scream back “It doesn’t just mend! You have to do something to mend it!” (It brings to mind an old Chad Brock song, with Zimmerman being the guy talking about the farm instead of plowing the ground.) The other person isn’t much better with their apparent “marriage will solve everything” attitude, but this idea is given a whole two lines of airtime in the song (repeated later for a grand total of four) and is never elaborated on, making it feel completely unattached to the rest of the track and only included just to get the “rock and a hard place” hook to fit. To its credit, the production fits the song reasonably well: The overall negative vibe reflects the narrator’s stress level and irritation (and its relative lack of energy matches the narrator’s own slothfulness), and the instruments never get in the way of the vocals (which is important given how much explaining the narrator has to do). I wouldn’t call this a good song, but it might be the best of a weak field here, and it’s light-years ahead of Zimmerman’s last single, so at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time, but at least it won’t leave your ears bleeding.


One thought on “Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2022, Side A: Toby Keith, Justin Moore & Priscilla Block, Eli Young Band, Tyler Hubbard, Bailey Zimmerman)

  1. Wow this is dire. Thanks for taking one for the team. I couldn’t make it through more than 30 seconds of any of them


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