Song Review: Billy Currington, “Wake Me Up”

Yawn. Do me a solid and “Wake Me Up” when this song is over, would you?

Billy Currington is one of those mid-tier artists that has been forced to ride the trendy waves washing over the country genre in order to survive, and while he’s proven to be a pretty good surfer (his last single “Do I Make You Wanna” became his seventh No. 1 hit of the decade and eleventh of his career), it’s left him without much of a musical legacy. (I can only name two or three songs of his off the top of my head, none of which were released after 2009.) His latest single “Wake Me Up,” the fifth release off of his Summer Forever album, does nothing to help his cause, as it’s a generic, forgettable track that’s basically Luke Bryan’s “Light It Up” without (almost) all of the phone references.

The production here is a bit more restrained than Bryan’s song: The melody here is passed between acoustic and electric guitars instead of being exclusively electric-driven, and the percussion (both real and synthetic) are not as hard-hitting or in-your-face as much here. (Heck, there are even some random steel guitar stabs tossed into the background.) However, the riffs here don’t stand out as much as they do on Bryan’s track, and despite the reliance on minor chords, this song’s tone never rises above general seriousness, and is nowhere near as unsettling or haunting as Bryan’s was. (Even the guitar solo on Currington’s song seems bland by comparison.) In short, the mix here feels like a diluted, less-impactful version of “Light Me Up” that gives the listener nothing to grab hold of and remember.

Currington is a decent enough singer, and he’s certainly got enough charisma to come across as believable in the role of a pining narrator, but something feels a bit off in the vocals tracks. Most of this seems to stem from the harmony vocals: They don’t blend very well with Currington’s delivery, and make him sound a bit washed-out on the choruses. His range is fine and his flow on the faster sections is surprisingly good, but beyond that…meh. It’s okay, but it lacks that something extra that it needs to catch the listener’s attention.

The lyrics here describe a narrator pleading with a lost love, begging them to reach out to him anytime without worrying if they will interfere with his life (he’s already waiting, so a call won’t “wake [him] up”). Again, while it’s not as explicitly phone-centered as “Light It Up,” the two are essentially the same song, and neither one is terribly interesting. The imagery here is pretty boilerplate stuff (night driving, drinking at a bar…heck, even blowing up phones is blasé now), and there aren’t any clever turns of phrase to hook the listener. To be fair, there’s nothing offensive or misogynistic about the writing, but that’s because there’s nothing here period. To be honest, I would call “Light It Up” a better song than “Wake Me Up” on all counts, as the former at least had decent production and used the sheer brute force of repetition to stick in peoples’ heads (even if what stuck was “why won’t this guy stop talking about his stupid phone already?”) Currington’s song, on the other hand, just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

Overall, “Wake Me Up” is a lightweight song that can’t even measure up to its mediocre competition. It’s a step back from “Do I Make You Wanna,” and at best it’s generic radio filler that will take up space until something more interesting comes along. If it’s all the same to Mr. Currington, I’d rather stay sleep until then.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

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Song Review: Blake Shelton, “I’ll Name The Dogs”

Well, well…the traditional country sound has gone so mainstream that even Mr. Play-It-Safe himself is ready to (carefully) jump on board.

Shelton’s musical output has gotten less and less interesting as his career has progressed, with his unorthodox-but-memorable material like “Ol’ Red” and “Some Beach” getting pushed aside in favor of forgettable-but-high-charting tunes like “Sangria,” “Gonna,” and “A Guy With A Girl.” His last single “Every Time I Hear That Song” was a very small step out of his boring comfort zone, but he quickly retreated back into his bubble for the leadoff single for his next album, the ready-made wedding song “I’ll Name The Dogs.” Thankfully, however, the definition of what is “safe” in country music has shifted in the last year or so, and the result is a song that sounds better than anything from his If I’m Honest album.

Neotraditional production is back is fashion in country music, and Shelton (mostly) embraces it wholeheartedly on this track. The melody is carried primarily by an acoustic guitar, with a restrained electric guitar, steel guitar, and even a fiddle (gasp!) also featured prominently in the mix. (The Paisley-esque guitar solo delivered by Diamond Rio’s Jimmy Olander is a nice touch.) Yes, the song uses a drum machine for no apparent reason (it’s quiet and doesn’t get in the way, but it’s quickly drowned out by real drums and doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose), and yes, the “ahh-oh-wahhs” that open the song and pop up intermittently are more annoying than anything else, but even with these issues, the song has a warm, organic feel that surpasses most everything else on the radio right now, and it fits the subject matter perfectly. Call it safe, call it retro, call it whatever you want, but I’d call it pretty good.

The song’s safety lies mostly in the writing, as “let’s be together forever” wedding songs are a dime a dozen. It’s hard to stand out in a field with so many heavyweights (George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart,” Randy Travis’s “Forever And Ever, Amen,” and Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On,” just to name a few), but “I’ll Name The Dogs” makes a concerted effort to stand through its unique imagery: picking out paint colors, hanging pictures, and of course, naming the dogs. (However, the phrase “Still lovin’ on you when the rooster crows/Watching way more than the garden grow” is juvenile innuendo that feels out of place amongst the other more-mature activities.) For the most part, though, the song sticks the classical, overdone romantic themes, and thus require a strong delivery from the performer to make them stand out.

Thankfully, Shelton’s five CMA Vocalist of the Year awards weren’t completely undeserved, and he provides an earnest, emotional delivery to provide the weight the writing requires. The song isn’t very taxing technically (neither Shelton’s range nor his flow are tested much here), but the nature of the subject matter requires an honest, believable performance from the singer to properly sell the song. Shelton is up to the challenge, however, as the narrator’s direct-yet-heartfelt tone dovetails neatly with Shelton’s public persona, and he is able to deliver the tune with the proper tone and reverence. (His budding romance with fellow singer Gwen Stefani only adds to the believability quotient.) In truth, Shelton is the perfect person at the perfect time to perform a song like this, and he nails it.

Overall, “I’ll Name The Dogs” is still a safe song, but it’s also a good song that features excellent production, a well-executed delivery, and suitably-sappy lyrics that are occasionally unique. Perhaps we’ve found the secret to success with Blake Shelton: Rather than move him out of his comfort zone, just move the entire comfort zone to a suitable spot within the genre, and let him do his thing.

Rating: 7/10. If this is setting the sonic and thematic tone for Shelton’s next album, then consider me intrigued.

Song Review: Drew Baldridge, “Guns & Roses”

The Country Aircheck ads for this song promised “a brand new Drew.” After hearing this song, my question is: Can we have the old Drew back?

Baldridge has been in “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” mode for some time now, but neither the disco-tinged “Dance With Ya” nor the Emily Weisband collaboration “Rebound” managed to find any traction on country radio. Now, Baldridge has decided to play the Bro-Country card with his latest single “Guns & Roses,” and frankly, his throw doesn’t even reach the wall this time. This song is easily his worst single to date.

When I reviewed “Rebound,” I was very critical of the percussion, and thought it should have been turned down and made a less-dominant part of the mix. “Guns & Roses,” however, goes in the opposite direction: This song is basically all percussion, and it’s once again dominated by an in-your-face (yet incredibly generic) drum machine. There’s a slick electric guitar here as well, but outside of an Eddie Van Halen-esque solo near the bridge, it’s mostly shoved into the background and ignored. (Note to the producers: Forcing your bass guitar to try to carry the melody is generally a bad idea.) The song tries to generate energy by cranking up the noise on the choruses, but it’s only partially successful, and the carefree, summer-like tone the mix sets would have made a lot more sense three months ago, but not for a song that’s going to reach its peak in the middle of winter. In short, the production is bland and uninteresting, and doesn’t compel the listener to pay attention.

Vocally, Baldridge actually pulls off a nice Eric Church impression on this track, right down to the unnecessary audio filters that make the recording sound older than it is. However, while Baldridge can reach a little deeper than Church with his lower range (and actually sounds pretty decent when doing so), the choruses push him into his higher range, where he lacks Church’s vocal tone and texture and just doesn’t sound as good. (In my “Rebound” review, I said Baldridge “would better off with a song that pushed him into his upper ranges more often.” I was wrong.) Baldridge’s biggest issue is that his voice lacks a unique quality to make him stand out from his radio competition—I’m forever comparing him to other singers, but there’s nothing here that makes you say “Hey, it’s a Drew Baldridge song!” His performance here is okay, but ultimately it’s forgettable.

The writing here, in a word, is lazy:

  • The song is unusually short, featuring one-and-a-half verses and a two-line bridge.
  • The topic of how the narrator and his significant other fit together despite their differences has been done to death in country music. (For example, Alan Jackson’s “Blue Blooded Woman” is a better song than this one on nearly every level.)
  • The imagery here consists of a single shot of someone waiting by the side of the road to be picked up. How unique!
  • The chorus is mostly a laundry list of pairs that either “fit” or “don’t fit” together, and some of these are truly bizarre: Do “dust and diamonds” really fit together? Is there any relationship at all between a 12 gauge and a wildflower? (Seriously, he could have said “I’m a refrigerator; she’s a bowling ball,” and it would have made just as much sense.)

Overall, “Guns & Roses” is a weak song that features generic (not to mentioned outdated) production, uninspired lyrics, and a nondescript vocal delivery. It’s a major step backwards from “Rebound,” and makes me question whether Drew Baldridge has any future in this business at all. “Dance With Ya” was kind of fun, and “Rebound” was kind of thoughtful, but this is just annoying.

Rating: 4/10. As Mark from Spectrum Pulse would say, “Next!”

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Stay Downtown”

Wait…a country singer gets a booty call from someone, and they reject it? It’s one thing when a relative unknown like Drew Baldridge does it, but when a mainstream star (and one of the biggest acts of the Bro-Country era) makes this move, it deserves your attention.

Cole Swindell made his name (and likely earned a large chunk of his fanbase) as an unrepentant Bro champion, which means that we’re always going to get occasional “retro-Bro” tracks from him like his previous single “Flatliner.” Songs like this, however, were the exception rather than the rule on Swindell’s latest album You Should Be Here, and the single choices have featured interesting (and melancholy) twists on the typical Bro tropes: The life of the party is gone on “You Should Be Here,” and the girl leaves him on “Middle Of A Memory.” “Stay Downtown,” the fourth single off of You Should Be Here, follows a similar pattern, as the narrator isn’t quite sure he wants the night of raunchy lovemaking he’s being offered.

The production is surprisingly minimal, with only an electric guitar and some occasional piano chords to carry the melody (and “carry” might be too strong a word: The two are mostly reduced to rhythm instruments, with the guitar only getting to stretch its legs on the bridge solo). There’s a drum machine here to start, but it’s ditched in favor of real drums by the start of the first chorus, which makes you wonder why it’s even there in the first place. Despite its simple structure, however, the song does a nice job establishing an haunting, uncomfortable atmosphere through its darker tones and use of minor chords, and carefully builds energy during the verses/bridge to release with a bang on the choruses. It’s a well-crafted mix that perfectly suits the mood of the song.

Vocally, the song doesn’t test Swindell’s limits much, although his range and flow are pretty decent here (he seems slightly more comfortable in his upper ranges, though). What the song does require, on the other hand, is the ability to deliver a nuanced performance in which the narrator wants to be with this woman on some level, but knows it will only lead to bad things in the future, and thus has to overrule his desires and strongly discourage her to come over without sounding disingenuous. It’s a tough task, but Swindell pulls it off, coming across as earnest and believable in his protestations while also acknowledging that he is powerless to stop her if she forces the issue. Between this song, “Flatliner,” and “You Should Be Here,” Swindell makes a strong argument for being the most flexible performer in the genre today.

I wouldn’t call the writing here groundbreaking or overly clever, but it strikes a nice balance between the defiance of Drew Baldridge’s “Rebound” and the inevitability of Easton Corbin’s “Clockwork” when discussing the narrator’s relationship with the object of his affection. Unlike other songs that lean on explicit (and shallow) ‘love-as-a-drug’ references, this relationship actually feels like an addiction, where the narrator knows a relapse is inevitable if the woman comes over and pleads with her to make the decision he isn’t strong enough to make. (I have a similar conversation with my Nintendo Switch every day.) I complain a lot about singers being held back by weak material, but the opposite is true here: The way the lyrics capture the totality of the relationship makes it a lot easier for Swindell to sound convincing in this role.

Overall, “Stay Downtown” is a well-executed song with good production, writing, and vocals, and serves as another positive step in Cole Swindell’s evolution as an artist. While we’ll probably have to deal with at least one Bro-Country single like “Flatliner” per album cycle, let’s hope that Swindell’s pivot back towards the mainstream is part of a long-term strategy, because he actually seems to have the chops to make it work.

Rating: 7/10. You Should Be Here was my top-ranked album of 2016, so I’d encourage you to check out the entire disc if you enjoy this song.

Song Review: Dylan Scott, “Hooked”

Oh joy, another generic, mediocre male singer making dated love-as-a-drug references to convey the depth of his passion. Just what the genre needed!

Dylan Scott is a Louisiana native who had been releasing singles to absolutely zero acclaim for several years before finally catching lightning in a bottle with “My Girl,” a half-fast, half-slow, all-boring ballad that took over a year to reach the top of the charts. Now, Scott is try to follow up his success with “Hooked,” and while the song is a bit more sure of what it wants to be, it’s the sonic equivalent of empty calories, a fast-paced tune that provides energy and nothing else.

The production here is the song’s main selling point, mixing the bombast of Bro-Country with the toe-tapping feel of an old-school country stomper. The mix is primarily beat-driven, with a prominent bass drum shouldering the load on the verses and the full kit jumping in on the chorus. The chorus also features hand claps and a rolling banjo, both of which sound much more natural and authentic than on most Bro-Country tracks. Beyond that, the mix is surprisingly minimal, with only some guitars floating around in the background (the electric guitar only comes to the forefront on the bridge solo). Some crowd noise is pumped in artificially to add some noise, but I found that this detracted from the mix and just made the song harder to hear. Overall, though, the tempo and intensity of the track generate a ton of energy, and the vibe is a decent mix of seriousness and positivity. There’s potential here in the sound, but sadly there’s nothing else here that measures up to it.

Vocally, Scott reminds me a lot of Kane Brown, as both men have an impressive lower range that they can show off at will. However, while “My Girl” gave Scott a few chances to show off his deep baritone, “Hooked” traps him in his much-less-impressive upper range, which makes him sound like just another guy. (The verses allow him to get kinda-sorta low, but not enough for his voice to resonate like it does on “My Girl.”) Scott’s flow sounds fine, and he certainly sounds like he’s having a blast singing the song, but there’s something missing here that would really make the song stand out and memorable, and thus the performance just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving an impression.

That “something missing” is likely the songwriting, which is about as bland and generic as it could possibly be. Not only is the song based on a typical Bro-Country trope (meet a girl at a bar, reduce her to her physical characteristics, immediately take her home and sleep with her), but it leans on a love-as-a-drug metaphor (he “hooked” and “buzzing” on her) that’s been done to death in the genre (Zac Brown Band’s “Beautiful Drug,” Chris Lane’s “Fix,” Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You,” etc.). The song does its level best to paint the narrator’s intentions as noble, dedicating the entire second verse to the fact that he isn’t going to leave the girl even though he totally could, but there’s still a layer of sleaze here that the lyrics can’t mask. It’s a story I’ve heard a hundred times before, and it’s not one I’m itching to hear again.

Overall, “Hooked” is a track that is all style and no substance, with its in-your-face production trying really hard to convince you not to look behind the curtain and notice its unmemorable vocals and uninspired writing. It just ends up feeling kind of “meh,” and there are better love songs on the radio right now (“For Her,” “Unforgettable,” “A Girl Like You”) that are more worthy of your time.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Song Review: Chase Bryant, “Hell If I Know”

All right, I’ve gotten to review two great singles in a row! Let’s see if we can make it three…
*sees Chase Bryant has released a new single*
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

That’s right folks, it’s time to take our annual dose of Chase Bryant mediocrity! I still have a bad taste left in my mouth from his 2016 single “Room To Breathe,” and while country radio had been mostly okay with Bryant’s work up to that point, they treated that song like it was radioactive (or maybe the better term is “radioinactive,” given that it peaked at an embarrassing #43). This year, Bryant is giving us “Hell If I Know,” and while it’s marginally better than his last single, it’s still not something I would waste my time listening to.

Apparently Bryant missed the memo about the genre’s trend back towards traditionalism, because the production here is ripped straight from the Bro-Country era. The drum machine is the most prominent instrument here, with a token-sounding banjo thrown in to carry the melody. The choruses add some real drums and atmospheric electric guitars, but they add some noise and not much else. (Despite Bryant being an accomplished guitar player, the electric guitar basically wastes away in the background until the bridge solo, and even that isn’t terribly interesting.) The faster tempo provides some energy and sets an optimistic tone that suits the song, but it just feels like I’ve heard this song a million times before, and it doesn’t leave much of an impression when it’s over.

Bryant’s vocal performance has a similar generic feel, and would likely sound the same in the hands of any random male country singer. His delivery is at least solid on a technical level (his range isn’t really tested, but at least his flow is decent), and his voice doesn’t sound as thin as it did on “Room To Breathe.” To his credit, he sells the song well and does a good job filling the role of a happy-but-confused narrator, although his tone feels a shade too serious for a song that celebrates love. Again, it’s not a bad performance, it’s just not particularly impressive or memorable either.

The writing completes the generic trifecta by relying on overused, clichéd imagery and a laundry-list structure to convey the narrator’s inability to explain why his significant other fell for him. The verses are basically just a series of random questions that really aren’t that hard to answer in the first place (“The red sunset turns blue sky black” because the sun goes down, Chase. There’s no more light. And don’t even get me started on the link between smell and memory.), and both the verses and chorus include a bunch of the usual Bro-Country tropes (Friday nights, ice cold beer, telling the woman “everything looks better hanging off of your hips,” etc.). Male country singers are forever amazed by the fact that women fall for them despite their flaws, and there are a bunch of songs on the charts right this very moment (“Small Town Boy,” “More Girls Like You,” etc.) this cover the exact same topic. You’ve got to find a new way to tell a story this old if you want to stand out, and this song falls flat on all counts.

Nothing presented by “Hell If I Know”—not the production, not the writing, not Chase Bryant himself—gives the listener any reason to care about this song. It’s an unimaginative, uninteresting track that just barely qualifies as radio filler. Next year’s dose of Bryant better have a bit more flavor, or Nashville needs to stop serving it entirely.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Danielle Bradbery, “Sway”

Yesterday, Justin Moore’s “Kinda Don’t Care” was the best song I’d heard in two months. Now, it might not even be the best song I’ve heard this week!

Danielle Bradbery exploded onto the national scene by winning season four of The Voice in 2013…and promptly disappeared back into oblivion, as radio gave her debut single a lukewarm reception and flat-out rejected everything else. Just like Scotty McCreery, however, there’s a reason Bradbery rolled over her Voice competition, and it’s a golden voice that is completely unrestrained by genre. On “Sway,” the lead single for her upcoming album, Bradbery ditches her past country trappings in favor of a soulful R&B groove, and the result easily dethrones Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine” as the best female performance I’ve heard all year.

The production, as stated earlier, is a stark departure from the mixes on Bradbery’s debut album. Gone are the banjos, fiddles, and even the acoustic guitars, with only a slick electric guitar and a retro-sounding organ brought in to replace them. The real drums are still there, but only just barely: They are minimized in favor of a drum machine, and don’t jump in until the end of the first chorus. Normally a sonic shift like this would disappoint me, but the resulting mix is actually pretty restrained, and the groove it establishes is perhaps the best I’ve heard in country music all year. Even labeling this as Metropolitan doesn’t feel quite right—this is an old-school R&B jam, and the atmosphere it establishes is fun, dance-inducing, and even kind of sexy. Despite their years of practice, guys like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett can only dream of a mix that works this well and sounds this good.

Bradbery herself may have come off as a Martina McBride clone on her past work, but she demonstrates her versatility by channeling her inner Meghan Trainor/Corinne Bailey Rae on this track. (The Bailey Rae influence is particularly strong here, given her similar the song’s subject matter is to “Put Your Records On.”) The transition sounds effortless and suffers no drop in quality whatsoever, a testament to the power of Bradbery’s vocals. Her voice maintains its tone through her entire range (there’s a touch of raspy breathiness at the lower end, but it only adds a dash of extra sultriness), and her flow is as smooth as molasses. Basically, this paragraph is just a verbose way of saying that Bradbery sounds fantastic on this track, suggesting that there may be a place for her in the R&B and adult contemporary genres if country radio continues to ignore her.

The lyrics…well the story here is basically “Don’t worry, be happy, just dance.” They’re not novel (see: “Put Your Records On”), not clever, and honestly not that interesting. The truth, however, is that this doesn’t matter: This song is more about the feel of the music than anything else, and if the writing can convey some sort of vaguely positive message in the meantime, it’s an added bonus. While an argument could be made that the song encourages shallow escapism along the lines of Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink,” “Sway” is more palatable because its message is more “keep your chin up” than “drink your problems away.” In the end, the lyrics stay out of the way of Bradbery and the production and don’t disrupt the song’s momentum.

Overall, “Sway” is a great song by a great singer who deserves way more praise and attention than she’s getting. Country radio has historically been fairly hostile to female singers, so perhaps “Sway” is Danielle Bradbery’s declaration that she doesn’t need it to succeed. This song has “crossover/Top 40 potential” written all over it, and the genre may well live to regret giving her the cold shoulder.

Rating: 8/10. An absolute must-hear track.