Song Review: Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me”

What the heck, I’m always up for a good origin story.

Like the Force itself, there seem to be two sides of Luke Combs’s discography. When he’s tempted by the dark side, we get somber-toned, minor-chord-plagued laments about getting over a lost love (“Hurricane,” “One Number Away”), while on his brighter days we get fun, lighthearted tracks about…well, getting over a lost love (“When It Rains It Pours”). He’s returned to the light side of the Force for his latest single (and first from the new deluxe version of his album This One’s For You Too) “She Got The Best Of Me.” While it’s admittedly another track about getting over a lost love, just like with Star Wars the fourth release turns out to be the prequel, as Combs puts a unique twist on the topic by explaining how heartbreak inspired his musical career.

The production here splits the difference between the two sides of the Force: The overall mix sounds a lot like “Hurricane” with its prominent guitars (both acoustic and electric) and limited instrumentation (there’s a steel guitar and banjo here, but they’re barely noticeable behind the guitars and percussion), but the drums are real this time, and most notably the instrument tones are much brighter this time around. There’s still a minor chord that pops up regularly, but overall it strikes a nice balance between acknowledging the cloud and highlighting the silver lining:  The pain of the breakup still lingers, but that pain was the driving force that pushed the narrator onto the stage where he is today. It’s that positive vibe that sticks with the listener the most, and while it’s not the rollicking neotraditional sound of “When It Rains It Pours,” it’ll still leave you with a smile.

While Combs is a decent vocalist (neither his range or flow are tested here, but he delivers his lines competently and clearly), his biggest assets are his everyman charm and earnestness, and he puts these to good use on this track. I labeled this an “origin story” earlier, and the big question for a song like this is whether or not the artist can convince people that the story is actually true. (For what it’s worth, I couldn’t find any confirmation in either direction on the tale’s veracity.) For Combs, this isn’t an issue: He’s got enough power and charisma to get people to buy into the song, and if he declared this to be a true story, I’d totally believe him. For all the Star Wars references I’ve made so far, the best one might be how Combs’s ability to forge a connection with his audience feels eerily similar to Garth Vader himself.

It’s no secret that heartbreak has been a source of inspiration for country artists throughout the entire history of the genre, but “She Got The Best Of Me” makes the connection explicit: The narrator claims that he turned to the guitar as a means of coping with the pain of love lost at an early age. It’s not the most novel topic in the world and the imagery isn’t terribly evocative, but the writing has its moments (I like the “beating in this guitar” line), and the hook is at least better than some other recent wordplay examples (“Lose It,” “Take It From Me,” “The Difference”). Without Combs to breathe life into it, the song would honestly feel bland and boring, and it doesn’t do a great job of drawing in the listener and making them care. It’s a classic case of a singer elevating a song to greater heights then it would ever achieve on its own, and Combs and his producer deserve a lot of credit for it.

“She Got The Best Of Me” may not set the world on fire, but in the end it’s a solid song that speaks volumes about Luke Combs’s future potential. Put this track is someone else’s hands, and you’ve got some generic radio filler that no one will remember in about two months. Combs’s charisma, however, infuses the track with a bit more personality and meaning, and leaves listeners thinking “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind hearing that again.” I’m not sure what Force Combs has tapped it, but I hope he uses it for good.

Rating: 7/10. Three singles at 6 or above? Maybe Combs wasn’t kidding when he said This One’s For You Too.

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Song Review: Eric Church, “Desperate Man”

For some, this song would a “desperate” attempt to remain relevant. For Eric Church, it’s just Eric being Eric.

After “Round Here Buzz” earned itself an #2 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart, Church quietly closed the book on the Mr. Misunderstood era and disappeared from the country music scene, presumably to work on his next musical project. Given how Mr. Misunderstood had been dropped into the hands of his fans without any advance warning, people knew that Church could explode back onto the scene at any time, and so the world waited with bated breath for his return. The wait ended last week, as Church announced the release of a new single “Desperate Man” to headline a new album with the same name. I’m not really sure what I expected to get from this song, but a bouncy sad song backed by a psychedelic disco-tinged mix was definitely not what I thought was coming.I’m not sure how good this song really is, but it’ll certainly get people’s attention.

Disco/R&B influences have been popping up a fair amount in country music recently, but non have had the strong retro vibe of “Desperate Man”—this mix feels ripped straight from a vinyl record from 1975. From the bongos and affected percussion to the waka-chicka feel of the guitars to the vocal screams and “ooh-oohs,” everything here feels transplanted from another era of sound. (However, it’s not all from the same era, as the spacious electric guitar seems to have been borrowed from Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.) While the upbeat atmosphere seems like a poor fit for the melancholy writing at first glance, the bright instrument tones and faster tempo generate so much positive energy that it completely overwhelms the lyrical sentiment and turns the song into a rollicking good time. The narrator might be having a hard time getting over a lost love, but you’re too busy busting a move to care.

So much is made of Church’s “outsider” persona that his talent as a pure vocalist is mostly overlooked. The song traps Church exclusively in his upper and forces him to shout-sing a fair chunk of the song, but he does so without skipping a beat, adding intensity without ever sounding uncomfortable. Additionally, for someone who’s done as much work as Dierks Bentley at cultivating a rough-edged country-rock persona, he remains completely believable even with the unorthodox production style, and while lesser singers might be accused of ‘selling out’ by going in this direction, the whole thing feels completely natural here. Despite the slickness of the sound, there’s enough of an edge here to keep the tune in Church’s wheelhouse, and like Bryce Harper last night, he put on a good show.

I’m a little torn on the lyrics, which describe all the metaphorical (at least I hope they’re metaphorical) things the narrator has done to get a lost love off of their mind. On one hand, I love the choice of detail in the song, as lines like “walking glass barefooted” and scenes like the fortuneteller encounter invoke some surprisingly-vivid scenes into the listener’s mind, and really speak to the depth of the narrator’s mind. On the other hand, however, the song never actually tells you what the cause of the narrator’s pain is until the bridge (and even then it’s fairly roundabout, saying the narrator will be off their rocker “’til she comes back again”), making the listener spend most of the song wondering what the heck the commotion is all about. By the time the track gets to the punch line, the audience is so saturated by the positive energy of the production that they’ve stopped caring about the narrator’s plight. (To be honest, there’s also not a whole lot of story here at all, as the choruses just keep saying how desperate a man the narrator is.) There are definitely some interesting nuggets buried here, but given how orthogonal the sound and writing are, the track really lets Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ballyhooed contribution go to waste.

“Desperate Man” is a bit of a misnomer, as only an artist as secure in his place in country music and as wholly un-desperate as Eric Church is could have pulled off a musical shift like this without it feeling forced. Whereas some artists (most notably Miranda Lambert) seem to be struggling under the weight of their outside, independent status, Church is embracing the freedom of his position to do whatever the heck he wants to, and the result is a refreshing sound that, while I’m hesitant to call it “good,” is certainly good enough to intrigue me about what might be coming when Desperate Man drops in October. It’s a nice changeup to the steady diet of dark, generic guitar-and-drum mixes the radio is feeding us right now, and shows that even when Church borrows sounds and ideas from others, he somehow finds a way to make them stand out.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the stereo.

Song Review: James Barker Band, “Chills”

It’s not good when a new artists sounds exactly like an existing one. It’s really bad when that existing artist is Granger Smith.

The James Barker Band is a Canadian group who got their big break by winning the “Emerging Artist Showcase” at the 2015 Boots and Hearts music festival, earning a record deal with Universal Music Group. They’ve already made a fair bit of noise on the Canadian charts, grabbing the #1 spot with “Chills” in 2017 and peaking at #6 with their latest single “Good Together.” Now, hoping to replicate the (moderate) success fellow Canadians High Valley and Lindsey Ell have achieved south of the border, the band has started shipping the radio-tested “Chills” to American stations (and taken out a surprising amount of ad space in Mediabase publications). Unfortunately, when I listen to the song, I seem to hear every artist except the James barker band, and there’s not enough here to push the track out of generic territory and make it feel unique.

I’d sum up the production by saying that it has the same stuff every other song does, it just seems to have less of it. It’s the same old guitar-and-drum mix you’ve come to expect from country radio (the major exception being the High Valley-esque banjo that jumps in on the first chorus, which rolls along fast enough to at least not feel token), but the percussion doesn’t have the same kick that the song’s contemporaries feature, and the electric and steel guitar don’t quite have the spacious feel that we hear in, say, Granger Smith’s “You’re In It” (hold on to that comparison folks, we’ll be coming back to it). The instruments also don’t feel as bright as you would expect, and the minor chords that anchor the song give it a much more serious feel than it should. Finally, the overall mix doesn’t seem to have the power and volume it needs to really drive its message home, and is overly reliant on its tempo to provide energy and build momentum. Take away the banjo, and your average listener probably couldn’t pick this song out of a lineup, which isn’t good for a band trying to introduce themselves to a larger audience.

If you had told me this was a new Granger Smith single, I wouldn’t have questioned you at all, as singer James Barker is basically a Smith clone (with perhaps a shade of Zac Brown thrown in for good measure). The song’s key feels a bit below Barker’s comfort zone, but he has enough range to (mostly) maintain his tone and clarity. Barker’s flow is a bit more impressive, as he handles the song’s rapid-fire portions without skipping a beat. The charisma question, however, remains just that: While he certainly comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, he really isn’t able to transmit his excitement to the listener. (He may get chills, but I just get bored.) The serious production and bland lyrics don’t help matters, but in the end it’s on Barker to really sell me on how special his significant other is, and he just doesn’t pull it off.

The most disappointing performance on this song, however, goes to the “band” component of the James Barker Band, as they’re so invisible on this song that even Brian Kelley feels sorry for them. Their sound is so generic and their harmonies are so weak and indistinguishable that Barker might as well be a solo artist backed by a random group of session players. In short, the band doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, and if the group breaks up in a couple of years, no one will even realize they’re gone.

Lyrically, the song is yet another Bro-Lite track that focuses on how the woman in the song gives the narrator “chills” as the pair go through the usual activities (night driving, club hopping, dancing, etc.). Outside of the woman’s clothing (it’s a little black dress instead of tight cut-off jeans—shocking!), the song is devoid of wit and entirely predictable, and while it’s not as explicitly objectifying as songs from the peak-Bro era, the usual creepy attitude is still there (when he says “We’ve got all night girl, there ain’t no rush,” you get the feeling he’s not interested in just dancing), and it’s still not a topic I’m terribly interested in revisiting. I’m also struck by how rushed the song feels, as it tends to jump from location to location and only spend a line or two talking about the drive, the party, etc. Pair it with forgettable production and vocals, and the listener ends up spending up half their time checking their watch and waiting for the next song to start.

“Chills” is just another song by just another singer backed by just another band, and while it’s got that generic Bro-esque formula that the US charts just can’t get enough of, I don’t see it making much of a splash below the 49th parallel. The genre already has enough acts like the James Barker Band, and this song doesn’t do enough anything to convince country radio to make room for them. Unless something changes—new sound, new members, something—the only chills the band will feel are those of the Canadian winter.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Michael Ray, “One That Got Away”

Just when I thought Michael Ray might make something of himself…

Ray’s discography reads like an inventory list at a landfill, complete with hot garbage such as “Kiss You In The Morning,” “Real Men Love Jesus,” and “Think A Little Less.” However, with his second album Amos and its leadoff single “Get To You,” Ray had to chance to rewrite his story and take a few small steps towards making actual quality music. His latest single “One That Got Away,” unfortunately, finds Ray showing off that obnoxious, misogynistic Bro persona he broke in with, and the result not only has no business being on the radio, but it might just be the biggest piece of junk I’ve ever reviewed on this blog.

The production here tends towards the light, summery feel that “Kiss You In The Morning” had (in fact, they almost sound like the same song), but it’s more of a Metro-Bro mix than straight-up Bro-Country: The electric guitars sound slicker, and there’s a fair bit of synthetic percussion mixed in with the real stuff. The song features a piano and organ floating around in the background to give it a slight beachside flair, but otherwise it feels like the same, generic sound I’ve heard from the Bro crowd a hundred times before. It’s admittedly got some energy and bounce behind it, and it does establish a devil-may-care atmosphere that complements the lyrics (which is actually a problem when the lyrics are this terrible; more on that later), but it just feels like empty sonic calories, forcing a party when one it definitely not warranted.

Michael Ray officially assumes the mantle of “The Honey Badger” on this track, because he just doesn’t give a you-know-what (warning: NSFW language in video). He actually demonstrates some decent range and flow here, but his performance as a simple-minded, unsympathetic boor is so believable it’s disgusting. While there’s probably no elevating a song this poorly-written, there was at least a small chance to frame the narrator as the offended party and thus be a teeny, tiny bit sympathetic…except that Ray comes off as such a douche that by the end, you’re practically rooting fro the woman to dump him. There’s such a thing as playing a role too well (Jake Owen learned this the hard way), and Ray’s performance not only fails to connect with the audience, it actively pushes them away.

And then we have the lyrics…I won’t mince words here: In nearly two years of running this blog, this might be the angriest a song’s writing have ever made me. On the surface, the story is similar to Adam Craig’s “Just A Phase” (which isn’t a promising place to start): Guy meets girl, guy just knows girl’s going to leave him and tear his world apart, and instead of taking the initiative and actually doing something about it, guy just kicks back and enjoys the fruits of the relationships while it lasts, proclaiming that she will be “one hell of a one that got away.” Forget the narrator’s lazy attitude for a moment, or his blanket assumption about the woman’s feelings, or even the fact that the lyrics feature some really awkward analogies (“tax-free under the table”? Really?) What really aggravates me in the way he refers to the woman, especially in back-to-back lines as the song transitions from the first verse into the chorus:

Yeah but I’m gonna hold her like a trophy tonight
She’s decorating my car…

Excuse me? A trophy? Decorating your freaking car?! News flash, pal: Women are human beings worthy of respect, not prizes to be won, and they’re certainly not hood ornaments for your stupid ride! The guy’s celebrating this hookup like he won the goddamn Super Bowl, and he’s gonna milk his trip to Disney World for everything he can. This loutish attitude makes my stomach turn and my blood boil, and all four of the fools who wrote this song deserve to be slapped in the face and thrown into the nearest lake.

Dierks Bentley upended my “best songs” list last week, and now Michael Ray has done the same to my  “worst song” list with “One That Got Away.” This is a disgusting track whose mediocre, generic production winds up being its only redeeming quality, as Ray and his writers serve up such a pile of filth that even Jordan Davis would give them a disapproving look. As far as I’m concerned, Ray needs to get the heck out of country music and not let the door hit him on the way out.

Rating: 1/10. As a wise man once said, “Get that garbage outta here!”

Song Review: Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

Darn it, is my 2018 Top Ten list out of date already?

Black was probably the most ambivalent I’d ever felt about a Dierks Bentley album. It was fine, sure, but the album’s slick, modernized style felt like an awkward fit for Bentley’s rough-edged persona. In contrast, Bentley’s latest album The Mountain puts him in a much more comfortable position, letting him return to the hard-charging, Outlaw-esque style that made him one of country music’s biggest stars while also allowing him to ruminate on his experience and contemplate his career mortality. While “Woman, Amen” was a feel-good, well-executed track that moved Bentley closer to his comfort zone, his latest single “Burning Man” brings him all the way back, harnessing his forceful, unapologetic approach and old-school street cred to put a distinctly Dierks twist on the classic “getting old” track.

The driving bass drum is about the last instrument I expected to experience a resurgence in 2018, but it’s been used to great effect in several songs recently (“Run Wild Horses,” “All Day Long,” “Lose It”), and “Burning Man” does the same thing here, pairing it with a nimble-but-dark acoustic guitar to give the track a shot of serious energy from the start. The drums slowly become more numerous and complex as the song progresses, and an electric guitar adds some empathic stabs during the chorus (not to mention a decent solo courtesy of John Osborne), but for the most part the track leans on the simple, unrelenting guitar/drum combination for its energy and momentum. There’s an intensity to this mix that not even “Run Wild Horses” can match, but it meshes with the lyrics to give the song a “raging against the dying of the light” feel that suits Bentley and the material perfectly. It’s one thing to tell your listeners that you can still rock as hard as you used to, but only the best can put together a mix like this and prove it.

Vocally, “Burning Man” requires a special sort of singer to pull off convincing, and Bentley is one of the select few who fit the bill. It’s nothing terribly strenuous in terms of its range or flow (though Bentley sounds totally comfortable here), but it requires a certain amount of cachet and charisma to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. (Forget current singers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt; I’m not even sure Alan Jackson could have made this feel earnest.) Thankfully, not only is Bentley the perfect fit as a (sort of) reformed rapscallion who can still get loud from time to time, but TJ Osborne’s weathered voice and recent singles (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight”) gives him enough credibility in this lane to also feel genuine (even if he isn’t really old enough to reflect on a life of hard living and lessons learned). Bentley and TJ Osborne have a surprisingly amount of vocal chemistry, and while John Osborne doesn’t contribute any noticeable vocals, unlike the Brian Kelleys of the world, he adds least adds to the song through his solid guitar work. It’s not a Willie-and-Waylon sort of pairing (yet), but it’s as close an approximation as we’ll get in the genre today.

The lyrics here focus on the duality of a old, wise narrator (or two) who hasn’t fully accepted his age and wisdom yet, and instead declares that while he’s slowed down from his wild and woolly days, he certainly hasn’t stopped (hence the hook “a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”). On one hand, there’s a lot of wit baked into how the narrator describes his current situation, especially in the second verse:

I always loved the highway
I just don’t run it as fast
I still go wherever the wind blows me
But I always find my way back
I still don’t get it right sometimes
I just don’t get it as wrong
I still go a little bit crazy sometimes
Yeah, but now I don’t stay near as long

On the other hand, these sorts of statements are pretty much the whole song, with only the bridge expanding on the concept and looking at the narrator’s future plans. (Bentley elaborates on these plans in later tracks on The Mountain, but I wish he would have done a bit more here to put a bow on this particular single. It’s certainly not bad and I really like what’s here, but it starts to feel a bit formulaic the longer Bentley and Osborne hammer on this point.

Overall, however, I think I like “Burning Man” even better than “Woman, Amen,” and that track was already the sixth-best single I’d hear all year! The topic was tailor-made for an artist like Dierks Bentley, and the production and vocals do a great job making the whole thing believable and enjoyable. I don’t talk about albums much on this blog, but I’d Bentley making a strong case for The Mountain to be my favorite disc of the year.

Rating: 8/10. You’re gonna wanna hear this.

Kyle’s LEAST Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

Country music in the first half of 2018 might have been slightly better than the first half on 2017 on average, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t hear our fair share of clunkers on the radio. Dustin Lynch may have gotten his act together just enough to stay off of this list, but a fair share of his contemporaries did not, and they’ve been joined by a few artists that really should have known better than to release such garbage to the public.

I’m not going to waste any more time than I have to on this junk, so hold your nose and plug your ears, because we’re counting down the worst country songs heard thus far in 2018.

Dishonorable Mentions:

  • Shania Twain, “We Got Something They Don’t” (review)
  • Dan + Shay, “Tequila” (review)
  • Blake Shelton, “I Lived It” (review)
  • Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” (review)
  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (review)

#10: Sam Hunt, “Downtown’s Dead” (review)

#9: Miranda Lambert, “Keeper Of The Flame” (review)

#8: Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” (review)

#7: Keith Urban ft. Julia Michaels, “Coming Home” (review)

#6: Maren Morris, “Rich” (review)

#5: Craig Campbell, “See You Try” (review)

#4: LoCash, “Don’t Get Better Than That” (review)

#3: Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” (review)

#2: Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” (review)

#1: Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” (review)

Kyle’s Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

As we pass the halfway mark of 2018, it seems like a good time to copy-paste my opening sentence from my 2017 halfway list revisit my pile of music reviews over the last six months, and highlight the best songs I’ve looked at thus far. 2018 has had a fairly similar structure to its predecessor thus far (namely, it had the same two-month stretch of mediocrity from April to June), but I feel like there was a slight uptick in quality overall. It’s a good problem to have, but it also makes putting together my first-half “best of” list a little tricky. There are plenty of songs that deserve your attention this year, but these are the ten I think are most worthy.

Just like last year, I’m not going to comment on these songs here, since a) I’m lazy, and b) I’ve already gone over each one in great detail in my reviews. Let’s go to the montage, shall we?

Honorable Mentions:

  • Brett Young, “Mercy” (review)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Life Changes” (review)
  • Jason Aldean ft. Miranda Lambert, “Drowns The Whiskey” (review)
  • Florida Georgia Line, “Simple” (review)
  • Dean Summerwind, “Parked Out By The Lake” (best song evar)

#10: Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” (review)

#9: Jillian Jacqueline, “Reasons” (review)

#8: Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hate Love Songs” (review)

#7: Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” (review)

#6: Dierks Bentley, “Woman, Amen” (review)

#5: Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing” (review)

#4: Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End” (review)

#3: Aaron Watson, “Run Wild Horses” (review)

#2: Midland, “Burn Out” (review)

#1: Alan Jackson, “The Older I Get” (review)