Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Marry Me”

(Still waiting for an official YouTube release for this song…)

I’m starting to think of Thomas Rhett the way I thought of Tom Brady early in his career: The Hall of Fame might as well reserve him a spot right now.

Music critics are rarely unanimous in their decisions, but “Marry Me” was singled out by most everyone (including myself) as the best single on Rhett’s latest album Life Changes. Apparently the higher-ups at Valory Music got the message: After Rhett’s last single “Unforgettable” rocketed to No. 1 so fast that you would have missed it if you blinked, the label delivered “Marry Me” to radio as Life Changes‘s third single. The song is surprisingly mature and powerful for a first attempt at a heartbreak song (yes, “Crash And Burn” was technically about a lost love, but it was framed too positively to count), and while I don’t think it’ll reach the heights of “Die A Happy Man,” I’ll bet it comes pretty darn close.

The production here starts small, with a classical piano handling the melody and a subdued drum machine keeping time, and mixes in enough bright tones to create the facade of a sappy wedding song. As the song progresses and the secret is revealed, more instruments are thrown in (guitars, real drums, and eventually an entire string section), and the song slowly builds volume and momentum, reaching an urgent crescendo on the bridge as the narrator debates what he should do before he runs out of time to do it. The mix does a nice job of maintaining sonic consistency while subtly adjusting its tone from sweet to melancholy to not only keep up with the writing, but accentuate and enhance it. It’s easily one of the better sound/lyric combinations I’ve heard all year.

Sad, serious songs are about the last thing you expect from Rhett, but he steps up to the mic here and delivers an earnest, understated performance that might be his best one yet. He does a nice job maintaining the song’s initial head fake until the punch line of the chorus, and while the song mostly keeps his voice in its lower range (where it has a slightly rough edge at times), he gets a few opportunities to climb the ladder and showcase his range. The real key here, however, is how incredibly believable he is: The singer of such classics as “Get Me Some Of That” and “Make Me Wanna” is talking about walking away from a women he desperately covets, yet exhibits enough charisma and sincerity to leave the listener thinking “Yeah, I buy that.” Rhett has successfully moved on from his Bro-Country roots to become a more-conventional superstar, and although we’ll probably still see a meatheaded single or two from him in the future (much like Cole Swindell and “Flatliner”), he’s shown that he’s got enough game to handle deeper tracks like this one.

The writing here is a nice play on all the wedding-ready ballads on the charts right now (“Greatest Love Story,” “I’ll Name The Dogs,” etc.). This track starts out in the same vein, but takes a clever twist at the end of the chorus to reveal that the narrator isn’t the one getting married. While there are certainly enough songs in country music about watching a love interest marry someone else, most of them either focus on a) barging in and confessing their feelings, or b) wallowing in self-pity as they watch the proceedings from afar. Here, however, the narrator not only comes to the wedding to offer support, but explicitly passes on the chance to step in and express his own feelings. It’s a mature, honorable gesture that I haven’t seen in a country song since Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile,” and it’s pretty refreshing considering how many recent songs have handled such scenarios (Old Dominion’s “Break Up With Him,” Jake Owen’s “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” Jordan Davis “Singles You Up,” etc.). Pair this kind of writing with suitable production and vocals, and you’ve got an impactful tune that’s instantly one of the best songs on the radio today.

Even among Thomas Rhett’s impressive run of singles, “Marry Me” stands out as one of the best, featuring an excellent combination of sound, singer and writing. Sad songs tend to have a tougher climb to the top than happier ones, but this one is so good (and Rhett’s star is burning so brightly right now) that I feel like a quick trip to the top like “Unforgettable” is the worst-case scenario.

Rating: 9/10. It’s already one of my favorite songs of the year.

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Song Review: Keith Urban, “Female”

While I applaud the sentiment behind this song, I can’t help but feel like whoever wrote this thing either got bored or ran out of ideas halfway through it.

Country music has a long tradition of artists addressing current events in their songs (see Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” or Maren Morris’s “Dear Hate” earlier this year), and Keith Urban joined that group last week when he debuted his new single “Female,” at the 2017 Country Music Awards. The song is billed as a reaction to the recent series of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein and a number of other powerful men, and it serves as a repudiation of the toxic environments that women face in today’s society. It’s the sort of pointed topical discussion that I wish happened a lot more in country music, and Urban and the songwriters deserve credit for putting this out there, but this track honestly feels half-baked to me, alternating moments of brilliance with inexplicable laziness.

The production is purposefully low-key and restrained here, setting the proper mood for the song without getting in the way of its message. The melody is split between a spacious electric guitar and piano, and the percussion is a quiet mix of real and synthetic sounds. The riffs are simple and basic here, but I’m okay with that: I’ve criticized some of Urban’s songs in the past for not giving one of the best guitarists in the genre room to shine, but showing off his guitar wizardry here would feel a bit hollow and detract from the song’s theme. Similarly, there are minor chords sprinkled throughout the song, but they serve to demand our attention and underline the seriousness of the topic. In short, the mix sets a proper tone for the writing, and that’s pretty much all you can ask for.

Urban has never been known for tackling serious issues through his music, but he does a nice job bringing the required amounts of earnestness and gravitas on “Female.” The song is more demanding emotionally than technically (neither Urban’s range nor flow is tested), and Urban has both the chops and the career longevity to give an authoritative take on this subject. I never got the feeling that he was trying to “mansplain” the subject to his listeners, although the song seems to jump between addressing men and women during the verses. There aren’t a lot of singers in country music who could do this song justice, but thankfully Urban demonstrates that he’s one of them.

My big issue with “Female” stems from the lyrics, which take listeners on a rollercoaster of thought-provoking questions and mind-numbing laundry lists. The direct questions on the verses (Should “throw like a girl” be an insult? Do women really “ask for it” because of their fashion choices?) are actually pretty powerful (even though they’re posed rhetorically), and lead people to think about their attitudes towards women and the subtle ways they express bias in their daily lives. It’s all great…until the chorus comes along and slaps the listener with a long, drawn-out laundry list of random nouns. Some of these are labels commonly given to women (sister, daughter, mother, baby girl), some are occupations that don’t seem to have any gender connotation (secret keeper, fortune teller), and some are just random words that make absolutely no sense in context (Fire? Suit of armor? “Technicolor, river wild?”). The song goes from asking tough questions to spouting gibberish in an instant, giving the listener sonic whiplash and leaving them feeling confused about the song in the end. Despite the best efforts of Urban and the production, it’s this confusion that leaves the biggest impression.

“Female” makes some solid points and was written with good intentions, and I really want to like it. In the end, however, it’s defined by its inconsistent writing, and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the song when it’s over. Keith Urban and his producers show here that they have the skills to tackle a topic like misogyny, but they need to find songs that do a better job getting their message across.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing once or twice, but you’ll likely forget about it soon afterwards.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Heaven”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kane Brown must be Thomas Rhett’s biggest fan, because they’re operating from the same playbook.

Despite my ambivalence on “What Ifs,” the seventh time turned out to be the charm for Brown, as the song found some radio traction and eventually became his first No. 1 hit. In an effort to maintain his airplay success, Kane appears to be using Rhett’s career as a blueprint, as Rhett made a masterful transition from a generic Bro-Country meathead to a successful R&B-inspired balladeer. Brown’s latest single “Heaven” suggests that he’s trying to walk the same path, as it eschews the synthetic bombast of his earlier work in favor of a restrained, romantic approach. Amazingly, if this song is any indication, Brown just might be able to pull this transition off.

At its core, the production here is very similar to Brown’s prior work, featuring a prominent mix of real and synthetic percussion (with a heavy emphasis on the latter), and an acoustic instrument (usually a guitar or banjo, but a dobro is used here) carrying the melody. However, the intensity and bombast that usually characterizes Brown’s work is completely absent here: The drum machine is limited to rhythmic snapping and give the real drums more space to shine, and in the in-your-face electric guitars have been replaced by simple chord stabs from a single slick-sounding guitar. While I’d stop short of saying the mix sets the super-sexy mood that Brown is shooting for, the atmosphere here is both romantic and refreshingly relaxed (as opposed to David Lee Murphy’s lifeless “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”), and there’s a nice mix of major and minor chords that conveys the depth of the speaker’s feelings without feeling overly serious. It’s not particularly memorable, but it’s at least a smooth-sounding song that’s easy on the ears.

In terms of Brown’s delivery, I would label this his best vocal performance since “Used To Love You Sober.” To fit the mood of the song, he drops his usual rapid-fire cadence in favor of a slower, R&B-styled sound, and the change seems to suit his voice well. On a technical level, he exhibits good range and a smooth flow, and he brings enough earnestness to the track to make it sound sweet and sincere. Just as I noted on “What Ifs,” while his lower range is still his voice’s biggest selling point (a fact the song exploits by plumbing the depth of Brown’s voice during the verses), he still lacks the tone and polish of a Josh Turner or Trace Adkins, and actually sounds more comfortable when he jumps into his upper range for the chorus and bridge. On the whole, however, it’s a decent delivery, and he seems comfortable enough with the song’s style to make future expansion into romantic ballads a real possibility.

The song’s premise is pretty simple: The narrator and his partner have just concluded a night of romantic bliss, and the singer is declaring that it was so pleasureful that “I don’t know how heaven…could be better than this.” There’s nothing terribly clever or original here, and there’s no context given for the engagement (one night stand, or committed relationship?), but there’s nothing offensive or annoying here either—it’s a light, fluffy ballad that relies on the singer’s charisma to keep it from becoming too cheesy or sleazy. There’s enough here to keep the writing from detracting from the song’s mood, and pairing it with Brown’s delivery and suitable production leaves the listener with a (slightly) favorable impression.

Overall, “Heaven” is a decent song that features enough positive signs to leave me surprisingly bullish on Kane Brown’s future in the genre. A lot of singers have made a pretty good living off of sappy romantic stuff like this (again, see Thomas Rhett), and while I wasn’t overly moved by this song, I’m not really its target audience either, and Brown flashes just enough potential here to convince me that he can make this work. I underestimated him once, and I’m not making the same mistake twice.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Song Review: David Lee Murphy & Kenny Chesney, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”

There’s a fine line between a chill song and a lifeless one, and unfortunately for David Lee Murphy, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is the latter.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Murphy’s career existed at all: He peaked briefly in the mid-90s with tracks like “Dust On The Bottle” and “Party Crowd,” racked up five Top Ten Billboard hits over his nondescript career, and hadn’t released a single to radio since 2004. Suddenly, however, Murphy has a new album (No Zip Code) slated to release this year, with “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a duet with album co-producer Kenny Chesney, serving as the leadoff single. In theory the song is meant to reassure and reinspire its audience in the face of tough times, but in practice the track is a plodding, monotonic mess that depresses the listener more than anything else.

The production is incredibly basic and bare-bones, with most of the song featuring a lazy one-note riff repeated over a drum machine. An organ jumps in on the chorus to add some background atmosphere, and an electric guitar provides a (boring) solo, but they’re not featured enough to add much to the song. The combination of a slower tempo with the dimly-toned guitar and drums sets a way-too-dark tone for the song, making it sound more like a funeral march than a relaxing beachside tune. Basically, the mix sets the exact opposite tone that it should, and makes what should be a hopeful, optimistic song feel dreary and boring.

Vocally, Murphy sounds about the same as he did when I last encountered him on “Loco” over a decade ago, but he’s hampered by two issues: The song constrains his range and traps him in his lower register for most of the song, and the echoey effects added to his lines make him sound even raspier than usual. As a result, his delivery comes across as monotonic and lifeless instead of relaxed and optimistic. For Chesney’s part, he sounds the same as he usually does, and while his performance lacks energy, he at least sounds invested in the track, unlike on “Bar At The End Of The World”). (However, the song is most definitely not written as a duet, which begs the question why Chesney was added in the first place…besides the obvious financial and radio implications, of course.) The pair appears to have some decent vocal chemistry, but the harmony vocals are so low in the mix that you barely hear them. Overall, the pair offers a tolerable-but-forgettable performance that is immediately washed out of your ears by the next song.

There isn’t a whole lot to the writing here, as the song just talks about the narrator being uplifted by a sign in a bar saying “everything’s gonna be alright.” It’s not a particularly deep or compelling tale, and doesn’t really offer any reason to feel optimistic outside of blind faith (basically, the message is “everything will be fine, because…it just will.”) Throw in the usual barroom and drinking tropes, and this song falls into the same category as Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink”: A shallow escapist song that encourages peoples to ignore the problems around them instead of addressing them. It’s not overly offensive, but it’s not memorable either, and with the lyrics and production setting opposite moods, it’s not a terribly pleasant listen.

Overall, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is a misnomer: If you mix shallow writing and tone-deaf production, everything’s actually gonna suck. “Loco” put a nice bow on David Lee Murphy’s career, and he would have been better off not chasing radio relevance with this half-baked track.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Heaven South”

I hope Brad Paisley has a defibrillator handy, because his career looks like it’s about to flatline.

After “Today” became a Mediabase #1 and peaked at #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart, I was confident that Paisley had finally regained his radio footing after a series of underwhelming singles (“Crushin’ It” only made it to #9, “Country Nation” stalled at #12, and “Without A Fight” only made it to #16). I was wrong: “Last Time For Everything,” an excellent song that I thought had a ton of potential, struggled to a #19 peak before Sony pulled the plug (which felt a bit premature, to be honest). In its wake, “Heaven South” became the third single released from Paisley’s Love & War album, and frankly, it’s the worst possible choice they could have made. It’s a lazy, pandering tune (think “Country Nation” without all the college football references) that completely destroys my optimism about Paisley’s future in mainstream country music.

The best thing I can say about “Heaven South” is that Paisley still has a great ear for production. As you might expect, the melody is primarily guitar-driven (both acoustic and electric), but a large assortment of classic country instruments are mixed in and given a chance to shine (banjo, mandolin, steel guitar…no fiddle, sadly). The percussion starts out with some synthetic hand claps, but they’re so low and unobtrusive that they blend it naturally with the mix (you only really notice during them the quieter moments of the song), and a real drum set jumps whenever the producer wants to add some punch to the track. The result is a very organic, almost rustic sound that sets a relaxed and cheerful tone for the tune. Of course, the track is topped off by Paisley’s signature guitar work—his solo isn’t as complex or energetic as in other tunes, but it’s well-executed and fits the song’s mood perfectly.

Paisley delivers his usual vocal performance here, even though the song isn’t much of a test of his technical abilities (the range is constrained, and the flow is relaxed). Instead, the song is a charisma-driven tune that requires the singer to forge a strong connection with his listeners, and Paisley’s smooth, earnest delivery is more than up to the task. Paisley’s voice has the kind of honest, believable tone that could sell a space heater to Satan, and while the song itself keeps him from reaching a broad audience (more on that later), Paisley does the best he can given the circumstances.

So if the production is great and vocals are good, why does this song irritate me so much? The problem lies within the writing and theme:

  • The song itself is an ode to the mythical Mayberry-eqsue towns of the South, celebrating the sights, sounds, and people of the region. Songs like this have always been a personal pet peeve of mine: The South may be the primary market for country music, but it’s far from the only one, and focusing on a single region like this artificially restricts the song’s target audience and limits its appeal. Paisley is at his best when he challenges his audience to expand their perspective (think “Southern Comfort Zone”), and songs that purposefully limit their reach like “Heaven South” leave listeners like me out in the cold.
  • Despite the above point, songs like that can still work if they’re well-constructed—for example, I enjoyed the historical perspective and story of Alabama’s “Song Of The South.” “Heaven South,” however, just feels lazy to me, as its premise is completely unoriginal, its imagery is generic and boring, and it resorts to reciting a laundry list of terms at several points in the hope that somethinganything resonates with the listener. (Spoiler alert: Nothing did.)

I really wanted to like “Heaven South.” Brad Paisley is one of my favorite artists, and the song features the top-notch production and strong vocals that I’ve come to expect. In the end, however, this song comes across as a poorly-written attempt to pander to a subset of Paisley’s fanbase at the expense of everyone else, and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the whole thing when it’s over. Paisley’s career cheated death with “Today,” but he’d better come up with some better single choices fast, because I don’t think he’ll be able to resuscitate it again.

Rating: 5/10. This one isn’t worth your time.

Song Review: Chris Lane ft. Tori Kelly, “Take Back Home Girl”

Hello, is this Youtube? Yes, I’d like to “Take Back” this song for a refund of my time.

While I actually liked Chris Lane’s last single “For Her,” radio never really warmed to the track, and it only notched a #10 airplay peak over a year after its release. With all the momentum from his debut #1 “Fix” squandered, Lane and his team closed the book on his debut album Girl Problems after just two singles, and brought American Idol alum Tori Kelly out of the witness protection program to join forces with Lane on his new single “Take Back Home Girl.” The result is a slick, synthetic single that’s more forgettable than anything else.

The production has a manufactured feel to it, with a choppy, affected electric guitar carrying the melody and a mixture of real and fake drums (primarily the latter) providing the foundation. The verses are actually pretty sparse save for an occasional organ, which later combines with some other spacious-sounding instruments (possibly a steel guitar? It’s really hard to tell) to add some atmosphere to the choruses. The tempo is relatively relaxed, but (like seemingly every song I’ve reviewed recently) it’s plagued by minor chords that make its vibe much more serious than it should be. Overall, the sound is neither offensive nor memorable, and doesn’t leave much of an impression on the listener.

Lane is a decent vocalist in his own right, but this song is about as bad a fit for him as you could fine. Lane’s secret weapon that sets him apart from his contemporaries is his impressive falsetto, which he used to great effect on “For Her.” This song, however, keeps Lane trapped in his lower range, and he sounds rougher and less comfortable as a result. Kelly comes as the stronger vocalist of the two, as the song suits her voice better and she sounds much better in a harmony role than Lane does. The pair’s vocal chemistry is hard to discern, as Lane has to go way outside of his comfort zone to match Kelly’s tone. Throw in all the vocal effects the producers buried the pair in and the slight volume imbalance between the vocals and production (the voices are a shade too loud), and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the pair’s performance.

The writing here feels a lot lazier and sleazier than it should be, as the whole thing boils down to laundry-list verses with a chorus full of “You’re an XYZ!” declarations. Consider the first verse:

Duffle bag, backseat
My dash, your feet
Those other side of the highway headlights making you shine
My hand, your leg
Playlist playing
Even though I haven’t made it yet
I’m dragging it, dropping it in my mind

Not exactly Robert Frost, is it?

Unlike Brett Eldredge’s “The Long Way,” which takes a classier “show-me-what-made-you-who-you-are” approach, “Take Back Home Girl” flips the dynamic and depicts the guy showing his girl off to all the people in his hometown. The song gives off a uncomfortable, slightly voyeuristic vibe similar to Dustin Lynch’s “I’d Be Jealous Too,” and lines like “My little crowd pleaser/Parading with you feeling homecoming cool” feel downright creepy, like the guy is just basking in the adoration of his friends and neighbors over how hot a girl he scored. While the song does feature some unique imagery (making breakfast with the narrator’s mama, for example), it also features a few classic Bro tropes (nighttime drives, Friday night lights) that counteract whatever cleverness the song tries to show off. In the end, it’s just not that pleasant to hear.

Overall, “Take Back Home Girl” is an annoying song that is overproduced, poorly written, and squanders the vocal talents of Chris Lane and Tori Kelly in favor of a failed attempt to make a respectable Bro-Country song. (It’s not quite Dustin Lynch bad, but it’s close.) Lane better find some highly-quality material soon, or the next time he takes someone back home, Nashville will tell him not to come back.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “She Ain’t In It”

Ah, so this is the Jon Pardi everybody’s been talking about.

In the battle between traditional and modern country music, Pardi has been playing the awkward role of peacemaker, as his past singles (“Dirt On My Boots,” “Heartache On The Dance Floor,” etc.) have both incorporated long-forgotten classic instruments (he’s about the only act to consistently work a fiddle into his songs) and embraced the electronic elements that are currently popular (prominent drum machines are also a theme in his work). For the fourth (and likely final) single off of his California Sunrise album, however, Pardi has gone all in on a neotraditional sound with “She Ain’t In It,” and the result is probably my favorite Pardi single yet.

The production here is not only traditional, but surprisingly acoustic as well: The percussion is handled exclusively by a drum set, and the electric guitar stays mostly in the background, with a brief turn in the spotlight on the bridge solo. Melody duties are generally covered by an acoustic guitar and an organ, but a steel guitar and fiddle are tossed in at nearly every opportunity, and one of these two is usually the loudest, most noticeable instrument in the mix. As a result, the song trades some of the groove and intensity of Pardi’s past work for something slower and more reflective, which suits the song’s tone perfectly and gives the listener ample space to comtemplate the writing. Unlike some songs I’ve reviewed recently (*cough* “I’d Be Jealous Too” *cough*), the frequent minor chords used here actually complement the song instead of working at cross purposes with it. Let’s hope Dustin Lynch is taking notes…

To be honest, I’m not terribly impressed with Pardi as a vocalist. His range and flow are tolerable (not neither is really tested here), and he certainly has enough charisma to adequately fill the narrator’s role, but his voice has no tone at all and just sounds flat and nasally. While I wouldn’t say he detracts from the song at all, he definitely keeps it from reaching its full potential (in the hands of a stronger singer like Chris Young or Easton Corbin, this would really be something special). Thankfully, Pardi brings just enough earnestness to the table to sell the song, connect with his listeners, as pass along his heartbreak.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a man preparing to rejoin society and go out for a good time in the wake of a breakup, knowing full well that he’s still hung up on his ex and that things will end in disaster if they show up (think of it as a prequel to Walker McGuire’s “‘Til Tomorrow”). There’s nothing terribly groundbreaking here (although the writers get credit for the numbers of things they manage to rhyme with “in it”), but it checks all of the emotional boxes that a post-breakup song should, and forms a good foundation for a charismatic performer to command his listeners’ attention and sympathy. (Given my reservations about Pardi as a singer, I would argue that the lyrics do more to sell the song than he does.) At best, this is a relatable song that may draw a tear or two from those who’ve lived through this sort of thing; at worse, it’s an inoffensive cry-in-your-beer track bolstered by enjoyable production.

Overall, “She Ain’t In It” is a good song that features great production, solid writing, and a passable delivery. While I’m still not the huge Pardi fan that others in the country blogosphere are, I’ll certainly tolerate having him around if it means hearing more songs like this.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.