Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Last Time For Everything”

There’s a “Last Time For Everything,” including Brad Paisley’s run as an country superstar. That time, however, is not now.

Paisley’s chart performance has been tailing off ever since the rise of Bro-Country, and even with more-traditional sounds flooding the charts, he has struggled to regain his former glory. At this time last decade, Paisley was in the middle of an incredible 10-song Billboard No. 1 streak, but “Today,” his leadoff single from his latest album Love And War, required creative accounting just to make it to No. 1 on Mediabase, and was blocked from the top slot on Billboard by Jon freaking Pardi. (Pardi gets credit, however, for also keeping Michael Ray’s disgusting “Think A Little Less” from Billboard’s top slot.) “Last Time For Everything” is Paisley’s second single off of Love And War, and like Luke Bryan’s “Fast,” the song is a tacit acknowledgement that Paisley’s run of dominance may be ending, while also declaring that it won’t be ending right away.

Paisley has many gifts (singing, songwriting, guitar-playing), but he also has a knack for production that fits nicely into modern trends while still remaining undeniably country. His signature electric guitar is the prominent instrument here, and the melody has a distinctly 80s vibe to it that brings to mind the iconic riff from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Despite this, Paisley keeps the foundation of this song rooted in traditional country, using real drums, steel guitar, banjo, and even the occasional mandolin stab (why no fiddle though?) to slowly build and maintain energy throughout the song. The song also features an interesting balance of light and darkness, as the frequent use of minor chords is countered by the bright tones used on the chorus and bridge. Throw in Paisley’s usual guitar wizardry, and you’ve got an impressive-sounding track that stands out for the usual radio noise.

The vocals here are ripped from the typical Paisley playbook. He stays mostly within his comfortable range but takes a moment or two to show off (his falsetto on the “Purple Rain” part is pretty impressive), he maintains a decent pace without overextending himself, and he brings his usual earnestness and charisma to make the song believable and relatable. Paisley has a knack for connecting with listeners on an emotional level, and while I wasn’t quite feeling it on “Today,” “Last Time For Everything” roped me in quickly and never let go, despite the fact that I hadn’t experienced half the events he mentioned for the first time, let alone the last time.

On the surface, the lyrics here aren’t that impressive—in fact, you could almost call this track a checklist song, as the narrator simply lists a whole bunch of events that inevitably stop occurring. However, I would argue that this song is an upgrade over his prior single “Today” for two reasons:

  • Unlike the vague, generic wording of “Today,” Paisley dives deep into specific imagery here, and while he leans on “stock” experiences (especially from high school, like football and prom), he even throws in a few unique and interesting scenes, like haircuts before male-pattern baldness and being woken up by his kids to see what Santa left them.
  • Instead of taking the obvious route of lamenting what was and never will be again, Paisley maintains the optimism of “Today” and implores the listener to celebrate the present, because you may never get another chance. Additionally, while some of the experiences he lists are sad to see go, he even includes a few in which the situation gets better in the future (for example, the reason he can’t call a woman his fiancée anymore is because she became his wife!).

If you read between the lines a little bit, you get the sense that Paisley is starting to look back on his career and realize that his time at the top, much like his time in high school and opportunities to hang out with Little Jimmy Dickens, is not only finite, but closer to the end than the beginning. Paisley’s been in the game for eighteen years now, and the young guns are not only nipping at his heels, but (as seen with Pardi’s Billboard block) actively shoving him out of the spotlight. With “Last Time For Everything,” Paisley accepts that his mainstream career may be numbered, but also brings everything he’s got to bear to make a strong statement that he isn’t ready to walk away just yet. (That statement extends to his entire Love And War album, which I would call his best work since 2005’s Time Well Wasted.)

Overall, “Last Time For Everything” is a great song on a number of levels, and shows off everything that people love about Brad Paisley. Paisley’s days as a country A-lister may be numbered, but he’s still got some good years left in him, and I’m going to sit back and enjoy them.

Rating: 8/10. Definitely check this one out, and give Love And War a look as well.

Song Review: Reba McEntire, “Back To God”

To me, the worst thing a gospel song can be is preachy, because having someone telling me that I must do something is the quickest way to get me to not do it. Unfortunately for Reba McEntire, “Back To God” is the preachiest song I’ve heard in a long time.

I’m honestly surprised by how quickly McEntire seemed to disappear from public consciousness. Not only did she have a long musical career on par with artists like Alan Jackson and George Strait (both of whom seem to get name-dropped and credited way more than McEntire these days), but she also headlined a successful TV show for six seasons and even had a brief movie career. Now 62, McEntire is in the do-what-I-want-when-I-want phase of her career, and has released “Back To God” as a single off of her recent gospel album Sing It Now: Songs Of Faith And Hope. Religious songs have long been a staple of the country genre, but they’ve become less prevalent as religion has gotten wrapped up in today’s hyper-partisan political climate, If done well, these songs are inoffensive and sometimes even enjoyable (such as Craig Campbell’s recent “Outskirts Of Heaven”). If done poorly, you end up with a song like this.

The production here is the kind of standard neotraditional mix you might have heard in Reba’s 90s heyday, with real drums, steel guitar, piano, and a melody driven by acoustic and electric guitars (the former handled the duties initially, and the latter takes over for the choruses and bridge). While there aren’t many minor chords included, the guitar tones are slightly dark, and create an unsettling vibe to match the song’s imagery. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the sound (in fact, I’d call in borderline-generic), but it does its job by not getting in the way of the song’s message.

Reba’s calling card in her prime was her powerful voice, and it still sounds remarkably good in 2017. The verses keep her constrained to her lower range, and while she sounds okay there, she seems much more comfortable when she’s able to turn herself loose and show off her range and volume on the choruses. However, while McEntire is a charismatic singer, selling a religious message like this one to a highly-skeptical audience is a tough task even for an accomplished veteran singer, and she doesn’t quite pull it off here. McEntire rose to fame more as a storyteller (think “Fancy,” or “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”) than as a “call to action” singer (that was always Martina McBride’s turf), and she’s out of her element just enough here to keep her from sticking the landing.

As for the lyrics and themes, this song’s problems can be explained in one word: assumptions.

  • The images here attempt to paint a bleak picture of the world, one full of danger and despair. The problem is that these images are so vague and generic (mamas crying! innocents dying!) that they don’t have any real impact, and they assume the listener will fill in the blanks instead of providing specific details. Instead, the song leaves the listener with a bunch of unanswered questions (Who? What? Where? Why?) that obfuscate the song’s message.
  • Similarly, the song declaration that returning to a strict religious worldview will solve all of these problems is simplistic and unconvincing. The song expends no time or effort explaining exactly how turning “back to God” will stop mamas from crying, mend broken hearts, and make kids any safer. Like with its dim view of the world, the song assumes you know what’s it talking about, and offers no defense for its position to those who are skeptical.
  • Finally, the song declares confidently that turning “back to God” is the only possible solution, and adopts a preachy, almost confrontational attitude as it demands that we all hit our knees and pray for a better tomorrow. That sort of my-way-or-the-highway attribute might be acceptable in the gospel genre, but it doesn’t fly in the mainstream. Religion is a divisive topic, perhaps now more so than ever, and the phrase “we gotta give this world back to God” means different things to different people (and a lot of people, myself included, would rather not see this happen.) The song assumes that its view is accepted and uncontroversial, when in reality nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Back To God” might be a passable gospel song, but it’s a lousy country track that doesn’t hold up against the scrutiny its subject matter invites. Country listeners don’t mind invitations to cry, laugh, or think critically about topics, but a song this demanding and self-unaware doesn’t go over well with anyone. I’m not willing to give this world back to God, but he can take this song if he wants it, because I don’t.

Rating: 3/10. Steer clear of this one.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Round Here Buzz”

This song is a great example of what country music should be. It’s just not a great example of how country music should sound.

Eric Church is the rare artist who has garnered a fair bit of mainstream success while also earning the respect of critics and the independent music scene. His 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood was a staple on 2o15 “Best Country Album” lists (and won the 2016 Album of the Year from the CMAs), while its three singles have all cracked the top fifteen on Billboard’s country airplay chart (including the outstanding “Record Year,” which reached No. 1). “Round Here Buzz” is the fourth single from the album, and while it still features Church’s usual wit and perspective, it doesn’t quite measure up musically to his prior work.

The production on this track is unimpressive, to say the least. It suffers from the same problem that much of Miranda Lambert’s last album did: Namely, it sounds like it was taken from a live recording using mediocre musicians and sub-par equipment. The mix is unsettlingly sparse to start, with only the drums present during the first verse, and Church’s vocals are so low at this point that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. The guitars finally jump in on the first chorus and the track finally starts to sound like a real song, but the sparsity re-emerges on the second verse. The electric guitar should be doing a lot more to carry the melody, but given the instrument’s amateur performance on the bridge, I’m not sure it could have done the job in the first place. While the entire mix sets a suitable melancholy mood for the track, it achieves this partially through the disappointment created by how bad it sounds.

Thankfully, aside from the volume issues, Church sounds like his usual, rough-edged self on the track. His voice is constrained to its lower range by the song (which is probably for the best, as he seems to strain for extra volume at higher pitches), but his flow and delivery are solid, and don’t get in the way of the song’s message. While Church has never been the most emotive singer in the genre, he captures the weary longing of the song’s narrator perfectly here, and has enough charisma (and practice) to play the role convincingly.

The songwriting is easily this track’s best asset, as it feels both generally poignant and particularly timely. On the surface, the song is about a guy who’s trying to drink away the memory of a girl who left town ages ago, and it’s fairly effective on that level alone. However, the song has hints of deeper forces that are at play, like urbanization and the slow decoy of rural areas. In most songs like this, the girl has left to chase a dream of some sort, like in Dan Seals’s “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” or Big & Rich’s recent “California.” The girl who left here, in contrast, just went “where the high risers rise” in search of a “penthouse palace,” mirroring the trail many young, educated millennials (myself included, actually) are following towards the wealth and glitz of the city. In contrast, the narrator’s “one stoplight” town where the bar has “no gas in his neon light” paints a picture of the despair left in the wake of these departures. While one could question the decision of the narrator to stay behind (if Tim McGraw could go with his love interest in “Just To See You Smile,” why couldn’t you?), it doesn’t make the images here any less resonant. It’s the kind of societal mirroring I wish country music would do more often, and it’s a darn shame such a well-written song is weighed down by awful production.

“Round Here Buzz” is a cleverly-crafted song that captures small-town America in a way that few songs do anymore. It’s also a song I don’t really enjoy listening to because the production is so darn frustrating to put up with. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you can stomach the sound, this will be one of the most interesting songs you’ll listen to all year.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth checking out at least a few times at least, and if you can get past the song’s production, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Song Review: Glen Campbell, “Everybody’s Talkin'”

Since I reviewed Maren Morris’s “I Could Use A Love Song,” I’ve given out just one review score outside the 4-6 range…and that was to Rick Astley. I’m getting tired of listening to mediocre music, and could really use a song that actually moves me for a change. Thankfully, the original “Rhinestone Cowboy” has got me covered.

At nearly 81 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Glen Campbell has literally forgotten more about country music than most of us will ever know. While he’s now several decades removed from his commercial peak, he’s continued to pump out songs and records at a decent pace, and even won a Grammy in 2015 for his last single “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” While “Everybody’s Talkin'” is not an official single from his upcoming album Adiós, it’s been released as a sort of promotional single, and given some of the stuff I’ve been listening to lately, a promotional single is close enough for me to check it out.

Production-wise, this is a surprisingly-upbeat and uptempo song, featuring the most banjo-picking you’ll hear outside of bluegrass. Everything else here—the real drums, the steel guitar, the piano, and whatever else is hiding in the background—takes a backseat to the bright and steady banjo roll, which gives the song a lot of energy without becoming repetitive or boring. I get a strong “Gentle On My Mind” vibe from this song, and if Campbell’s team did release this song to country radio, and would certainly stand out from (and tower over) its competition.

Vocally, Campbell not only sounds better than any 80-year-old has a right to, but I would argue his voice still compares favorably to the current radio titans of the genre. His range is beyond impressive (he even jumps into his falsetto at the end without breaking stride), his delivery is on point, and his charisma lets the listener feel the positivity and optimism on every note. While there are some odd-sounding moments in the track (Campbell’s mimics Harry Nilsson’s 1968 performance of the song almost note-for-note, and the “wah-oh-wah” interlude after the first verse feels a bit out of place), Campbell absolutely owns this role, and if time has taken a few miles per hour off of Campbell’s fastball, you’d wouldn’t know it by this track.

“Everybody’s Talkin'” is solid from a lyrical perspective, but what really elevates the song is how perfectly it dovetails with Campbell’s current condition. When Fred Neil originally wrote the song in 1966, the narrator was intended as a bitter, overwhelmed soul who wished to retreat from society and spend their days on the beach in isolation. With Campbell, however, the retreat is being forced upon him by his disease, and he chooses to face the end with optimism rather than bitterness, confident in knowing that his legacy “won’t let you leave my love behind.” Much like with Trace Adkins’s “Watered Down,” Campbell’s history is the perfect marriage between singer and song, and he makes a song written over fifty years ago feel autobiographical, as if it was written just for him.

Overall, “Everybody’s Talkin'” is an excellent song that is good enough to go toe-to-toe with anything on country radio today. Campbell may not be remembered in the same breath as Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Johnny Cash, but this track is an emphatic statement that he deserves to be.

This is a song that everybody should be talking about.

Rating: 9/10. You should check this out, but more importantly, Big Machine Records should release this as a proper single.

Song Review: Jake Owen, “Good Company”

Unfortunately for Jake Owen, it seems that the winds of change in country music are not blowing in his direction.

Owen’s last single “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” currently holds the record for the worst rating I’ve ever given a song, and the track mercifully ended up crashing and burning in the high 30s on the Billboard airplay chart. With the genre shifting back towards more-traditional material and Owen himself on record saying that he’d like to “make music that means something to people,” (granted, he said that before releasing “Real Life” and “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You”) I wondered whether Owen would take this opportunity to release something deeper and more substantial to country radio. Instead, we got “Good Company,” a sleazy island-flavored track that finds Owen plowing the same old ground he’s been working for the last decade.

Production-wise, this song sound like what would happen if Jimmy Buffett decided to try his hand at Bro-Country. The melody is shared between an electric guitar and a ukulele, the percussion is a mixture of real, synthetic, and island-flavored drums, and a horn section is draped over the whole thing for flavor. The mix is going for a relaxed, easy-going vibe, but it’s a little too uptempo to capture that feel, and the prominence of the horns and the electric guitar’s bright tones makes the song feel a bit sleazy, like it was stolen from the soundtrack of a pornographic film. Unfortunately, the seedy feel of the track doesn’t stop at the production, and instead seeps into the rest of the song.

To be fair, Owen isn’t really the reason this song veers into the ditch—in fact, he’s probably the only redeeming part of the song. He demonstrates good range, a decent flow, and his exceptional vocal charisma is on full display. The problem, however, is that his charisma works against him just as it did on “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” as he seems a bit too believable as a lazy beach bum who wants (nay, demands) a beer to drink and a girl to make out with.

If Owen is the highlight of the song, the lyrics are definitely the lowlight. Just take a look at this poetry:

We’re in good company
Yeah, the only thing missing
Is a pretty girl sitting next to me
Kissing up on me, and I got a spot waiting on you
So B.Y.O.B, it means bring yourself over, babe
Got what we need to make good vibes, good times
And a damn good memory
We’re in good company
Yeah, yeah we’re in good company

It’s not Florida-Georgia-Line “Sun Daze” bad, but it’s pretty close.

The narrator comes off as a real creep here, and while he’s not as bad as the girlfriend-stealing slimeball from “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” his requests to the object of his affection to “kiss up” on him and jump in the pool sound more like orders than suggestions. (Also, the references to other people being around make the whole event sound like one giant orgy.) Combine the sub-par lyrics with the sleazy production, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster no matter who the singer is. Owen’s been putting out party material like this his entire career (“Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” “Beachin'”), but his parties are rarely this bad.

Overall, “Good Company” is a step up from “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” but it’s still a pretty bad song, and it feels very dated and out of place on the radio today. (It’s more “Outta Style” than even Aaron Watson’s dated pop culture references.) It’s a sleazy summer jam surrounded by much better competition, so do yourself a favor and find some better company than this track.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Aaron Watson, “Outta Style”

I have to give Aaron Watson credit for truth in advertising: He called his song “Outta Style,” and by the end of the summer, that’s exactly what it will be.

As an independent artist from Texas, Watson is a relative newcomer to the nationwide charts despite having released thirteen album since 1999. His national profile has been growing, however, and his 2015 album The Underdog not only marked his debut on the Billboard airplay charts (albeit with a measly #47 peak), but it also marked “the first time a solo male artist debuted in the top spot with a self-released and independently distributed and promoted album.” “Outta Style” is the leadoff single for Watson’s latest album Vaquero, and while it’s a decent track, it’s not a terribly memorable one, and it’s not even close to Watson’s best work.

Despite the song’s title, the production here sounds a lot trendier and modern-sounding than a lot of Watson’s other material. The melody is primarily driven by an electric guitar and a loud (but real) set of drums, the combination of which brings to mind a 70s rock song more than anything else. The producer gets bonus points for placing a fiddle prominently in between the verses (seriously, that instrument needs to make a comeback), and a steel guitar pops up occasionally in the background. The track is uptempo, energetic, and in-your-face (especially the percussion), but something about the mix feels a bit generic, as if I’ve heard it all somewhere before. It’s a pleasant enough sound for a summer single, but I don’t see it having a lot of staying power.

Vocally, Watson’s lower, rough-edged voice reminds me a lot of 00s-era country singer Trent Willmon (with maybe a shade of Dierks Bentley thrown in for good measure). While he sounds a bit hoarse at points in the song (especially the “show you a love, love, love” line), for the most part his delivery is solid, and his positive, energetic attitude is perfect for the track. He sounds like he’s having a blast, and he’s able to transfer that joy to his listeners.

The writing here is probably the weakest part of the song, as Watson declares to his longtime love that their love will never fade, waver, or otherwise go “outta style.” The problem is that half of the imagery he uses is generic and overdone (for example, driving around at night for an eventual “hot and heavy” makeout session, just like every other country singer from the Bro-Country era), and the other half is packed full of dated references that went out of style decades ago. I’ll give him the Marilyn Monroe and Chevy/levee references, but does anyone really remember who sang “Rebel Rebel” (it was David Bowie, in case you were curious), or what Steve McQueen movie scene he was referring to? In short, the lyrics are broad, shallow, and way past their expiration date, and they don’t give the listener anything to remember the song by. It’s a crying shame, because Watson has several deeper, weighter songs on Vaquero (“Texas Lullaby,” “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”) that really deserved to see the light of day before this track.

Overall, I’d put “Outta Style” in the same category as Stephanie Quayle’s “Winnebago”: You’ll sing along with it for a couple of months, and then you’ll forget it ever existed by September. It’s a little disappointing given the quality of the material Watson’s keeping in his hip pocket right now, but I’ll take what I can get for now, and I hope that we see more singles off of Vaquero in the near future.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth listening to, but do yourself a favor and check out his other material as well.

Song Review: Walker McGuire, “Til Tomorrow”

Wait, so radio is getting another midtempo, acoustic-based, pensive song involving conflicting emotions? I’m okay with this, but I’m not sure how many other people will be.

Walker McGuire is a Midwest-based duo who have already built up a substantial fanbase via streaming services and…an appearance on the “Big D and Bubba” show? (And I thought Carly Pearce had a unique “discovery” story.) “Til Tomorrow” is the pair’s first official release to country radio, and I’m admittedly a little torn about it: While the fact that the genre landscape has shifted enough to make this song feel generic is a net positive…it still means that this song doesn’t stick out from the crowd much.

Production-wise, this song follows the in-vogue pop-country template: Real drums for the foundation, an acoustic guitar to carry the melody, steel guitar accents for authenticity, an electric guitar to spice up the mix and add a brief instrumental break, and a slightly-dark tone to reflect the seriousness the subject matter. (If there’s any synthetic production here, it’s hidden deep in the background and isn’t noticeable.) It’s the sort of mix that I’ve heard quite a bit of lately, and while it’s enjoyable enough, it doesn’t really stick with me after the song’s over. I kind of wish the producer has worked in a less-common instrument to make the sound a bit more unique—for example, the fiddle hasn’t returned to prominence the way the steel guitar has, so adding it here might have been an easy way to diversify the mix.

Lead singer Jordan Walker is a capable vocalist whose voice bears a slight resemblance to 90s one-hit-wonder Ty England. His delivery demonstrates decent tone, range, and charisma, and he does a good job in the role of a heartbroken-and-self-aware narrator. I’m not completely sold on the duo’s vocal chemistry, however, as Walker and Johnny McGuire have very similar voices that don’t always blend effectively when they harmonize. Still, while the singers don’t really stand out from their radio contemporaries, I’d argue that they compare favorably with them (and honestly, I’d much rather listen to Walker McGuire than Florida-Georgia Line).

Thematically, “Til Tomorrow” is the story of someone who is finally getting out of the house after a breakup and enjoying a night on the town. Unfortunately, the song is running upstream against two major issues:

To its credit, the song differentiates itself from Aldean’s defiance and Midland’s acceptance by taking the mindful middle ground: Sure, the narrator knows the pain isn’t going away, but at least the night’s revelry will force it into a brief, enjoyable hiatus. Unfortunately, the songwriting comes off as lazy at certain points (“I’ll worry about the morning in the morning?” Really?), and while the production mostly threads the needle with its tone between the highs of the night and the anticipated lows of the morning, it seems to favor its darker tones a bit more, which makes you question whether or not the narrator is really enjoying his night out as much as he claims. For a debut single that needs to stand out amongst its peers, it end up getting overshadowed by its stronger competition.

Overall, I like “Til Tomorrow,” but I wish I liked it a lot more. It’s a decent song that teases the future potential of Walker McGuire, but it’s also a bit too generic to make the kind of radio impact that a new act needs. Luckily for the duo, Aldean’s single will be winding down soon and the winds of change within the genre are at their back, so there’s an opening coming for a song like this to make an impact. I’m just not sure this track is strong enough to capitalize on it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, but I’m not sure it will stick with you very long.