Song Review: Sam Hunt, “Water Under The Bridge”

The Bro-Country era is over, Sam Hunt. Get over it.

Remember when “Body Like A Back Road” was everywhere and Hunt was Public Enemy No. 1 in country music? Fast forward 5-6 years, and we’ve watched him go into hiding, take three years to release an album, sample Webb Pierce and lament the tech-less 90s, and generally fall back to the pack and become just another artist in the genre. While his previous single “23” did eventually make it to #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart, its weaker showing elsewhere (#10 on Hot Country Songs and #50 on the Hot 100, way off his usual pace and becoming his worst showings since 2018) indicate that his influence in Nashville is waning, especially giving that this was supposed to be the leadoff single for his next album (which admittedly probably won’t arrive until 2024). He’s in desperate need of a home run right now, but instead he’s given us the swing-and-miss that is his latest single “Water Under The Bridge.” Seriously, it’s as if the song was tailor-made for made to despise it: It’s a shallow, lazy, and blindly-nostalgic piece of garbage that offers nothing of value or interest to the listener.

The producer may be looking for an A for effort here, but you’ve got to do more than just include instruments in your mix—you’ve got to actually use them in a meaningful way. Careful listeners will note the presence of a lot of different instruments here (a classic piano, a Hammond B3 organ, a banjo, a dobro), but outside of the last of these four, they’re barely noticeable beneath (wait for it) an series of acoustic and electric guitars and a mix of real and synthetic percussion, which all seem to bleed into each other as the song progresses and eventually turns it into a bland wall of noise. (There’s also a weird low tone, likely from an electric guitar, running underneath the mix that is a bit distracting and seems like a mistake that should have removed in post.) With its deliberate tempo and bombastic approach on the chorus, this is a transparent attempt to recapture the party vibes and free spirits of the Bro-Country anthems of the 2010, and the result is just empty sonic calories that overshadow the writing rather than support it. (Then again, the writing is a massive nothingburger and not worth supporting anyway, but we’ll get to that later.) Hunt made a name for himself by using his fusion sound to distinguish himself from his peers, but now he sounds like everyone else in the genre, which may be part of the reason his star has faded over time.

Speaking of Hunt: What the heck happened to him on this recording? Did he have a cold or something? His voice sounds incredibly nasal and far less clear than on his previous tracks, and he seems to be singing in a higher key than normal as well. Whatever the difference, it’s a clear regression: He sounds more generic and replaceable on this track, but he still comes across as immature and not terribly likeable, and thus he can’t sell the narrator’s carefree recollections to the audience. It’s as if he’s singing inside a snow globe: He certainly seems psyched as he looks back on his youthful transgressions, but he struggles to share his fun with the listener. He’s just one more person reminiscing on how much fun life was way back when, and the listener duly notes their perspective and quickly moves on to something more pressing and/or interesting. These tracks were a dime a dozen not that long ago (and aren’t exactly rare nowadays either), so Hunt really needed to step up his game and be more than “just Sam Hunt” to make this one worth paying attention to, and he simply didn’t.

The writing is what really irritates me here, because it’s so basic and unimaginative that calling these lines “lyrics” feels like an overstatement. Remove the bridge from the equation, and you’ve got a cookie-cutter Bro-Country party track that checks all the usual boxes: The beer, the cigarettes, the gas, the trucks (I give the “Chevy jukebox” label a C+, and that’s as clever as the song ever gets), the girls, the speakers, the avoided authority figures…heck, even the muddy river is an overplayed trope. (Also, being the creep that “kissed a girl my buddy used to like” doesn’t help your favorability ratings.) Add the bridge back in…and we’re just partying on a bridge, with the classic “water under the bridge” phrase used as a hook in the most awkward and uninteresting way possible (water under the bridge is something that isn’t worth caring about, so why are you using the phrase to convince us to care about random parties of yesteryear?). There’s just nothing to this song, either literally (we only get half of a second verse, and ironically there’s no bridge at all) or figuratively (the imagery is stock, rudimentary, and not compelling at all), and with all the similar drivel that flooded the genre back in the 2010s, there’s just no reason to revisit this topic now.

“Water Under The Bridge” is a poorly-executed throwback that no one wanted in the first place. Between pointless production, lazy writing, and a poor effort from Sam Hunt, the song is badly outclassed by both its competition and its inspiration, and it completely fails to justify its existence. The truth is that Hunt, much like fellow 2010s compatriots Florida Georgia Line, is an afterthought in country music today, having neither earned the stature of their predecessors (Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean) nor maintained the buzz of their successors (Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen). He’s just kind of hanging around in Nashville nowadays, and if he keeps dumping junk like this onto the airwaves, he won’t be hanging around much longer.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “She Had Me At Heads Carolina”

If country music can’t come up with any new ideas, could it at least not ruin its old ones?

“Heads Carolina, “Tails California” introduced the world to Jo Dee Messina back in 1996, and while it only reached #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart, the song left a deep impact on the genre, to the point where it’s become “one of the most performed karaoke songs from that era in [Sony’s] vast catalog.” With 90s country experiencing a mini renaissance at present (although honestly, it seems like the genre has mostly moved on to 2000s nostalgia) and Cole Swindell hoping to build on his recent Lainey Wilson collab “Never Say Never” and get his stuck-in-neutral career back into drive, Swindell decided to crib from Messina’s debut single for his latest single “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” the third from his Stereotype album. The song brings to mind what happens when you run a document repeatedly through a photocopier: The quality degrades, the purpose gets lost, and the end result only vaguely resembles the original product. This track feels like a cheap attempt to trade on the success of another artist, and comes across as an uninspired pick-up song with none of the substance of its predecessor.

You’d think the easiest way to copy a song would be through your production choices, but here I think the producer only gets halfway to its target. After a heavily-filtered and re-recorded version of Messina’s hook opens the track (they plucked a random artist named Madeline Merlo off of BBR’s roster for this; apparently they didn’t have the budget for Messina herself), the song trots out an electric guitar with the signature tone playing the signature intro, backs it with Nashville’s usual guitar-and-drum ensemble (acoustic guitar strumming, steel guitar gap-filling, drum set keeping time), and…that’s about it. The video lists a whole bunch of instruments in the mix (mandolin, dobro, keyboard, banjo), but you’ll barely notice any of them, making the mix feel a bit empty and less bright compared to Messina’s song (the mandolin and keyboards got far more screen time in 1996). In their place, the steel guitar is a lot more prominent in this mix, taking the lead on the bridge solo and generally being the go-to accent instrument whenever there’s a break in the action. It’s a decent effort that mostly captures the tone and energy of the original song, but I give the edge to Messina’s producer for better incorporating more pieces into the arrangement and giving the song a bit more lift and detail. It’s the closest that this song comes to emulating its predecessor, and unfortunately it’s all downhill from here.

Back when I reviewed “Flatliner,” I mentioned how Swindell’s origin story would lead him to occasionally foist Bro-Country drivel on us to appease that part of his fan base, but I didn’t foresee it hampering his non-Bro material (especially given how often I praised him for his versatility). While he doesn’t run into any technical issues on “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” his performance as the narrator winds up feeling surprisingly neutral. It’s the same issue he ran into on “Never Say Never”: He does his darnedest to bring an upbeat, energetic attitude to the song (it lacks the confidence of Messina’s original hit, but the reworked version doesn’t really need it), but he struggles to get the listener to go along with the story. His usual charm and charisma are here, but you also hear shades of the meatheaded bro from “Let Me See Ya Girl” looking for a quick score (the writing doesn’t help matters; more on that later), which keeps the audience from feeling too favorable about the narrator or sharing in their excitement. He seems to be going in the wrong direction as an artist right now, and anyone off of Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line could fill in for him here with and get the same results.

Despite all this, I think the writing is the main problem with this song. I can’t listen to it without thinking of the train wreck that was Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” because of how much it relies on someone else’s work to support the song. Not only do the lyrics heavily allude to the original song, but the verse and chorus structure is nearly identical as well. Even worse, while the original song served as a declaration of confidence and freedom as two people charted their own path, the story here is a generic Boyfriend country tale, with the narrator seeing someone perform Messina’s hit at karaoke night, immediately declaring their undying love for the singer, and shoehorning themselves into the singer’s night. Even worser, the song makes the critical mistake of putting the punch line last instead of first, springing the realization that the whole thing was a nostalgia one-night recollection on the listener as a last-second twist that only serves to suck all of the meaning out the track. In other words, we’re left with an unimaginative Boyfriend-Bro combo song that feels less like a tribute and more like plagiarism. Who the heck thought that this was a good idea?

“She Had Me At Heads Carolina” doesn’t quite infuriate me the way “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” does, but it’s a lazy and disappointing song that tries to trade on the nostalgia for (and success of) a better song. The sound and structure are lifted straight from its predecessor, the writing is lifted straight from the trends of the 2010s and is equal parts uninspired and unimaginative, and Cole Swindell is set up for failure here and ends up doing more harm to the song than good. I know sequels and crossovers and unified universes are all the rage nowadays, but you’ve got to put at least some effort and original thought behind your work, because otherwise you’re dishonoring the memory of the original more than honoring it. Messina deserves better, and Swindell and his team needs to be better.

Rating: 4/10. Kick this one to the curb and listen to the original instead.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “The Kind Of Love We Make”

Okay Nashville, you’ve taken your best shot at a sex jam. Can you please stop foisting these things on us now?

I complain about a lot of things in country music these days, but one of my more-consistent gripes is that Music City is fixated on sex jams, surmising that some extra passion and lust will draw in a bigger audience and earn them more time on the radio. Whether or not they’re right is yet to be determined, because they’ve dumped a bunch of “sexy” tracks onto the radio over the last few years, and none of them have actually succeeded in sounding or feeling sexy. I’ve liked exactly one country music sex jam since I started my work here at the blog (but at least I really liked it), and given that Aaron Watson isn’t exactly a Nashville insider, I wouldn’t exactly give that town much credit for the track. When you’ve thrown your best minds and voices at a problem for this long and come up with zero solutions, it’s time to ask the tough questions: Can anyone truly make a sultry song in this genre?

Enter Luke Combs, i.e. Thanos, i.e. the reigning king of country music, i.e. the one guy with enough clout and leeway to take a swing at this challenge. In truth, however, the crown has seemed rather uneasy on Combs’s head lately, as his latest single “Doin’ This” felt like it lacked the power of his previous releases. Granted, it was still a #1 hit, and a six-month chart run is something that the majority of artists in the genre would give their eye teeth for, but when compared to the otherworldly performances of some of Combs’s past hits (racing up the charts, spending months at #1), you couldn’t help but feel like the trend line was pointing in the wrong direction. (Yes, “Doin’ This” spent two weeks at the summit, but even seemed forced, as if Thanos and Columbia were trying to make a statement in order to hide the song’s underlying weakness.) With the release of his third album Growin’ Up imminent, Combs found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to prove himself, and nothing says “Don’t step to me, my snapping fingers can still destroy the universe” like taking on Nashville’s sex jam problem and succeeding.

So, does “The Kind Of Love We Make” actually succeed? Well…er…maybe? The song is nowhere close to Watson’s 2018 masterpiece, but I’ll admit that you can hear shades of “Run Wild Horses” here, and while they’re not enough to make the declare the song good, they work well enough to let me label the song as okay, which is as close as Nashville has gotten to quality on these tracks in a while.

The key to getting me to pay attention to a song like this is to use minor chords and darker instrument tones to introduce a feeling of unstable, borderline-dangerous passion, and this song gets about halfway there, even if it doesn’t go all in on this raw feel like Watson did. It opens with a deep-voiced electric guitar and a background organ, quickly pivots to an acoustic axe and a more-conventional electric guitar for the verses (a steel guitar gets a few words in as required by law), and then brings everything together to amp up the volume and intensity on the choruses. The problem in the constant shifting between the minor and major chords: The minor chords are what give an edge to the sound, and going back and forth so often really breaks the song’s immersion and makes it feel a bit less raw and inflamed. Additionally, where Watson leaned on a lower-ranged guitar and a fiddle to make the sound feel more distinct, the run-of-the-mill guitars take precedence here and keep the sound from standing out and making the impact I was hoping for. The producers did some things right, but they only did them halfway, which ends up limiting the song’s power.

It’s a similar story with the vocals: You can feel the strain and emphasis in Combs’s delivery just as you could with Watson’s, but it just doesn’t hit the same way this time around. Part of this is because Combs has a raspier voice to being with, so the contrast between normal and intense Combs isn’t as noticeable (he kind of enters this mode on all of his songs tbh). Part of this is because Combs doesn’t seem to fill the narrator’s shoes quite as well: His everyman charisma doesn’t play as well in a song that demands a bit more suave from the speaker, and when he tells his story, it feels like someone else’s tale instead of him speaking from firsthand experience. This song is written pretty generically (more on that later), and for Combs to stick the landing on a track like this, I think it needs to be “a Luke Combs song”; that is, a song tuned to be more personal and specific, something that no one but Combs could possibly deliver. There’s definitely emotion here and you can just feel the wheels turning as Combs puts his heart into it, but the result is more of a glancing blow than a direct hit. Still, it’s better than the swing-and-misses you usually get from Music City on this subject.

In terms of the writing…look, I get that there are only so many ways to say you want to have sex with someone, but isn’t there something you can say to make the song feel less boilerplate? We’ve got the candles (and low lighting and general), we’ve got the records (no artist name-drops for a change though), we’ve got the ‘we’ve been working too hard lately’ setup, we’ve got the dress on the floor…all we’re missing is the wine and the 700-thread-count sheets. Actually, we’re missing the foreplay too: There’s no attempt to set the mood or create any atmosphere, it’s just “we’re here, let’s get busy!” (Heck, the narrator never really tells us what they love about their partner, outside of “the way your body’s movin.'” ) “Making the kind of love we make” is an aftermarket add-on of a hook, as it doesn’t connect very well with the rest of the song and is so weak that it causes the chorus to end with a resounding thud. I sort of want to blame this track on the current meta (dang it, I thought I was going to get through the whole review without saying that word): In a streaming environment, putting the punch line first is key to engaging your audience, and if your punch line is “hot steamy sex,” then you’re going to skip the pregame show, go light on the details, and go right to the action. (In comparison, Watson doesn’t even start singing until the thirty-second marker of “Run Wild Horses,” which would give any label’s streaming team instant indigestion.) In other words, saying the lyrics aren’t the strong suit of this track is an understatement, and they’re overly reliant on both the artist to bring the feeling and the listener to bring the details.

So where does all this leave “The Kind Of Love We Make”? Relatively speaking, even given the drivel that passes for the writing, I think it qualifies as a success by Nashville sex jam standards. The sound is catchy and delivers its share of edgy passion, and Luke Combs does his darnedest to make you feel the song as much as he does. Overall, however, I think this falls into the “your mileage may vary” category: It’s remains a long way from being a quality song, and if Combs or the production doesn’t resonate with you, it’s no more interesting or compelling than any other song along these lines. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, but this feels like an unnecessary risk from an artist whose hold on the ‘Thanos’ title seems to be slipping, and if the audience doesn’t feel the love, Combs may end up abdicating the country music throne to his competition. If “you come at the king, you best not miss”…but the king can’t afford to miss too often either.

Oh, and Nashville? This was your best chance at actually pulling off a sex jam, and it only kinda-sorta worked. For our all sakes, just give it up already.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin or two and see what you think.

Song Review: Restless Road, “Growing Old With You”

I don’t know if Kane Brown or Dan + Shay is to blame for this, but someone needs to be held responsible.

The seeds of Restless Road were planted, as they are for more artists than you might think, in the soil of reality TV, as the three original members were eliminated from The X Factor in 2013, but were then brought back as a group and ended up finishing fourth together. There’s been a fair bit of turnover in the group since then (members left, members returned, etc.), but the group finally “broke through” by signing with the label of country artist and fellow X Factor auditioner Brown in 2020. It took them another two years before an official radio single “Growing Old With You” reached the airwaves, and it shows: It’s a cheesy wedding song inspired by Parmalee’s “Take My Name” and Dan + Shay’s entire discography, and it feels both dated and derivative, giving you no good reason to choose it over the dozens of similar existing tracks for whatever big moment you’re planning.

I feel like this review is a massive waste of time, because you can probably predict each and every piece of the song just from the previous paragraph. For example, take the production: If you were putting together a country song for wedding season, what instruments would you use? You’d likely use a somber, moody piano to carry the melody, you’d keep time with an unobtrusive percussion line with both real and synthetic elements, you’d keep a string section in the background to provide some formal elegance, you’d throw in the minimum required steel guitar rides required by Music City law, and finally you might add an electric guitar for the bridge solo…in other words, you’d do exactly what they did here. The resulting sound is soft and serious, but I wouldn’t say it reaches the “romantic” threshold, and above all it sounds cookie-cutter and indistinguishable from any other song in this lane. (Seriously, I listened to this back-to-back with “Take My Name,” and the only real difference between the mixes is that at least Restless Road’s producer eschewed the snap track.) It’s a product following a playbook, and ultimately feels unimaginative and disposable compared to its peers.

Lead singing duties are split between Garrett Nichols and Colton Pack for this track (Zach Beeken is relegated to Brian Kelly “potted plant in the background” duty), but I’m really not sure why: The two lead artists sound virtually indistinguishable, and if you didn’t know this was a group you’d assume that there was only one person with a microphone. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of here (and Nichols shows off some decent range by going low on the bridge), but the vocals feel stock and cookie-cutter (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song would sound the exact same), and thus I don’t find the track any more compelling or believable than any other Boyfriend track I’ve heard in the last few years. The harmony work suffers from the same problem: It’s okay overall, but it’s nothing you couldn’t recreate with a few session backup singers. The biggest issue is that the band fails the band test: None of the three artists bring anything to the table to give the band its own identity (Pack plays the piano in the music video, but there’s nothing terribly unique about his performance), so what’s the point of the band in the first place? In sum, the trio’s attempt at feeling earnest and romantic falls flat, and only serves to raise questions about why the band exists at all.

Let’s go back to our original exercise: If we moved from the producer’s chair to the writing room, what would you put in a song like this? You’d have the narrator talk about how the other person changed their life’s trajectory, and then list off all the things they’d like to do together: Buy a house, raise some kids, sit out on the front porch, and above all, grow old together, which is exactly what we get from the lyrics here. You can tell this was a calculated effort on the part of the writers (I can’t believe it took three people to generate this drivel), because they stuck to vague language and generic milestones in order to maximize its appeal, refusing to give the song any personality and forcing the user to fill in the blanks. The result is an empty shell of a track that can’t stand on its own if the listener can’t fill in all the holes, and in truth it doesn’t feel like much of a love song at all, as it focuses almost explicitly on future events and barely touches on the protagonist’s feelings at all. It’s too bland and algorithmic to forge any real connection or draw any sort of feelings from its audience, and it’s nothing more than a mindless add to a wedding reception playlist for the DJs of the world.

“Growing Old With You” is a empty template of a wedding song that ironically doesn’t seem like it would age well itself. Everything about it feels rote and manufactured, from its lightweight sound to its paint-by-numbers writing to a trio of artists that don’t have a shred of personality between them. Not only should this song not exist, but I’m not even convinced that Restless Road should exist, as they come across as a copy of a copy and lack any defining features as a group (honestly, I’m surprised these guys aren’t getting the blowback that King Calaway got when they tried to break into the scene). There are already way better songs out there to use to celebrate a marriage, and there’s no reason to include this one on either your wedding or your radio playlist. Restless Road better find some better material fast, because they’re staring down a long road to nowhere with this track.

Rating: 5/10. You’re free to let this one pass.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Riley Green, “Half Of Me”

“Half Of Me” would like to like this song. The other half would really like to stop talking about the country music meta.

With songs like “Die A Happy Man” and “Marry Me,” Thomas Rhett was one the artists defining the genre’s sound in the mid/late 2010s (his frequent odes to his wife were a precursor to the Boyfriend country trend). More recently, however, his star seemed to have faded somewhat: He’s still releasing chart-topping singles (although his latest release “Slow Down Summer” only made it to #2 on Billboard, snapping his #1 streak at twelve), but in the popular consciousness he’s fallen behind artists like Thanos and (sigh) Morgan Wallen, and has gone from a leader to a follower in Nashville (so much so that he pivoted to new material in the middle of a double-album release). Nowhere is this more evident than in his new single “Half Of Me,” the second single from his sixth album Where We Started. The single is undeniably catchy and even gets a few things right, but at its core it’s a mindless, pointless sequel to “Beer Can’t Fix” that goes to great pains to check every box in the current meta, from the vaguely-retro sound to the cliché tropes to the unnecessary feature artist (this time it’s Riley Green, who’s been missing—but not missed—since “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” crashed and burned in 2020). It’s a song whose sole purpose is to have you turn your brain off for three minutes, and it simply doesn’t justify its existence.

I’m hesitant to call what we’re hearing on the radio right now a traditionalist revival (ask Midland or William Michael Morgan how well the last one went), but the genre seems to be leaning slightly in that direction right now, and Rhett has jumped on board with both feet. There isn’t a whole lot to this mix and what’s here is exactly what you expect, but at least the pieces are used effectively. The retro electric guitar from “Country Again” is back to open the track and provide it with a foundation, the combination of an acoustic guitar and mandolin provide a bright and relaxed feel to the sound, a steel guitar fills in nearly every gap between the words (although a more-modern electric axe handles the bridge solo), and the mix of real and synthetic percussion (yep, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track is here) is unobtrusive and stays out of the way of the writing. The result is a sound with a chill, optimistic vibe with a decent groove, exactly the sort of thing you’d be listening to while sipping on something alcoholic. In other words, the production isn’t the problem here, and it proves that the labels “meta” and “quality” need not be mutually exclusive.

Vocally, there isn’t a lot to say about Rhett’s performance: The song doesn’t make any major technical demands of him, and he breezes through it without breaking a sweat. Still, a relaxed performance is exactly what the song needs to feel believable, and Rhett’s provides enough charm and charisma to allow the listener to sense his peaceful easy feeling. Unfortunately, it might be a bit too chill for its own good: Instead of giving the user a sense of relaxation, it give them the sense the narrator is irresponsible and doesn’t actually care if things gets done or not. In contrast, the second performance here raises one big question: What the heck is Riley Green doing here? He plays the same role as Rhett and he doesn’t do anything to set himself apart in any way, so why on earth would you put together two artists that overlap this badly? (Given that Green is four years removed from his last Top 10, it’s certainly not for star power.) You get the feeling that he’s only here because the powers that be think you have to have a second artist on your track to get on the radio, or because Big Machine wants to use Rhett to salvage their investment in Green’s career. The redundancy is unnecessary and is more of a distraction than anything else, and Green should have been given his own song to sing.

As for the writing…frankly, it’s a leftover track from the Cobronavirus era that’s so formulaic that it feels like it was written by an algorithm. While the chores facing the narrator are more immediate and smaller in scale than the ‘ignore everything!’ mantras in 2020, the crux of the argument is the same: Abdicate your responsibilities and drink a beer instead. (Honestly, the procrastination is a bit more inexcusable here because the tasks are the direct responsibility of the narrator. No one else is walking through that door to mow the lawn or fix the fence.) The “both halves want a beer” hook is laughably weak, the imagery is boilerplate and overused (of course the mountains are blue and the truck needs washing), and the Alan Jackson name-drop is beyond forced in the second verse (and given that the song is mostly chorus, it only feels like half a song). We’ve heard this tale a hundred thousand times before (including from Rhett just two years ago), and it’s honestly hard to find a lot to say about a song that says so little.

“Half Of Me” isn’t the worst booze-soaked nihilistic song in the world; in fact, with its atmospheric production, it might be one of the better examples of the group. However, it feels like it’s trying too hard to cram itself into the current mold, with writing that is unimaginative and repetitive and vocal performances that are laissez-faire at best and extraneous at worst. Both Thomas Rhett and Riley Green are capable of much more than following the crowd and pitching shallow escapism, but the genre demands that its artists follow the script or hit the road, and even someone with Rhett’s track record is not immune from the pressure. There’s absolutely no reason to tune in here, and while half of me wants to see the good and the potential in this song, the other half has already forgotten it exists.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve wasted enough time on songs like this; there’s no need to throw good time after bad.

Song Review: Lainey Wilson, “Heart Like A Truck”

Gee, I can’t wait for the sequel “Love Like A Whiskey Bottle.”

Lainey Wilson is on a bit of a hot streak recently, with 2020’s “Things A Man Oughta Know” reaching both #1 and my year-end best-song list, and 2021’s Cole Swindell collab “Never Say Never” reaching #1 earlier this year. The time was ripe for a new album and some leadoff single buzz, and Wilson’s team responded with “Heart Like A Truck,” a confessional to a prospective partner about the state of the speaker’s heart. I had optimistic expectations for this single, but it ends up being equal parts cliché and uninteresting, and its ill-fitting automotive comparison does little to help the song stand out or interest the listener.

The production has a fairly placid vibe to it, but there’s a deceptive amount of activity going on here: The song starts with an acoustic guitar and a keyboard, slowly works in a drum set and an organ, turns the bridge solo over to an electric guitar (it clashes a bit with the rest of the mix, but only slightly), and even breaks out a string section for the bridge proper. The resulting sound is intended to be calm and atmospheric, staying out of the writing’s way as much as possible, and while it succeeds in this regard, it’s also incredibly bland and lethargic, encouraging the listener to tune out rather than stay engaged with the track. (Most of the song’s energy is delivered by Wilson rather than the mix.) Randy Houser’s “Note To Self” tries to do something similar, but the instrument tones on “Heart Like A Truck” aren’t as bright, the pace is a bit slower, and the writing isn’t as strong (more on that later), which means the sounds needed a bit more seasoning here to keep the listener interested. As it is, the pieces don’t quite fit together well enough to pull the song together, and as a result it isn’t as effective in delivering its message.

Between this track and “Things A Man Oughta Know,” Wilson seems to have found a comfort zone in delivering serious, mature-sounding love songs, and while the approach doesn’t seem as effective this time around, I really don’t think it’s her fault. From a technical perspective, not only are there no issues with his performance, but her closing “hearrrrt” was easily the most-impressive note I’ve heard in a song all year (she hits a power note at the upper end of her range and holds it for a good seven seconds without faltering or losing her vocal tone). She does a good job modulating her tone to match the mood, taking a somber, you’d-better-listen approach on the verses and then quickly ramping up the power on the back half of the choruses to help drive home her point. There are equal parts caution and opportunity in her delivery, and those are the primary things that come through to the listener. It’s the sort of performance that should elicit a response from the audience, and yet in the end they just…don’t. This feels like the same thing we got for “Things A Man Ought Know,” but it only lands a glancing blow this time, which I mostly attribute to other problems with the song.

Problem #1 in my book is the writing, which somehow manages to be both predictable and confounding at the same time. The narrator here is restless and commitment-averse, and tries to convey this by comparing their heart to…a pickup truck. Alcohol may be the #1 cliché in country music, but pickups are a close second, and it’s the sort of thing that makes you roll your eyes and think “Of course they used a truck.” Beyond that, however, I don’t find the comparison to be a good fit. Trucks are generally a symbol of strength and reliability, something you can depend on during tough times. Here, however, we get one line saying “it’s good as it is tough,” and most of the focus is on how the truck is an escape hatch, a way for a fickle heart to get away when the “siren song” of the highway. (On the flip side, we also don’t get any sense of how the narrator feels about the other person—they’re so focused on warning the other person that they never reveal any romantic thoughts they might have.) These aren’t game-breaking issues, connection, but they’re enough to break the listener out of the immersion and distract them from the song’s message, which keeps the song from having the intended impact.

“Heart Like A Truck” isn’t a bad song, but it isn’t a good one either, thanks to bland writing that can’t support the writing and writing that’s too unwieldy to support itself. Lainey Wilson is the only reason you might tune in to this track, and her performance isn’t enough to make the song interesting or memorable. I’ve heard enough from Wilson to conclude that she’s got a potential future in this business, but she needs to find stronger, more-cohesive material that maintains the serious posture that she’s had success with. This track, in contrast, is like a car stuck beside you at a stoplight: You’ll barely notice it when it’s there, and you’ll immediately forget about it once it’s gone.

Rating: 5/10. There are better ways to spend your time.

Song Review: Randy Houser, “Note To Self”

Sure it’s off-brand Eric Church, but that’s still a better starting point than most tracks.

To be honest, I’d mostly forgotten about Randy Houser: He hadn’t released a single since 2019, and the songs I’d reviewed here on the blog (“What Whiskey Does,” “No Stone Unturned”) impressed neither me nor the general public (neither song reached the Top 30 on Billboard). However, instead of catching a “train out of Nashville” as I hypothesized back in 2019, he went underground for the better part of three years, and has now returned to the charts with a new single “Note To Self,” the presumed leadoff single to his sixth album. I was prepared to forget about this song, but instead what I found is…well, a note not just to self, but to the rest of us as well, mostly concerning what they’ve learned in the wake of a failed relationship. It’s not quite on the level of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a worthwhile listen with some solid advice contained within it.

The composition of the arrangement is nothing you haven’t heard before: You’ve got your guitars, your drums, your keyboards, and the pedal steel required by Nashville ordinance. I wouldn’t call the resulting sound novel or even memorable, but I would call it suitable for and supportive of the story being told. The production eases in by leading with an acoustic axe and keeping the organ and electric guitars in the background for the verses, and then turns the drums and steel guitar loose on the first chorus to let the sound swell up and help emphasize the points being made. (The steel guitar plays a progressively large part in the mix as the song goes along, and even takes the lead on the bridge solo.) Although the volume and power levels vary during the song, the sound takes great pains not to get in the way of the writing. In stead, the tones here are neutral and create a reflective vibe, inducing introspection in the listener rather than trying to bury them in noise. This is a message that they want you to hear, and the arrangement does a nice job supporting the lyrics and enhancing their impact. For as often as I bash producers for awkward and ill-fitting mixes, I have to hand it to those behind the board here, because this one fits like a glove.

For Houser’s part, despite finding success mostly as a Metro-Bro artist in the early 2010s, he doesn’t carry around the baggage that someone like Tyler Hubbard does, and as an official industry veteran on the backside of 45, he’s exactly the sort of artist that you would expect to have seen a few things and lived to sing about them. The song isn’t a technically demanding one and Houser eases through it without a problem, but he also exhibits enough charisma to cover the emotional demands of the song as well. He does a nice job injecting feeling into the song without oversinging in, allowing the listener to share the narrator’s pain and convince them that the wisdom contained here is hard-won and firsthand. There’s a maturity here that was missing from a track like “What Whiskey Does,” and it allows Houser to complete the face turn and make his narrator both believable and sympathetic in the eyes of the audience. It’s a lot more than I expected from him, and by successfully distancing himself from his less-than-stellar past discography, it indicates that there might be hope for other artists that have yet to reach that inflection point.

The lyrics here start as a laundry list of the sort of advice you would expect from someone growing out of their ‘youthful indiscretion’ phase: Trucks need gas, credit card aren’t real money, spur-of-the-moment hold-my-beer ideas are generally not great, and so on. As the song goes on, however, the song becomes more targeted, and the narrator slowly reveals that they neglected their relationship and lost their partner as a result. This is the best example of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve seen in a while: Through statements like “love ain’t diamond rings/bigger don’t always mean better” and “you’re gonna wish she would’ve when she tells you she don’t wanna fight,” we discover not only that the narrator was at fault for the relationship collapse, we learn the whys and hows behind it: In the classic money vs. love debate, the narrator chose the former and spent so much time chasing a dollar that they ignored the emotional needs of their ex, who endured the pain in silence until they finally up and left. (My favorite line, however, is that “whiskey’s best left up there on the shelf,” a powerful statement that the narrator delivers despite it being blasphemy in Nashville’s booze-soaked culture.) So many songs talk about drowning your sorrows and trying to forget a relationship, but only a rare few provide a detailed instruction manual to its audience, outlining where the speaker went wrong and how others can avoid the same fate. By facing the loss head-on and trying to turn it into something positive, the song not only demands your attention, it demonstrates that it’s worthy of it.

Quality continues to emerge in unexpected places in 2022, and “Note To Self” is another example of this trend. Neither the sound nor the singer would be anything special on their own, but when paired with stronger writing, suddenly the production becomes thoughtful and supportive, and Randy Houser moves beyond songs like “We Went” and imparts the narrator’s wisdom with aplomb. I think this is the blueprint Nashville should use going forward: Start with better material, and find a sound and an artist that can most-effectively deliver the message. Given Houser’s recent track record, I don’t know if this will be enough to resuscitate his career, but if he’s going down, he’s going down swinging, and leaving us with some final nuggets that we can put to good use.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth hearing.

MLB The Show 22: Is It Worth Buying?

Alternate title: “The Search for the Flyin’ Hawaiian: Was It Worth It?”

Back when I discussed my early impressions of MLB The Show 22, my impressions were almost universally positive, including with the game’s primary online mode Diamond Dynasty. I had played a few matches and found the mode fun, but matches felt very one-sided, with most opponents sporting entire lineups full of diamond-rated players (and me sporting…well, Luke Maile and Luis Guillorme). With a vibrant (and high-priced) marketplace for top-tier players, the game’s M.O. seemed pretty obvious: Drive gamers to acquire better players using in-game currency, and in turn acquire in-game currency using actual currency. Microtransactions were (and are) the name of the game in modern sports titles, and I was determined not to spend a dime over the $60 I paid for the cartridge, even if it meant limping around with bronze-tier cards.

Then I discovered a special program being run by the game…and in turn, one player I really wanted to add to my squad:

I was a huge fan of Shane Victorino’s game in his heyday, and I just happened to have a massive hole in my lineup in center field (the game had given me Daulton Varsho, who was apparently actually a catcher). The bigger revelation, however, was this: The Victorino card could be earned through the special limited-time ‘Halladay and Friends’ online program, although it took 110,000 experience points to do so.

Thus, the question was raised: Could I add Victorino to my lineup at a cost of nothing but time, and would the game be fun enough to support earning 110,000 XP? I decided to spend a few days on the hard grind to find out. What I found was that the Diamond Dynasty mode was much deeper and richer than I had originally thought, with plenty of modes and rewards to keep players engaged and push them deeper into the game.

Ranked seasons are the primary draw of Diamond Dynasty, but a full 9-inning game is a long affair that doesn’t have the “one more game” magic that shorter games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2 have. However, the game also features a whole bunch of special programs, most of which are not time-limited and most of which offer packs or specific players as rewards. The programs offer bite-size games called Moments, where you take control of a player or team to reach a simple goal (multiple hits, one home run, five strikeouts, etc.) within a small window of time (a few innings, or a game’s worth of at-bats for one player). For a relatively untrained eye like mine, this takes about 15-20 minutes at most (I thought Adam Dunn was supposed to be a power hitter!), and credits you a couple thousand experience points (or a few of whatever tokens you’re trying to earn) towards your current goal. This is where the “one more game” magic finally kicked in: You could play several of these games in quick succession, make substantial progress towards whatever player you wanted in a short amount of time, and have a ton of fun doing it!

In addition to your normal Diamond Dynasty team, you can also play Showdowns, where you draft a team from an initial set of players, then go through a series of challenges to gain players, abilities, and even progress towards a final objective, where you face down a boss character and have to beat them within a specified number of outs. (You can pull a Breath of the Wild and face the final boss immediately with your initial team, but it’s a steeper climb.) I didn’t find this mode quite as compelling between you don’t keep your team between showdowns (and you also have to pay an entry fee, although they’re not steep), but it’s another option that allows you to earn rewards that can upgrade your DD team.

Finally, one of the best things about active programs is that experience points can be earned through any mode, whether it’s related to Diamond Dynasty or not. Even if your Internet connection can’t support a full game, you can play game against the CPU using your DD team (or even an existing team roster!) and still make progress towards your goals. Making money might be the game’s main goal, but goal #2 is to keep you as engaged with the game as possible, and is willing to part with really good cards to do it.

So after five days of grinding, not only did I have my precious Victorino card, I had darn near an entire team of top players: Chase Utley, Carlos Delgado, Ryan Howard, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, two players from other active programs (Babe Ruth, Bret Saberhagen), and two diamond players from the dozens of random card packs earned along the way (Ryne Sandberg, Kevin Gausman). Suddenly, I had a solid roster that could go toe-to-toe with other teams, and I hadn’t spent a cent over the game’s initial asking price.

The grinding also provided more insight into the game’s other aspects. For example:

  • The graphics continued to impress and held up fairly well, but there were some moments with noticeable frame rate drops (cornfield closeups at the Field of Dreams were consistently slow), and some stadiums (*cough* Coors Field *cough*) would constantly glitch during scene transitions. Overall, however, the Switch continues to hold up well under the game’s pressure.
  • Even with slowdown (and surprisingly, even in the face of online lag), the general gameplay went off without a hitch. Even if the game froze temporarily, the game still allowed you to execute at the plate and in the field without affecting the competition. As much as I’d like to blame my terrible hitting on the connection, the truth is that hitting a baseball in-game is just as hard as hitting a major-league pitch in real life (the difference between my online and offline stats is minimal, and you face harder/meta pitchers online).

In other words, I tip my hat to the Sony San Diego crew: They found a way to keep players playing without the experience wearing thin or getting old. In fact, it motivates players to seek out cards that they want, determine how to get them, and work towards earning whatever is necessary to do it. As an Orioles fan, I’m now eyeing cards for Jim Palmer, Brian Roberts, and Cal Ripken Jr., trying to figure out how to get them and diving into the modes that will make it happen. (I’m even thinking of making a DD meme team of players only named Kyle…) The game remains fun even though I’m still not very good at it, there are plenty of modes (short and long, online and offline) to keep things fresh, and there’s a path to competitive success online that doesn’t involve selling your soul for Shohei Ohtani.

So after all this rambling, is MLB The Show 22 officially worth buying? If you’re a baseball fan (and especially a longstanding baseball fan), I think you’ll find a lot to like here, and even if you want to be the best player on the planet, you can do it without significant financial investment, and while the time investment may large, you’ll still enjoy yourself along the way. Realistic sports games remain a weakness on the Switch, but games like this make me believe closing the gap with other consoles is possible, and I hope the relevant parties take the next steps to accomplish this.

As for me…honestly, I’m still having trouble pulling Maile and Guillorme out of the lineup. I mean, how can I pass up having Maile’s defense and Guillorme’s beard in the lineup? Sometimes it’s just about winning with you people you want on your squad, whether or not they’re considered any good.

Song Review: Tyler Hubbard, “5 Foot 9”

“Jack makes good whiskey,” but Nashville makes the clichéd stuff.

I spent much of my last review harping on the Music City meta, but Tyler Hubbard’s latest single makes for a pretty good case study as well. A decade ago, Hubbard was the man defining this meta, as he and the mostly-invisible Brian Kelley helped usher in the Bro-Country era and played a major role in spreading the sound and subject matter that dominated the 2010s. While Florida Georgia Line was both controversial and cutting-edge back in the day, today Hubbard seems to be more of a conformist, crafting his solo career within the confines of Nashville’s rules rather than thumbing his nose at them. The results have been mediocre at best: “Undivided” was a forced can’t-we-all-just-get-along track that nobody wanted or listened to, and his latest effort “5 Foot 9” is even less interesting: It’s a paint-by-numbers buzzword salad dumped into a gelatin mold and formed into a love song that is neither interesting nor romantic. In other words, the song is exactly what the powers that be in this genre want their songs to be: Checklist-compliant and easily forgotten.

I bemoaned the sick, soulless sound of “Catching Up With An Old Memory,” and while “5 Foot 9” is a sign of the progress Nashville has made since the height of the Metro-Bro era, is also a sign that the genre still has a long way to go. The song opens with a bright, lively acoustic guitar and a bass-drum-only percussion line, includes a few steel guitar rides for flavor, and turns the bridge solo over to a dobro-esque instrument, eschewing the synthetic instruments that dominated for a decade and rediscovering the power of acoustic instruments. All of this is good…but once the chorus hits, more guitars and percussion jump in (not the mention the echoey audio effects), and the whole arrangement gets squashed together into in indistinguishable wall of noise, a phrase I’ve been leaning on more and more over the last few years. A mess like this draws the listener’s attention away from the writing and makes it really hard to re-engage with the song until the unnecessary sensory overload subsides. Another issue is that the short bridge solo is the song’s only distinct-sounding feature—otherwise, this sounds like every other song on the radio right now, even without the snap tracks. I’d really like to see Nashville do more to distinguish artists with they’re sounds, because otherwise neither the song nor the artist can really justify their place in the genre.

Speaking of artists: Hubbard right now is a man that’s running from his past, and he hasn’t yet put quite enough distance himself and FGL to sound credible in the narrator’s role here. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of, and at this point he’s now the one that newer artists are trying to mimic (*cough* Morgan Wallen *cough*), but as the primary lead singer of Florida Georgia Line, his voice is the one associated with Bro-Country anthems like “Cruise,” “Sun Daze,” and “Smooth,” which makes it hard to picture them as a responsible individual committed to a longstanding relationship. (If that sounds familiar, I said the exact same thing in my “Talk You Out Of It” review four years ago.) To his credit, it’s not for lack of trying on Hubbard’s part; he just doesn’t have the charisma or charm to make a clean break from his history here. (The lyrics do him no favors either, but we’ll get to that later.) At best, this is a run-of-the-mill performance that fails to let the audience share in Hubbard’s good vibes (or even convince them that he’s sincere), and probably wouldn’t sound any different with anyone else from Nashville’s young male assembly line behind the mic.

And then *sigh* we get to the lyrics:

Jack makes good whiskey
Red dirt makes good riding roads
Country makes good music
For kickin’ up dust in a taillight glow
Dry wood makes good fires
Good years make good swings…

I thought we had finally moved past those annoying laundry lists of the last decade, but it seems I was mistaken.

Supposedly this is a love song towards the narrator’s partner, but in reality it’s a thinly-disguised checklist song that makes sure to use all the buzzwords: Whiskey, red dirt roads, taillights, trucks, fires, a “small-town accent,” God, Tim McGraw (I guess at least it’s not George Strait this time?), and a bizarrely-specific reference to gravel driveways that felt especially forced. Oh, and just as I noted in “Talk You Out Of It,” the narrator’s praise of the woman is limited to their physical attributes (“5 foot 9, brown eyes in a sundress”), save for a “dancing with the raindrops” moment that feels surprisingly dated (only Gene Kelly and Pokémon dance in the rain). Throw in the worst title/hook mismatch that I’ve heard in a long time (seriously, if you heard this song you’d never guess the title, and “5 Foot 9” isn’t exactly a catchy name), and you’re left with an track that feels rote and lazy, one that will disappear from your mind thirty seconds after the music stops.

“5 Foot 9” is a weak effort that simply doesn’t measure up, even in the bland, generic meta we’re living through right now. It might check all the required boxes to get onto the airwaves, but it tries to expend the least possible effort while doing so, and as a result we get boring soundalike production, atrocious writing, and Tyler Hubbard trying to wave his hands and make you forget every Florida Georgia Line track he fronted over the last ten years. Hubbard can’t change the past, but he could take more interesting steps towards the future: As much as the Bro-Country era drove me up a wall, at least it was a bold, fresh step for its time—now all we get are reheated leftovers that all taste the same. Instead, he’s stuck in the same bland morass of sameness that everyone else is, and we’ve got better things to do with our time than stand for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Clay Walker, “Catching Up With An Old Memory”

Something feels off about this song…but whether it’s a good or a bad thing is a larger question.

While lurking in the gaming sphere as I do, you run into the concept of “the meta” a lot—that is, there is some combination of characters/items/weapons/etc. that (in theory) gives you the best chance for succeeding in top-tier competition. In music, the meta manifests in the form of “trends” that we constantly complain about: An artist has to sound a certain way or sing about certain topics to give themselves the shot of finding traction on the radio.

How powerful is the Nashville meta right now? Consider the curious case of Clay Walker, a 52-year-old hat act whose peak was roughly twenty-five years ago and who pretty much disappeared from the genre in the 2010s. The man has reemerged in the last few years, however, with both “Need A Bar Sometimes” and now “Catching Up With An Old Memory” both sneaking onto the Mediabase charts (although the former didn’t go anywhere, and I don’t think this one will either). As someone who really enjoyed this artist back in the 1990s, I can’t listen to his latest single without getting a “not my Clay Walker” vibe, and it’s more than a feeling: This is a man changing with the times in an attempt to stay relevant, and while I wouldn’t call it necessarily bad, the current meta just doesn’t resonate with me, and thus this song doesn’t either.

Let’s start with the positives, which is that Walker still sounds pretty good despite his age. He seems to have found the presence and power that was missing on “Need A Bar Sometimes,” and holds up well when pit against his earlier work. He delivery can feel a bit rote and deliberate when going through the chorus, but generally he’s able to convey his emotions in a way that listeners can really feel, which is something a lot of newer artists seem to struggle with. The most interesting part of his performance is just how positive it is for what’s ostensibly a heartbreak song: Walker gives no indication of blame and regret, and instead gives us the impression that his occasional strolls down memory lane are actually enjoyable. I give artists grief all the time for dwelling on the past and trading on nostalgia, but for Walker this longing doesn’t come across as an all-encompassing thing (of course the writing gets an assist here; more on that later). Basically, Walker is the only reason you might tune in to a song like this, and it’s a shame that he doesn’t have a stronger supporting cast.

So about that supporting cast: From a production standpoint, Walker burst onto the scene back in the fiddle-and-steel, neotraditional 90s, and it’s the sound I associate with his best work. This arrangement, on the other hand, feels like a leftover from the Boyfriend country era, opening with some synth tones, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, and a choppy instrument that I honestly can’t place by ear, all framed with echoey effects in an attempt to create a more spacious, arena-ready sound. A steel guitar eventually gets a few words in (and even gets a prolonged feature on the bridge solo), but otherwise this is the same slick sort of sound you might find one the many failed sex jams Nashville has tried to sell us recently. The mix’s generally-dark tones put it at odds with Walker’s attempt to put a positive spin on the predicament, and outside of the bridge solo there’s nothing here that you couldn’t find in ten other places on the airwaves right now. I get that artists have to update their sound with the times, but something just feels off about pairing Walker with this kind of mix, and conforming to the sort of bland background noise that’s apparently all the rage just doesn’t feel like the right move. You might as well move along, because there’s nothing to hear here.

The writing here is a bit of a mixed bag, as it tells the tale of a narrator who occasionally has to “catch up with an old memory” and reminisce about the good times with a former partner. On one hand, the writers go to great pains to set the boundaries of this behavior: It’s an occasional pastime that the narrator actually enjoys in partaking in, not an all-consuming force that driver to narrator to numb their feelings every night (“I ain’t hidin’ or lyin’ or tryin’ to drown any pain”). On the other hand, however, the writers don’t bother to share any details about the relationship besides it being “wild and on fire,” making it hard for the audience to know if the relationship is really worth remembering, and thus making it hard to them to justify staying tuned in. It’s also hard to tell if the narrator’s statements are truthful, because their behavior (sitting around drinking by themselves) is indistinguishable from someone who is trying not to catch up with an old memory. (The hook is also super clunky and seems to have to many syllables for the song’s meter.) There might have been some potential, but it feels like the song needs a few more drafts and a lot more detail to realize it—as it is, it’s all on Walker to sell the story by himself.

“Catching Up With An Old Memory” is just another unremarkable song whose only success is reminding people that Clay Walker still exists and is a pretty good vocalist. He’s not able to elevate the song thanks to its soundalike production and half-baked writing, but sadly said production and writing are a feature of the current Nashville meta rather than a bug, and this is the sort of game you have to play to get into the mainstream country conversation today. Every era has its house rules, but rather than label it good or bad, the word that comes to mind for me is uninspired, a minimal-necessary effort to check a few boxes, fit the provided template, and maybe throw a minor curveball in the mix to get your song on the right playlists. For my money, I’d rather catch up with Walker’s old discography instead.

Rating: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.