Song Review: Maren Morris, “Rich”

Word to the wise, Maren Morris: There is such a thing as stretching a joke too far.

After two singles and one Grammy award, Morris finally broke through the radio blockade and scored her first No. 1 hit with “I Could Use A Love Song,” a song that pared back her usual pop-tinged production and took a more serious approach than “My Church” or “80s Mercedes.” However, Morris has now decided to go back to the formula that made radio so hesitant to embrace her in the first place, releasing “Rich” as the fourth (and likely final) single off of her debut album HERO. It’s a one-trick,  sleazy-sounding mess of a track that tries to stretch the tired old “if I had a dollar for…” phrase over a three-and-a-half minute track, and winds up being no fun to listen to at all.

For the amount of noise this mix generates, the production here is surprisingly sparse: A couple of hard-rock guitars provide some background noise, a piano repeats the same quarter note over and over on the chorus, and above all, a real drum set that’s so loud and prominent that it drowns everything else out and forces Morris to carry the melody herself.   The resulting sound is about as bad a fit for the subject matter as you could imagine: The pace is too slow to generate any energy, the primary guitar is too dark and heavy to make the track feel fun or interesting, and the overall   vibe feels far more raunchy and sleazy than it should be. The whole thing leaves the listener confused about how to feel: Should they be laughing with the narrator, or commiserating with them? In the end, they just feel annoyed for wasting their time.

My biggest complaint about Morris as a vocalist is that she’s forever hiding behind a slew of unnecessary (and not always flattering) vocal effects and harmonies, even though she’s a decent singer in her own right. These effects were smartly dialed back on “I Could Use A Love Song,” but “Rich” brings them back with a vengeance (though they don’t quite reach “My Church” levels), reducing both her vocal clarity and her believability. Frankly, I’m not sure what Morris wants us to think here: Is this song an over-the-top statement about the narrator’s love life, or is there some genuine sadness behind it? In the end, her motives are as unclear as her delivery, and the track floats in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

The lyrics are a mixed bag: They try their best to offer some clarity as to how the song should be interpreted, but they do so in the most ham-fisted, unoriginal manner possible. The narrator plays the old “if I had a dollar…” card to convey how untrustworthy her partner is and how stuck she remains on him regardless, and then paints the most ostentatious picture (Prada, Mercedes, “drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn”) to emphasize her point. It holds water through maybe the first chorus, after which the listener just shakes their head and says “Okay, okay, I get it already!” There are a few slivers of wit buried in the writing (“I wouldn’t be covered in all your IOU’s/Every promise you made me would have some real value”), but for each one there’s a matching moment of boneheaded laziness (“If I had a dime every time that you crossed my mind/Well I’d basically be sitting on a big a** pile of dimes?” That’s the best you can do?) It’s a step up from “Parked Out By The Lake,” but not by much, and certainly not enough to make the track interesting or memorable.

In short, “Rich” was a poor single choice by Maren Morris and her team, squandering whatever momentum “I Could Use A Love Song” gave them and leaving listeners confused enough to question the song’s meaning to not interested enough to dig deeper. Fourth album singles often set the tone for an artist’s next release, but if this confusing, unremarkable track is an indication of Morris’s future sound, I’m seeing a major sophomore slump on the horizon.

Rating: 4/10. No thanks.

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Song Review: LoCash, “Don’t Get Better Than That”

Sorry LoCash, but it does get better than this song. A lot better.

LoCash rode the Bro-Country wave to success a few years ago, positioning themselves as an off-brand Florida Georgia Line with generic, uninteresting hits like “I Love This Life” and “I Know Somebody.” As the wave receded, however, the pair struggled to adapt to the new landscape, and their last single “Ring On Every Finger” limped its way to a disappointing #16 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, as a mob of male duos vie to claim FGL’s vacant throne (Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, Walker McGuire, etc.), LoCash is doubling down on their old Bro sound with ” Don’t Get Better Than That,” which, in ten words or less, is just “I Love This Life, Part 2.” It’s a move that reeks of desperation, and even amidst the frustrating mediocrity of its competition, this song stands out as particularly awful.

For as sparse as the production is here, it’s amazing just how artificial this song sounds. Melody duties are mostly handled by an electrified acoustic guitar, and the track is backed by a synthetic bass and prominent hand-clap drum machine line. The choruses add some electric guitars and “oh-oh” background vocals, and a real drum set eventually jumps in to aid the drum machine, and while these additions give the mix a bit of spacious atmosphere, they aren’t enough for the song to shake that artificial feel. Likewise, while the bright instrument tones and fast pace give a track a lot of positive energy, it’s just energy for energy’s sake, as the whole thing just feels empty and vacuous when paired with the lazy lyrics (we’ll get to those). This song is the new poster child for empty sonic calories, wasting its positivity through its lack of purpose.

I have no idea who handles the lead vocals here (Chris Lucas is generally billed as the lead singer, but he and Preston Burst sound indistinguishable to me), and honestly, it doesn’t matter: There’s nothing even remotely unique or compelling about the duo, and the song would sound the exact same if it were performed by a replacement-level Bro-Country singer (in fact, it might sound better). The track barely tests the singer’s range or flow, the pair’s harmonies are run-of-the-mill and unimpressive, and neither singer has the charisma to elevate the song beyond ‘bros singing a superfluous party song,’ even when the lyrics leave them an opening or two. In short, this performance is forgettable at best, and it’s best for all involved if we forget it.

And then we get to the lazy laundry list that passes for the song’s lyrics… If you’ve heard “I Love This Life,” you already know what’s here: A list of the most unimaginative imagery ever (drinking, driving, floating on a river, Friday night, Sunday morning, name-dropping random bands), and the proclamation that it “don’t get better than that.” Seriously, did the writers put any effort into this song at all? It’s like they all got together and said “Hey, uh, that loving life did really well for us, so…yeah, let’s do that again.” To be fair, there are a few moments of deeper meaning hidden here (for example, “ever heard the words ‘I love you, daddy'”), but they’re left to drown in a sea of country clichés. Quite frankly, there is no reason for the song to even exist, outside of being a last-ditch attempt to prop up the career of an unremarkable country duo.

In short, “Don’t Get Better Than That” is a reheated, uninteresting, and generally pointless excuse for a country song. It’s a giant leap backwards even from “Ring On Every Finger,” and provides more incentive for the genre to end LoCash’s career than to prolong it. If this is the best the duo can come up with for a swing-for-the-fences, keep-us-on-the-radio track, Nashville needs to boot them out of town and change the locks.

Rating: 3/10. Avoid this junk.

Song Review: LANco, “Born To Love You”

Oops, wrong song:

I wasn’t completely sold on LANco’s debut single “Greatest Love Story,” but the track caught the ear of enough listeners to top the country charts last December and spur the release of the group’s Hallelujah Nights album last month. For their follow-up single “Born To Love You,” however, the group has taken a strikingly different direction with their sound, moving from their minimal, acoustic-based debut to an more-affected style that sounds more like 60s pop than anything else. While it’s a clear step up sonically from “Greatest Love Story,” the rest of the track doesn’t quite measure up.

The biggest thing that defines the production is the fuzzy, fainly-echoing filter that covers every instrument here (including the vocals), giving the song a distinctly retro feel. The eclectic instrument choices further this old-school feel: The track opens with a sitar-esque swell, fills time between verses with a vibraphone and a higher-pitched string instrument (is that a hammered dulcimer?), and backs the mix with a rhythmic, era-appropriate guitar and driving bass/snare drum combo. The only modern-sounding instrument here is a bright electric guitar that provides an intro solo and some general atmosphere. The mix does a nice job of building energy and momentum as it progresses, and its judicious use of minor chords adds just enough seriousness to the otherwise-happy track to hint at the depths the narrator had sunk to. In summary, it’s unique, it’s well-executed, and it’s surprisingly catchy.

I’m still not a huge fan of lead singer Brandon Lancaster (he’s as poor an enunciator as there is on the radio today), but his lack of vocal clarity suits the track’s low-fi vibe, and he has a knack for portraying younger, going-nowhere narrators who are saved by love. The song is not a technically-demanding one (Lancaster’s range and flow are barely tested here), but it requires someone with enough charisma to make the listener feel the narrator’s wonder and appreciation for the woman in his life. Much like Alan Jackson feels uniquely qualified to handle the role of an older, reminiscent voice, Lancaster has the necessary blend of youth and gravitas to take on the narrator’s role and declare that he’s already found his life’s calling and doesn’t need to go searching for it. (It’s also worth noting that the harmonies are pretty decent here, as they give off a slight “Lennon and McCarthy” vibe that matches the production’s retro styling.) I wouldn’t call this a great vocal performance, but it’s decent enough to do the job.

Lyrically, this song is basically “Greatest Love Story, Part 2,” albeit with less backstory and more world-building. I criticized LANco’s debut single for “using broad, bland imagery” and for not including “enough detail to really hit home for a lot of people,” and while “Born To Love You” improves a bit on that second complaint, it actually doubles down on the first issue by describing its dead-end small town in the most generic, overused terms possible (Trees! Trains! Churches! Football!). It’s not all bad, however, as the narrator tries to use the town as a foil: He doesn’t care that he’s stuck in the most boring corner of Small Town, USA, because he’s found his significant other, and by gosh, that’s all that matters! In the end, however, the writing falls into the same trap as its predecessor: It’s just not that interesting of a story, and it doesn’t stick with the listener.

When it all sugars off, I think “Born To Love You” is a better song than “Greatest Love Story,” but it’s not that much better. The production is really the only compelling thing about this track, as the vocals are just passable and the lyrics are outright sleep-inducing. I will, however, give credit to LANco for one thing: They reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Collie back in the day.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to gauge your reaction.

Song Review: Alan Jackson, “The Older I Get”

Who better to review on Valentine’s Day than one of country music’s most beloved stars?

George Strait may have been dubbed “The King,” but Alan Jackson matched him hit-for-hit and award-for-award for over two decades, and the pair now has matching plaques in the Country Music Hall of Fame. While the book on Jackson’s mainstream career is firmly closed (he hasn’t cracked the Top 40 on the radio since 2012), he remain active in the genre, releasing everything from ‘standard’ country albums to gospel collections to bluegrass projects. “The Older I Get” is billed as the leadoff single for Jackson’s next album, and it’s exactly the sort of song you expect from an accomplished veteran of both life and music. Like Trace Adkins’s “Watered Down” last year, this song is an ideal marriage of subject, subject matter, and sound.

The production is probably the most neotraditional mix you’ll hear all year: A quiet acoustic guitar carries the melody, a pair of fiddles bookend the track with a solid intro and outro, a steel guitar and piano provide appropriate accents, a classical-sounding electric guitar provides a spacious background (it also joins forces with the fiddle for a relaxed bridge solo), and the whole thing is backed by a (real) percussion line that is so restrained that it’s barely noticeable. The lack of energy here is by design, as the mix uses bright tones and a slower tempo to create a warm, peaceful atmosphere that goes down smooth and helps focus the listener’s attention on the writing (which, thankfully, is strong enough to be worth ruminating on). It’s the sort of sound that really stands out in the current radio climate (or at least it would stand out, if anyone actually played it), and it’s an absolute joy to listen to.

Admittedly, Jackson isn’t quite the singer he was during his heyday: His delivery is a bit rougher in spots, and his range is a bit narrower than it used to be. However, while you might notice a difference from early-career Jackson when he starts to sing now, it disappears as the track goes on, and by the end, you’d swear this performance was from his turn-of-the-millenium peak. Jackson at 90% of his peak sounds better than 90% of current artists, as he remains one of the most earnest, authentic-sounding singers in the history of the genre. Few people can own a leading role like Jackson does, and the fact that the song fits his current life situation so well (an older artist enumerating the wisdom he’s gained) only amplifies his believability. In short, the man’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason.

Lyrically, the song takes a more forward-looking stance on aging that its peers. Rather than looking back on his past missteps like Adkins does (or declaring that we need to return to an earlier way of life as Blake Shelton does in “I Lived It”), the song revels in the lessons the narrator has learned and looks forward to the next phase of their life. (It’s a wise decision, as Jackson’s life has been much less tumultuous than Adkins’s, and thus he doesn’t have too many negative experiences to dwell on.) The nuggets of wisdom themselves aren’t exactly groundbreaking (live in the moment, love is true wealth, etc.), but the singer’s optimism and conviction are surprisingly refreshing from this sort of song. The most striking moment is when Jackson declares “If they found a fountain of youth/I wouldn’t drink a drop” and the he thinks “I’m just getting to my best years yet,” indicating that he values his experience and perspective so much that even in the midst of a youth-obsessed culture like ours, he wouldn’t trade them for anything. Saying it and meaning it are two different things, of course, but when the words are buttressed by bright percussion and Jackson’s effusive charm, you can’t help but believe them.

Overall, “The Older I Get” is a simple, straightforward song that’s about as well-constructed as it could have been. The production is classic and enjoyable, the lyrics are thoughtful and heartfelt, and Jackson remains Alan freaking Jackson. Radio will ignore it and many listeners will never know this thing existed, but it’s a reminder of how powerful country music can be, even without its modern-day trappings. I awarded Adkins a perfect score last year, and this track is equally deserving.

Rating: 10/10. It’s already won ‘Song of the Year’ once, and it’s poised to contend for that title again.

Song Review: Walker McGuire, “Lost”

I gave Walker McGuire a pass for not standing out from the crowd on “‘Til Tomorrow.” They aren’t so lucky this time around.

Jordan Walker, Johnny McGuire, and Wheelhouse Records put on a full-court press for the duo’s debut single, complete with a series of Country Aircheck ads and a full-fledged music video that dropped the same day the track went for adds. The song grew on me the more I listened to it (it cracked my Top 25 favorite songs of 2017), but radio’s reaction to the pair was much more muted, and the song limped to a disappointing #35 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, in conjunction with the release of their new self-titled EP, the duo has released their follow-up single “Lost,” and…well…sometimes a picture sums up a reaction better than anything:

Image from ICanHazCheezburger.com

The production here is pretty straightforward (so much so that it reminds me of Dustin Christensen’s country parody “Parked By The Lake”): An electric guitar-driven track backed by a mixture of real and synthetic percussion, where the verses are sparse and quiet and the choruses and bridge are louder and more intense. (The song also features an acoustic guitar that carries the melody during the first verse, and includes an organ and steel guitar floating around in the background.) The instrument tones are bright and the vibe is energetic and exuberant, but there’s really nothing here that you haven’t heard before—it’s missing that special something that catches the listener’s ear and make them pay attention. It’s the sort of mix you hear once, say “oh, that’s nice,” and then forget about ten minutes later.

Lead singer Jordan Walker actually puts together a solid vocal performance here, both on a technical level (he sounds comfortable at both ends of his range, and his flow over the rapid-fire sections of the song sounds smooth and effortless) and an emotional level (he comes across as earnest and believable in the narrator’s role). Just like the production, however, there’s nothing about Walker or McGuire as performers that make the song attention-grabbing or memorable—in fact, the duo’s sound brings to mind  Dan + Shay’s recent work (which, given my recent calling out of that group, is not a good thing). An established star could get away with this sort of run-of-the-mill performance, but for an act still trying to carve out a place in the music business, it’s not going to cut it.

Lyrically, this song is just another “your love drives me this crazy” song, and while approaching the topic from its effect on the narrator’s sense of direction is certainly a unique take, it’s not a terribly interesting one. It’s the first song in a while that’s moved me to break out the “girl” counter (the word appears 11 times, usually unnecessarily tacked on to the end of a line), it leans heavily on the overused riding-around-in-a-truck trope, and it just generally feels simple, halfhearted, and devoid of wit. It’s not a bad or offensive song, and I’d still rather listen to these guys than Florida Georgia Line, but like everything else here, it’s a forgettable effort that gives me no reason to pay attention.

I was fairly optimistic about Walker McGuire after their debut single, but after getting bored to tears by”Lost,” I’m starting to think that optimism was misplaced. This is just another track by just another country duo, and if a more-seasoned act like Dan + Shay can’t stay afloat with this sort of material, a fledgling pair like Walker McGuire doesn’t have a chance.

Rating: 5/10. Sorry guys, but you’d better step up your game, and fast.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “I Lived It”

Go and live in the past if you want, Mr. Shelton, but don’t expect me to go there with you.

Trend-hopping artists are nothing new in country music, but Blake Shelton has raised the practice to an art form, carefully scrutinizing the mood of the public in order to release the safest possible songs to country radio. It doesn’t always work out (“She’s Got A Way With Words,” for example), but in an era where many of his late 90s/early 2000s peers are being put out to pasture, Shelton has managed to defy the odds and maintain a strong presence at the top of the charts. His latest offering “I Lived It,” however, feels more like a miss than a hit, as its stern, serious sound invites listeners to inspect its content more critically, and they may not like what they find.

The production takes the acoustic foundation from “I’ll Name The Dogs” and pares it back even farther, dropping the fiddle, electric guitar, and drum machine and relegating the steel guitar to atmospheric background tone. What’s left is a sparse mix driven by an acoustic guitar and an active-but-organic-sounding percussion line (although the bridge solo sounds like there might be something extra accompanying the guitar, like a dulcimer or zither.) The happy, celebratory tone of “I’ll Name The Dogs” is gone too, replaced by a somber, wistful vibe featuring a full suite of minor chords. Unlike Brad Paisley’s “Heaven South,” which kept things light as it glorified the past within the present, this mix has a taste of bitterness to it, giving the listener the sense that a) this lauded way of life is gone forever, and b) it has been replaced by something unsatisfactory. While the sound is still relatively easy on the ears, this underlying darkness makes this trip down memory lane less than enjoyable.

On the surface, the lyrics provide a sepia-toned view of the narrator’s childhood using vivid imagery that ranges from the generic (riding in old trucks, pushing around a lawnmower) to the unique (putting tobacco juice on a wound?!), and doesn’t seem terribly offensive or pointed. With the serious nature of the production, however, this song feels less like “the way we lived back then” and more like “the way we should live now.” Suddenly, statements like “I’d go back there right now” and “we all survived somehow” have a bit more force behind them, and indicate that we should literally return to living in a world where tobacco usage was commonplace, women were reprimanded for their attire, and TV shows prominently displaying the Confederate flag were all the rage. Given the choice, I’d rather not live in a world like that, thank you very much. While I don’t believe the songwriters actually set out to make a political statement with this song, the production makes it feel like one, and I don’t like it. At all.

All of the above leaves Shelton himself in an awkward position: Match the seriousness of the song and come across like he’s pushing an agenda, or try to pull his verbal punches and say “Don’t mind me, I’m just lamenting my lost childhood?” (The track has four co-writers, but Shelton isn’t one of them.) Ultimately, he chose the former route, using his trademark charisma and believability to come across as a bitter old man scowling at the world from his front porch. Additionally, the song feels a tad too low for Shelton, forcing him farther into his voice’s lower register than he would prefer to be. However, his range and flow are just enough to cover the notes and maintain a smooth delivery throughout the track. All in all, it’s a tolerable performance that would be more palatable if the writing didn’t annoy me so much.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It.” Is it a harmless look back at the way things used to be, or the narrator’s vision of the way things should be now? Either way, there are much better nostalgic tracks you can listen to, ones that don’t make you question the songwriters’ motives.

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

Song Review: Jillian Jacqueline, “Reasons”

2018 has been a year of uninspired songwriting thus far, so it’s nice to hear someone out there trying to raise the bar for a change.

Jillian Jacqueline is a Pennsylvania newcomer who has been kicking around Nashville since 2010, but despite generating some buzz online with “Overdue” back in 2014, she only recently scored a major-label deal with Big Loud Records last year. Her first official single “Reasons” was released to radio a few weeks ago, and while it’s not the attention-grabbing debut a newer artist requires, there are enough good things here (especially in the writing) to hint at her future potential.

The production here is dominated by three things: Prominent fake-snap percussion (which is a bit louder than it needs to be), a dark, spacious piano, and a simple whistling riff that sounds a lot better than whatever Walker Hayes tried to do on “You Broke Up With Me.” The mix is surprisingly sparse on the verses (you get four snaps and two piano chords for every four measures), but it does a nice job of providing a full-sounding atmosphere while giving the vocals plenty of room to breathe. The choruses introduce a slick electric guitar and a more-complex drum machine rhythm, providing a bit more energy and intensity to the track. While the whole thing comes across as a typical pop-country sound, the piano and the frequent minor chords introduce a layer of darkness that underlines that complements the writing by driving home the seriousness of the protagonist’s feelings. Unlike Jason Aldean’s latest single, this style fusion works, and it works well.

Vocally, Jacqueline’s sound falls somewhere in between Sarah Buxton and Kelsea Ballerini (the Buxton comparison feels very appropriate, given that she and Jacqueline co-wrote the song), and she demonstrates both the technical ability and and earnestness to sell the listeners on the track. The song isn’t actually a great fit for Jacqueline as is (it’s a key or two too low, causing her to sound a little labored and breathy on the verses), but she’s got just enough range to make things work, and she handles even the faster portions of the song with aplomb. Most of all, she does a nice job infusing emotion into the song’s narrator, adding a touch of weariness to the verses and a dash of frustration to the choruses. It’s a solid all-around performance that hints at Jacqueline’s future potential.

Despite the strong production and vocals, the writing is probably my favorite part of the song, because it’s the first time I’ve heard someone dive this deeply into the “Reasons” of a failed relationship. Songs typically address a portion of these reasons (Reba McEntire’s “Somebody Should Leave” talks about the kids, Chris Young and Cassadee Pope’s “Think Of You” talks about how acquaintances react, George Strait’s “Give It Away” addresses the logistical concerns), but I haven’t heard a song bring them all together and paint a complete picture of why people are reluctant to break up. The imagery here is vivid and novel (stuffing belonging into plastic bags, standing together at the sink without a word, eating takeout in an empty room), and the whole thing comes across as personal and relatable. In the end, the message comes through loud and clear (if you don’t love each other, why in the world are you doing staying together?), sticking in the listener’s mind long after the song ends.

Is “Reasons” the song that catapults Jillian Jacqueline to stardom? Depressingly, I would say no: It takes a few listens to really appreciate its construction, it doesn’t differentiate itself enough sonically from the rest of the crowd, and country radio still has a bizarre fear of putting too many women on their playlists. Still, “Reasons” is a great song that showcases Jacqueline’s potential, and it suggests that she’s got a bright future in this league.

Rating: 7/10. Definitely check this song out.