Song Review: Darius Rucker, “For The First Time”

If this song proves anything, it proves that it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

When you stop and consider the degree of difficulty involved in establishing oneself as an older black singer in an industry dominated by young white males, Darius Rucker’s transition from the frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish to a successful solo country artist has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s been going through an “every other single” pattern lately, however, with his last five singles earning airplay peaks of #4, #48, #2, #33, and #1 respectively. This trend suggests that his latest single “For The First Time” will struggle, and while the Bro-lite nature of the song lends this idea weight, Rucker is able to elevate the song to something respectable in a way that few of his contemporaries can pull off.

The production opens with a stomp-clap beat that sounds slightly synthetic, but soon adds an electric guitar and fiddle (!) to the mix to signal that the sound here will be more traditional than modern. The guitar does most of the heavy lifting on the melody, while the fiddle jumps in mostly to fill space between the verses and chorus. (While the producers get props for just having the fiddle at all, I would have like to see it used a bit more prominently.) An amplified acoustic guitar is tossed in for a pre-bridge solo, and it acquits itself fairly well. The song’s heavy reliance on minor chords makes it feel a bit more serious than it should, but the brighter instrument tones mitigate this issue somewhat. Overall, the mix is unique enough to catch people’s attention and stand out on the radio.

The writing is probably the weakest part of the song, as it pulls heavily from the Bro-Country playbook and makes the listener question the narrator’s true motivations. The imagery used is generic and passé (night driving, laying on a car under the stars, drinking cheap wine, etc.), and there’s nothing particularly unique outside of running “barefoot through the mud.” What’s worse is that although the singer seems to be asking the woman he’s with to take a chance and experience the thrills of a relationship with him, the reliance on stock Bro-Country themes and  some questionable word choices (you’re “daring” someone to take a chance on you? Really?) make the narrator feel a bit more nefarious than they should, as if they’re just looking for a one-night stand with a hot girl instead of looking to build a long-term relationship. (The admission that “you don’t know me well” adds credence to the idea that this might be a short-term proposition.)

In the hands of a lot of country singers, the narrator would feel inauthentic and the song would come off as irredeemably sleazy. There’s a reason Rucker’s career has lasted as long as it has, however, and it’s emotion and earnestness he can exhibit through his voice. Rucker is one of the better singers in country music today, and he shows off a smooth delivery, decent range, and more than enough charisma to take a song like this and make it feel heartfelt and sincere. While it’s not always enough to save a song (no one could have redeemed “Homegrown Honey”), “For The First Time” is vague and lightweight enough that Rucker, buoyed by some decent production, can keep it out of the gutter and steer it a more respectable direction.

Overall, “For The First Time” is a weak song carried by a strong performance that does just enough to make the whole thing an interesting listen. While I’d prefer to see Rucker take on some weightier material (his prior single “If I Told You” was a step in the right direction), I’ll take this track for now.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two to see what you think.

Song Review: Parmalee, “Sunday Morning”

Don’t look now, but it’s time for our yearly dose of Parmalee pop-country. Don’t worry though, you won’t taste a thing.

Parmalee has released a single song every year since its mainstream debut in 2012, and while they achieved some success with their debut album Feels Like Carolina, things haven’t gone quite as well for their second disc 27861. The leadoff single “Roots” sputtered its way to a #35 Billboard airplay peak, and “Sunday Morning” has taken almost three months just to crack the Top 50 on Mediabase. After a few listens, it’s easy to tell why the song has been slow to catch on: It’s a bland, generic song that doesn’t stand out from its peers.

The production sets a serious atmosphere right from the start, opening with a darker-toned piano and a punchy bass drum that does a nice job driving the beat. The choruses mix in some growling electric guitars and a superfluous drum machine, and the sound becomes a bit less unique as a result. Both the piano and the song’s reliance on minor chords help drive home the pressure of the verses, but the mood is a bit too heavy for choruses that try to celebrate the impact of the singer’s significant other. Overall, it’s not bad, but it’s not really impactful either.

Lead singer Matt Thomas doesn’t has the most distinct or unique voice (give this song to someone like Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett, and it basically sounds the same), but he does a good job selling the song and making it sound believable. Unlike the production, Thomas is able to properly adjust his tone from the seriousness of the verses to the reverence of the chorus. The song is a moderate test of Thomas’s range and flow, and he passes both with a workmanlike delivery. Finally, the harmonies here are nothing special, which is a little surprising for a group (you expect a bit more than from an individual singer). Overall, Thomas’s vocals and charisma are fine, but they lack that extra something to make the song more compelling.

The writing here is a tale of a narrator overwhelmed by the chaos of the world around him, and how their significant other is the one who rescues him from despair and makes life bearable. There’s nothing here that you haven’t heard a thousand time before: the theme, the imagery, the co-opting of religious terminology, etc. On top of it, the lyrics themselves feel rudimentary rather than clever: “You don’t have to get on my mind/’Cause you’re already on it,” is what passes for wit on this track. It’s bland, it’s boring, and it doesn’t convince the listener to actually care about what’s being said. (It’s also shown up badly by its contemporaries, such as Jerrod Niemann’s “God Made A Woman” and Drake White’s “Makin’ Me Look Good Again.”)

Overall, “Sunday Morning” is about as middle-of-the-road as you get on a country track, and thus only rises to the level of “forgettable radio filler.” Neither the production nor the vocals nor the writing gives you a good reason to pay attention to this song, so you might as well spend your time listening to something better.

Let’s hope Parmalee can give us something a bit more interesting next year.

Rating: 5/10. You won’t notice it even if you hear it.

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “You Broke Up With Me”

Okay, I think Nashville is just trolling me with its releases now.

Walker Hayes in an Alabama native who has been kicking around Nashville for over a decade now, releasing songs every three years or so that were roundly ignored by the genre. He seems to have found some momentum in 2017, however, as he signed with Monument Records back in January and released “You Broke Up With Me” back in June. I’ve never heard any of Hayes’s earlier material, but if it’s as bad as this track, I didn’t miss much.

The production here is minimal, with an acoustic guitar driving the melody and a drum machine keeping time. (There’s also a whistle that mimics the acoustic guitar’s riff through most of the song, and while whoever did it is a terrible whistler, it blends into the background inoffensively.) An electric guitar floats around in the background, and a real drum set comes in to add some punch to the end of the chorus, but otherwise it’s a quiet mix that doesn’t generate a lot of energy. It uses bright tones to try to establish a happy, carefree atmosphere, but it fails because it gets overshadowed by the vocals, which is a big problem in this case.

Simply put, Hayes’s delivery on “You Broke Up With Me” is one of the worst I’ve heard this year. He can’t quite decide whether to sing or rap the song, so he tries to split the difference and winds up sounding flat, monotone, and completely lifeless. He sounds slightly better on the second half of the choruses when he gets into his upper range, suggesting that the song needed to be kicked up a key or two to get Hayes’s out of his awful lower register. His flow is passable, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be even remotely believable on this song—when he says “for real babe, ain’t tryin’ rub it your face,” it sounds instead like that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. He may be having a good time, but he fails to pass those good feelings on to his listeners.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a man who runs into his ex and declares that her pain and lamenting aren’t going to harsh his mellow and ruin his good time. Despite a few clever turns of phrase (“you made your bed and didn’t want me in it”), the story comes off as a smug, self-serving speech from an unsympathetic narrator. It eschews talking about how the woman’s leaving made the man feel, instead focusing on the sleazy party atmosphere the man now find himself in. In contrast to a song like Drew Baldridge’s “Rebound,” Hayes’s you-can’t-come-back proclamations come off as very mean-spirited and vindictive, giving the listener the impression he’s enjoying lording his freedom over his ex a bit too much. Combine this with Hayes’s shoddy vocals and the weak production, and you’ve got a supposed-to-be-fun party track that’s no fun to listen to at all.

Overall, “You Broke Up With Me” is a failure on nearly every level: The production is limp, the writing is questionable, and Hayes’s performance hits your ears like sandpaper. It’s not a pleasant song to listen to at all, and I don’t see it hanging around very long on country radio.

Rating: 3/10. Avoid this one.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Road Trippin'”

Does Dan + Shay have any sort of core musical philosophy? Because it feels like they’re just flinging songs at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Dan + Shay kicked off their Obsessed album with the ready-made wedding ballad “From The Ground Up,” then pulled a complete 180 with their melancholy followup “How Not To” (a No. 1 single that seems to have already been forgotten). For the album’s third single, the duo has switched gears again by releasing the Bro-sounding summer anthem “Road Trippin'” (which will actually see its meaningful chart life happen after the summer), and frankly, it’s a major step backwards from their last few singles.

The production here is very reminiscent of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” with its bombastic synthetic beat, rock-band guitars, and even a token banjo for good measure. The off-brand Bro-Country sound is a jarring transition from the restrained country-pop sound of “How Not To,” and it doesn’t fit Dan + Shay’s style nearly as well. The song strives to give off a fun, carefree vibe, but it fails because its tones are too dark (especially the guitars), its tempo is too slow, and its minor chords introduce too much uncertainty. Of all the songs I want blasting from my speakers as I cruise down the highway in a convertible, this one is pretty low on the list.

Lead singer Shay Mooney’s Gary LeVox impression is the clear high point of the song, as it’s the only thing providing the bright, fun-sounding tone that the song requires. While Mooney’s low range doesn’t sounds as full or rich as LeVox’s, he can match the Rascal Flatts singer note-for-note in his upper range, and the song wisely keeps Mooney there for the choruses and bridge. (However, he sounds a bit awkward when the song stress-tests his flow during the fast-rapping portions of the chorus.) Most importantly, Mooney sounds like he’s having a good time singing the song, and he has the vocal charisma to pass that energy and enjoyment on to his listeners.

The song itself is basically a man trying to sell his significant other on the prospect of a fun road trip, describing all the things they could do. Unfortunately, the imagery here is all bland and boilerplate, mostly checking off the usual things you’d here in a Bro-Country tune. (Nighttime driving? Check. Imbibing a libation or two? Check. Skinny-dipping in a river? Check.) While it omits the overt misogyny of most Bro-Country tunes, it still feels like a song we’ve heard a hundred times before. (In particular, Lonestar’s “What About Now” did a much better job covering this topic back in the day.) In addition, the rap sections here feel really out of place, and the constant repetition of the title phrase (“Row-whoa-whoa-whoa trippin’, trippin’, trippin'”) gets old fast. Combine this with the poor production, and you’ll be reaching for the “Skip” button pretty quickly.

Overall, “Road Trippin'” is a disappointing song that missed its relevance window by a few years. The writing is forgettable, the production is generic and aritifical, and the vocals aren’t enough to cover its flaws. I thought that Dan + Shay had some “potential staying power” after hearing “How Not To,” but not if they release subpar singles like this.

Rating: 4/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Brett Young, “Like I Loved You”

There are no bad single choices on Brett Young’s debut album; only more- or less-good ones. “Like I Loved You” was a less-good choice.

I really enjoyed Young’s previous single “In Case You Didn’t Know,” but I didn’t expect it to strike a nerve with the rest of the country like it did. The song reached a milestone that few country songs achieve by exploding into the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 (sadly, it didn’t reach #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart because Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” has topped that chart since February), and eventually spent two weeks atop the Country Airplay chart. Massive hits like that are always hard to follow, but Young had a number of strong choices on his debut album (my personal favorite being “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me”). Sadly, Young and his label went with “Like I Loved You,” and while it isn’t terrible, it’s easily the weakest of his singles thus far.

The production here is a little different from Young’s earlier singles, but it still gives off the same restrained, minimalist vibe. The drums are real this time, and the song is primarily piano-driven until it reaches the first chorus and hands off the melody to the electric guitars. (There’s also an acoustic guitar and an organ floating around in the background.) The relatively-slow tempo and prevalence of minor chords set a darker, more-unsettled tone than Young’s other songs, but the tones are still surprisingly bright, making the song feel very easy on the ears while also serving as a nice counterpoint to Young’s delivery.

Back when I was planning to review Young’s debut disc, I noted that outside of some frustrated man-splaining on this very track, the album featured no hints of a bad attitude at all. This attitude is a stark departure from Young’s prior releases, but he actually executes the narrator’s role better than I expected, and expresses his frustration without sounding too whiny about it (it’s still a little whiny, but nowhere near as bad as most singers would sound). Young’s range and flow are both solid here, and his smooth, earnest delivery softens the rougher edges of the writing and makes listeners empathize with the narrator. The whole thing is outside of Young’s comfort zone, but he’s talented enough to (mostly) keep that from showing.

The lyrics tell the story of a man trying to come to grips with a woman who is leaving him, feeling that the woman’s calm declaration that he’ll be able to move on is an indication that “you never loved me like I loved you.” Not only is the premise a bit whiny, but specific lyrics come off as tone-deaf and hypocritical: The narrator’s point that the woman is being presumptuous with her optimism about his recovery may be valid, but his assertion that her feelings must not have been as strong as his is pretty presumptuous as well. Also, the woman seems to be acting out of concern and care, while the narrator just feels like he is lashing out bitterly. Young gets a lot of credit to elevating the song with his performance and keeping it from being too obnoxious, but the misplaced, self-righteous anger of the narrator is woven too deep into the writing to be covered up completely.

Overall, “Like I Loved You” is a poorly-written-but-well-executed song that winds up being just okay in the end. It lacks the catchiness of “Sleep Without You” or the sheer emotional power of “In Case You Didn’t Know,” but the solid production and Brett Young’s delivery keep this from being the outright train wreck it could have been in less-capable hands. Still, let’s hope Young and his team make a smarter decision about what single to release next time around.

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

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos”

I like how this song sounds, but I have no idea what this song says.

Despite From A Room: Volume 1 becoming the first gold country record of 2017 (and doing so in a mere month), Chris Stapleton’s run of radio futility continues, as the record’s leadoff single “Either Way” peaked at a mediocre #26 before crashing and burning. Part of the blame lies squarely on Mercury Records’s unexplainable release strategy: “Broken Halos” was released as a promotional single before “Either Way,” (and wound up with a higher Hot Country Singles chart position than “Either Way” ever did), yet the label did not capitalize on the song’s positive reception and is only now pushing it for radio adds as the album’s official second single. After repeated listens, however, I have to say that while “Broken Halos” is a nice song to listen to, its unnecessarily-muddy message leaves me more confused than anything else.

The production here is a major step up from “Either Way.” The volume balance of “Broken Halos” is much better, and the instrumentation is no longer drowned out by Stapleton’s voice. While the only change to the instrument lineup is the addition of a drum set on this song, the mix has noticeably more punch and energy (especially from the acoustic guitar), and there’s a lot less dead space that it has to fill. (The bridge instrumental is still pretty underwhelming, though.) Stapleton’s voice has also been dialed back a notch or two as well, making the vocals and instrumentation equal partners in the track. The mood is much brighter and more positive, and as a result it’s a more pleasant listen than “Either Way.”

Stapleton remains the vocal king of country music, and despite a slightly-more-restrained performance that better matches the production, his voice still retains the power and charisma that defined his earlier material. It’s not a terribly demanding song to sing (its range isn’t too wide, its flow is nice and slow), and it lacks the “oh wow” moments of “Either Way” where Stapleton’s voice could really shine, but he still infuses his delivery with enough emotion and earnestness to pull in listeners. Let’s be honest: The dude could probably sing the phone book and still make it compelling.

Where the song goes a bit astray is in the writing, as it seems to feature two orthogonal threads that are hard to reconcile. The song is called “Broken Halos,” and the oft-repeated hook “Broken halos that used to shine” seems to indicate that the song will be about virtuous people that have fallen from grace and onto hard times. The verses, however, spend their time talking about selfless folks who come into peoples’ lives just long enough to save them, and then move on to the next hard-luck case—in other words, folks whose halos seem to be completely intact and shiny. So who is this song actually about: Former angels, or current ones? The writing, though solid on a technical level, never gives us a clear answer, and the confusion is a slight blemish on an otherwise-solid track.

Overall, “Broken Halos” addresses most of the issues raised about “Either Way,” but incurs a self-inflicted wound in the form of the writing that limits its potential. It’s still a good song that features stellar performances from both Stapleton and the musicians, but it could have been a great song, and that’s a huge missed opportunity.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen to see what you think.

Song Review: Jordan Davis, “Singles You Up”

Move over, Jake Owen—you’ve got company.

Jordan Davis is a Lousiana native who signed with UMG Nashville back in 2016, but just released his debut single “Singles You Up” (which is apparently a phrase he and his co-writers invented) last month…and after over a year of preparation, this is the best song they could find?! I’m not going to mince words here: This song is a sleazy, tone-deaf, Metro-Bro pile of garbage that immediately displaces Dustin Lynch’s “Small Town Boy” as my least favorite single of 2017. It’s tone and theme are eerily similar to Owen’s disgusting “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” and the only question left is whether it can surpass Owen as the worst-reviewed song on this blog.

The production here is a standard-and-unabashed Metropolitan mix that features slick-sounding guitars and uses a drum machine for its foundation. It follows the “acoustic verses, electric chorus” pattern seen in a lot of songs these days, but the former is much more pronounced in its role while the latter tends to get pushed into the background (it even gets overshadowed by Davis during its bridge solo). To its credit, the mix establishes a bright, energetic atmosphere that is easy on the ears (even if it doesn’t really match the tone of the lyrics), and it embraces its modern sound by not including even a token banjo, steel guitar, or any other “country” instrument in the mix. Truth be told, the production is probably the high point on the song…but it all goes downhill from here.

Davis himself sounds pretty “meh” to me. There are shades of Sam Hunt in his voice (although his delivery is more traditional than Hunt’s talk-singing approach), and his flow on the faster lyrics is impressive, but otherwise his sound is pretty unexceptional. His biggest flaw is his lack of vocal charisma: Unlike Owen, Davis is just not terribly believable is the narrator’s role here. While that mostly works in Davis’s favor on this track (he doesn’t come across quite as sleazy as Owen did), when he drops a line like “I’m sorry if I’m overstepping boundaries,” you don’t buy his apology at all.

And then we get to the writing, and it’s beyond terrible. At its core, the song is a copy of “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You”: The narrator decides to hit on a girl who already has a boyfriend, saying to look him up if the relationship goes south. Here are my problems with the song.

  • No consideration is ever given to the woman’s feelings and/or decision process. The narrator completely ignores the possibility that she’s “sippin’ white wine instead of whiskey” and being “a little more city” because that’s just what she wants to do,  leaving the narrator looking shallow and self-serving. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s clueless “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator just attributes any undesired changes to their girlfriend to the evil guy she’s with. Word to the wise, guys: The trend in country music right now is to give women more respect, not less.
  • There’s no indication that the relationship the narrator is targeting is on the rocks. The only evidence offered by the narrator is that the guy isn’t looking at the woman enough and doesn’t sing along to her favorite song. It’s not enough to convince me that the woman needs to be saved from a bad relationship, and it makes the narrator come off like a slimy douchebag trying to break up a seemingly-solid relationship.
  • The opening line “I ain’t heard you laugh like that in a long time” indicates that this is not a spur-of-the-moment outburst, but rather something the singer has been thinking about for a long time. It amps up the creepy factor and makes you wonder “Is this guy just stalking this girl hoping she sees the light and hooks up with him?”
  • It’s a minor nit, but the made-up title/hook is confusing enough to ask Google what the heck it means (which failed, by the way). Encouraging people to dig deeper into this lyrical mess is not going to help matters.

There’s no blatant sexual innuendo here, but the Bro-Country undertones bleed through this song like a Sloppy Joe overflows its bun. Pair all of this with Davis’s inability to elevate the concept to something respectable, and you’ve got a narrator who comes off as creepy, selfish, and unsympathetic (not to mention unoriginal), and that’s a really bad look for a singer, especially on a debut single.

Quite frankly, “Singles You Up” has no business being on country radio in 2017. With its overly-modern production, Bro-Country attitude, and unremarkable vocal performance, the label should have voted this one down and told Jordan Davis “Try again, dude.” I wouldn’t rank it ahead of “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” in terms of outright awfulness, but it deserves a place right next to it in Kyle’s Country Music Hall of Infamy.

Rating: 2/10. Avoid this like the plague.