Song Review: Brooke Eden, “Act Like You Don’t”

Like a jigsaw puzzle of a nondescript scene, Brooke Eden’s “Act Like You Don’t” seems to have all the pieces needed to make a good song, but it lacks that indescribable quality that compels you to pay attention in the first place.

Up to this point, Eden’s career highlights include two unsuccessful American Idol auditions, two EPs, and her single “Daddy’s Money,” which peaked at #50 last year (two other singles failed to chart at all). “Act Like You Don’t” is the second single off of her latest EP Welcome To The Weekend, and while it’s a perfectably passable single, I can’t help but feel like it’s missing something, some key ingredient needed to draw in ambivalent listeners like myself.

The production here has a retro R&B flare, and consists of a restrained-but-high-pitched electric guitar carrying the melody, and organ providing some background atmosphere, and a mixture of synthetic and real percussion (mostly the former) making up the foundation. The pace of the song feels a bit inconsistent, as the verses give off a relaxed feel while the choruses let the drum machines run a bit too wild and add an unnecessary sense of urgency to the track. The atmosphere runs into the same problem, as the guitar tones establish a slightly-optimistic tone that runs counter by the subject matter and the minor chords used on the chorus. Overall, the mix feels a bit generic, as if we’ve heard all of this before, and doesn’t leave much of an impression with the listener.

For her part, Eden has a good voice that falls somewhere in between LeAnn Rimes and Carly Pearce in its sound. While she gets a little raspy in the lower ranges of her vocals, her upper range is surprisingly strong, and she shows off both her flow and flexibility as the song jumps back and forth between rapid-fire and more-methodical lyrics. She does a great job owning the narrator’s role and making the song believable, but where Pearce succeeded in passing her pain onto the listener on “Every Little Thing,” Eden isn’t quite as effective at doing so here, and she draws a sympathetic reaction rather than truly moving the listener. Again, her performance isn’t bad (in fact, it’s probably the strongest part of the song), but it’s not enough to elevate the track to a more interesting level.

The writing here discusses the narrator’s plea for an ex to at least pretend to make a clean break for the good of both parties, and while it features some strong content, it feels pretty weak from a structural perspective. On one hand, the images are fairly vivid and specific (if a bit generic), and there are some sharp lines like “When I smell a stranger wearing your cologne/It’s like poison to me, yeah I can’t breathe.” On the other hand, however, it feels like half the lines on the song either have too many or too few words, forcing Eden to constantly adjust her flow to fit all the words in or cover the empty space. This pace inconsistency seen in both the lyrics and production seem to be the song’s biggest issue, as it keeps the song from establishing a constant rhythm and building energy as it goes along.

Overall, “Act Like You Don’t” is an inconsistent track that has all of the elements needed for a great song, but doesn’t pull them all together. Brooke Eden shows some flashes of future potential, but there’s an it factor she’s missing here, and she’ll need some stronger material and production backing her up to turn her promise into reality.

Rating: 5/10. You’re free to “Act Like You Don’t” need to hear this one.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Fix A Drink”

Honestly, how bad do things have to get before country singers set their beers down and actually do something about a problem?

Outside of 2015’s surprise hit “Buy Me A Boat” (#1 on Mediabase, #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart), Chris Janson has struggled to find radio traction in his career, with the five other singles he’s released since 2010 peaking at no higher than #20 (and most doing substantially worse). His latest attempt at relevance is “Fix A Drink,” the leadoff single from his upcoming second album, and while it might be a fun song for the moment, I wouldn’t consider it a very interesting or memorable track.

The production here is a standard country-rock mix with a little bit of Bro-Country tossed in. The melody is carried by electric guitars that squeal a bit more than your typical instrumentation, and while the drums are real, they give way to a synthetic-sounding beat during the first verse. There’s no traditional instruments here to speak of, and the overall sound bounces between a hip-hop cadence on the verses and a more-conventional country party track on the choruses. The bright tones of the guitars set a playful, carefree tone well-suited to the summer season.

I consider Janson to be a middle-of-the-pack vocalist in the country genre, and his vocals here are decent but not great. His delivery copies the verse/chorus switch of the production, as he spends the verses talk-singing as if he’s trying to channel Sam Hunt, and then switches to a run-of-the-mill delivery for the chorus. While Janson can sound a bit labored in his voice’s upper range, the song avoids this by keeping him squarely in the wheelhouse, letting his keep his voice low on the verses while not pushing him to jump too high on the chorus. Finally, Janson has a laid-back, easygoing vibe that makes him sound believable as a mixed-drink savant despite the fact that he gave up drinking years ago.

My issues with this song stem mostly from the songwriting, which unwisely advocates for inaction and shallow escapism as a response to adversity. (Adam Craig and Jon Pardi also fell into the same trap.) The narrator here counsels listeners to forget about all the negativity in the world, and instead just kick back, have a libation, and watch the world burn. The advice comes across as overly simplistic and even tone-deaf given the gravity of the problems currently facing the world (listening to this track in the wake of the Ariana Grande concert bombings feels wrong on every level). I didn’t think I’d ever hold up Old Dominion as a model for anything, but at least they offered a vague action plan for listeners when they tackled a similar topic on “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart.” Janson, in contrast, gives us nothing but a mixed drink to face the world with, and never acknowledges the fact that eventually the listen will have to deal with the problems that surround them. The rhyming and structure of the writing is actually pretty tight once you get past the bad advice it shills, and the production’s positive vibes and Janson’s charisma ensure that people will enjoy the song, but for me, the shallow ignorance of the song’s premise is a bit too large to paper over.

Overall, “Fix A Drink” is yet another entry in the longstanding series of “drinking your problems away” songs, and not a particularly compelling one at that. It’s a thin, shallow summer song that mostly harmless (and even kind of fun) which considered in a vacuum, but its message completely falls apart when reality butts in. I can’t fault Janson for not solving the world’s problems, but I will fault him for not even trying.

Rating: 5/10. There are better summer songs (“Winnebago,” “Outta Style”) that are more deserving of your attention.

Song Review: Lauren Alaina, “Doin’ Fine”

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it always makes for an interesting country song.

Lauren Alaina burst onto the scene as an American Idol runner-up back in 2011, but her moment in the spotlight seemed to pass quickly, as her first five singles failed to crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Luckily for Alaina, the sixth time turned out to be the charm, as her 2016 single “Road Less Traveled” got some traction on the radio and eventually became her first No. 1 song. Alaina is now looking to capitalize on her momentum with “Doin’ Fine,” the third single off of her Road Less Travelled album, and despite the crazy story contained within the song, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about her chances.

The production on “Doin’ Fine” feels very similar to “Road Less Traveled:” Both use a slow-rolling banjo and some restrained electric guitars to carry the melody (with some steel guitar in the background for flavor), and both follow a similar “sparse/restrained verses, loud/busy chorus” pattern. “Doin’ Fine” leans more on real drums than its predecessor (in fact, once you get past the opening you never notice the drum machine again), and while I think the change is a net positive, the drums are a bit too loud in the mix, and when the cymbals start crashing they drown out the rest of the instruments. Most importantly, however, “Doin’ Fine” cuts out many of the minor chords that “Road Less Traveled” relied on, establishing a more positive and uplifting tone than its predecessor (and that’s saying something, given that “Road Less Traveled” was a follow-your-dreams power anthem). The tone stands in contrast to the darker content of the writing (more on that later), giving the listener the sense that the clouds above the singer’s head are parting, and that despite what happened in the past, the future is looking bright. Setting a contrast like that can be risky, but this mix sticks the landing.

Alaina’s vocals are reminiscent of her fellow Idol alum Carrie Underwood, and while she can’t quite match the raw power of Underwood’s voice, she matches up well in nearly every other category. She demonstrates good range and a decent flow here, and despite some of the song’s crazier statements, Alaina is charismatic and believable enough to sell the song (of course, it helps that this song was co-written by Alaina and based on a true story). With country music facing its habitual dearth of female artists, Alaina’s is a voice that is both enjoyable and sorely needed.

Where the song stands out the most, is in the writing, as it gives us a glimpse into some of the craziness of Alaina’s upbringing. The opening line “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend” elicits the kind of “wait, what?” reaction that makes people pay attention, and while the imagery is a tad bit vague (and I wish Alaina had dived even deeper into her father’s demons and perhaps shed some light on where they originated from), the song still does a nice job of threading the needle between conveying the stark reality of Alaina’s world while also making clear that she’s dealing with it and is in a good place for the moment. It’s the sort of raw, honest take on the aftermath of a broken relationship that connects with listeners, especially when it’s paired with well-crafted production and a strong, earnest voice.

In short, “Doin’ Fine” is a great-sounding track that stands out from it peers and should make the most of the momentum Alaina earned from “Road Less Traveled.” If this track can replicate the success of its predecessor, Alaina may still have to deal with the legacy of her past, but her present and future will be looking mighty fine.

Rating: 7/10. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Song Review: Todd O’Neill, “Love Again”

The best way I can describe this song is to use an old Hee Haw skit:

“I crossed Chris Stapleton with Thomas Rhett!”

“What’d you get?”

“A generic Metropolitan track by some guy named Todd O’Neill!”

*fence board pops out and whacks speaker*

O’Neill received his big break last year when he won the Nash Next 2016 competition (yeah, I’d never heard of it either), earning himself “a major-label record deal with Big Machine Label Group as well as substantial radio play on Cumulus radio stations nationwide.” The latter part of this award is the most important here, as it got his official debut single “Love Again” just enough airplay to pop up on my radar screen. Unfortunately for O’Neill, the song is an attempt to modernize a Metropolitan track for today’s traditional-leaning radio climate, and it doesn’t quite stick the landing or stand out from the crowd.

The song’s R&B roots are most prevalent in the production, as the song is dominated by a slick-sounding electric guitar that brings to mind Drew Baldridge’s “Dance With Ya.” There’s no hint of fiddle, steel guitar, or anything else even remotely traditional, and while the song gets credit for using real drums to add some punch to the track, the guitar’s bright opening tones give way to a more-serious sound on the verses and chorus, contradicting the fun, uptempo vibe the rest of the song wants to set. Despite this, the track establishes a nice groove that connects with the listener and doesn’t wear out its welcome, even if I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not reaching its full potential.

O’Neill’s raspy voice falls into the Brett Young/Drake White/Chris Stapleton lane, and though he acquits himself fairly well, this lane is starting to get crowded, and he doesn’t really stand out from those other singers. His flow is good, and while he doesn’t get much of a chance to show off his range, the hints that do appear are promising (he gets fairly low on the bridge, and he capably climbs the ladder on a background “ooh-ooh” on the last chorus). However, O’Neill lacks the power of a Chris Stapleton or the sheer vocal charisma of a Brett Young, and while O’Neill sells the song well, he doesn’t quite do enough to distinguish himself from his more-famous peers. (It’s also worth noting that the harmony on this track isn’t great, as it just makes O’Neill voice sound washed-up and slightly garbled on the chorus.)

The writing itself focuses on the current and future effects that the narrator’s significant other has on the singer’s lifestyle, and it’s a mixed bag overall. While the idea of a person reorganizing their life for love is far from novel, the imagery used is refreshingly unique, with references to remodeling the narrator’s man cave and buying a motorcycle that can carry two people. (The standard Metropolitan objectification of women is mostly absent here as well, although the singer mentions that his love interest has a “whole lotta sexy when you move them hips.”) On the other hand, some of the lines are vague and lack the necessary context (it took me forever to realize that the “shopping for the cut that you like” line was about buying an engagement ring), and some of the rhyming is laughably bad (“ring” with “piece?” Seriously?). I would have also appreciated a bit more backstory about the whole “loving again” notion, as the lyrics give no clues about what made the singer hesitant to love in the first place. Is there a painful breakup in his past? Did tragedy strike a former love down prematurely? Unfortunately, the song has no answers.

In the end, “Love Again” isn’t an annoying or offensive song, but it’s not a memorable or interesting one either, which is about the worst thing a leadoff single can be. O’Neill deserves some kudos for becoming the Nash Next 2016 champion, but he wants to be anything more than that, he’s going to need some better writing and production to back him up.

Rating: 5/10. It’s okay, but don’t bother going out of your way to hear it.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Losing Sleep”

The song may be called “Losing Sleep,” but it’s really a warning about what happens when a song loses focus.

Chris Young took a fair bit of heat for his last album I’m Comin’ Over, as several critics found the project to be incredibly bland and generic. Young had the last laugh, however, as all three singles ended up topping the Billboard airplay charts (and the last of the three, “Sober Saturday Night,” wound up as one of my favorites songs of 2016). “Losing Sleep” is billed as the leadoff single for Young’s next album, and while it bears some similarities to Young’s last leadoff single “I’m Comin’ Over,” the song is not nearly as effective because it is confused as to what sort of song it’s supposed to be.

The primary offender is the production, which is of two minds here. The song opens with a slick-sounding electric guitar and some synthetic percussion, establishing a sensual atmosphere and positioning the song as a run-of-the-mill sex jam (and unlike a lot of sex jams I’ve reviewed, this one actually sounded sexy). Once the song hits the chorus, however, it suddenly cranks up the volume and energy levels, and the listener is suddenly hit with heavier (real) drums and louder, in-your-face guitars. The abrupt change completely ruins the mood set by the first verse, and instead makes the song sound like more of an uptempo country-rock jam. The pattern repeats itself on the second verse and chorus: the sexy atmosphere returns, and then gets squashed again. The bridge tries to split the difference by turning down the guitars a little, but by then the damage is done, and the listener has absolutely no idea what to make of the track. It feels like the song is trying to be two different things simultaneously, but it doesn’t wind up as much of either one, and leaves me feeling ambivalent about the whole thing by the end.

The writing here isn’t all that impressive either, as the lyrics (which describe the narrator’s desire to make love with his partner) feel vague and generic through most of the song:

Light a candle
Turn all the lights down low
Baby let’s just lose control, lose control

I can handle
Every single curve, you know
That I love you, let me show you

It’s not irritating or offensive by any means, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard it all before (and that “every single curve” line feels like a direct callback to Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road”). The main hook also feels a bit awkward, as the repeated “when we’re losing” phrase feels a bit out of place and adds more confusion to the mix than anything else. On the whole, the lyrics aren’t awful, but they’re not terribly interesting either.

The track’s one redeeming factor is Young himself, as he delivers yet another standout performance on this song. Young is inarguably one of the best singer in the genre today, and where the lyrics come off as bland by themselves, he does an impressive job of selling the story and adding a desperately-needed dose of emotion and sensuality. However, he also dutifully follows the production’s abrupt shift in tone on the chorus, further squandering the song’s potential as a sexy mood-setter. While he certainly sounds both excellent and believable in the narrator’s role, his vocal’s are not enough to salvage this song and leave a meaningful impression on his listeners.

Overall, “Losing Sleep” is a song that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, and thus it misses its chance to be much of anything. Had Chris Young and his team just picked a direction and stuck with it, this song could have had some real impact and personality, or at the very least could have been “I’m Comin’ Over, Part 2.” As it is, however, it’s a “jack of all trades, master of none” that succeeds at being just one thing: Forgettable.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t lose any sleep over this one—you’re not missing anything.

Song Review: Tyler Farr, “I Should Go To Church Sometime”

A wise man once said that “a man’s got to know his limitations.” Tyler Farr should have been taking notes.

Farr received his fifteen minutes of fame a few years ago, putting together a string of three straight top-five hits that was capped by 2014’s No. 1 hit “A Guy Walks Into A Bar.” His chart performance fell off a cliff after that song, however, and two of his last three singles failed to even crack the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart (and the third only made it to #26). “I Should Go To Church Sometime” appears to be slated as the second single from a new album (or perhaps the first single, if 2016’s #53-peaking “Our Town” is thrown in the trash), and frankly, I don’t see it making much more of an impact than the rest of Farr’s recent material.

The production here is mostly a standard country-rock mix, but with a few nods to the song’s religious underpinnings. The track opens with a quiet mixture of guitars (both acoustic and electric) and synthetic percussion, and then builds energy as it goes along by adding real drums and cranking up the guitars’ volume (so much so that it throws off the volume balance of the song). The piano stabs after the first verse do a nice job of adding weight to the “I should go to church sometime” lines, and the eventual inclusion of an organ and a choir of background vocals accentuate the song’s message of desired redemption, even if both are mostly overwhelmed by Farr’s vocals and the guitars. In short, the production is not the problem here.

The problem, unfortunately, is Tyler Farr himself, because he sounds terrible on this track. Much like we saw with Josh Turner’s latest single, this song is a really poor fit for Farr’s voice because it asks him to stray far outside of his comfort zone. The difference, however, is that Turner is actually a good vocalist who can put together a decent performance even when a song isn’t well-suited for him. Farr, in contrast, might be the weakest vocalist in the genre right now, and his raspy, labored delivery completely falls apart under this song’s weight. He handles the less-demanding verses pretty well, but the moment the song hits the chorus and asks him to pump up the volume and intensity, his tone disappears, his voice becomes shrill, and he struggles to hit the required notes—basically, he stops singing and starts screaming. Dropping the song’s key down a notch or two and reining in the production swell on the choruses might have helped here, but there’s only so much a producer can do when a performer just doesn’t have the chops to handle a song.

It’s a shame Farr can’t deliver the goods here, because the writing is actually pretty decent. The lyrics tell the tale of a man who is moved by the pain and suffering around him and feels he needs to pay more attention to his faith and become a better believer, starting by going to church more often. The song features some poignant lines like “wipe the dust off my bible more than once or twice a year,” and avoids being preachy by focusing on the narrator’s personal relationship with his faith rather than demanding that others follow his lead. While the scenes of despair are pretty generic (homeless man, kid dying young), it’s the kind of song that connects with listeners struggling with their own religious attitudes…until Farr hits the chorus and makes everyone’s ears start bleeding.

Overall, “I Should Go To Church Sometime” is a poorly-executed song that exposes Tyler Farr’s vocal limitations in the most painful way possible. In the hands of a power vocalist like Brett Eldredge or Chris Stapleton, this probably would have been a pleasant-yet-potent track, but with Farr behind the wheel, it’s just an earache that can’t finish fast enough. Farr and his team need to put a bit more effort into finding songs that he can actually sing the next time around.

Rating: 4/10. Spare your ears and skip this one.

Song Review: Josh Turner, “All About You”

Hey look, a Josh Turner sighting! But if this is the kind of material he’s come back to release, I’d have preferred that he stay missing.

Josh Turner’s first decade in country music was relatively successful, as he managed to achieve commercial success (four No. 1 hits and another two No. 2 hits) while maintaining a reputation as a staunch country traditionalist. Decade number two, however, has not been as kind: After his 2014 single “Lay Low” (which I thought was excellent, for what’s is worth) stalled at #25, Turner disappeared from the scene completely for nearly two years, prompting a lot of speculation (including from yours truly) as to why he had gone (or been forced) into hiding. When he re-emerged in 2016 with “Hometown Girl,” his sound was a bit more modern and trendy than I expected, and while the song eventually became peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it took almost an entire year to get there (and to add insult to injury, it was unceremoniously blocked from the top by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” and had to settle for a Mediabase #1). “All About You” is the third single off of Turner’s long-awaited album Deep South, and it features Turner becoming even more modern and trendy with his sound, with disastrous results.

The irony of Turner’s production update is that he only made it into the Bro-Country era, which is already starting to feel dated. The song opens with a prominent drum machine and a banjo that, unlike the one from High Valley’s “She’s With Me,” just screams “token country instrument.” A dobro jumps in to assist the banjo in between verses, and some real drums and electric guitars eventually join the mix, but the whole mix just feels it trying too hard to come across as down-home and “countrified,” and winds up feeling choppy and inauthentic. (To be honest, the dobro makes the track feel more sleazy than anything else.) Turner’s sound has always been grounded in traditional instrumentation (fiddle, steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and even some mandolin, none of which are present here), and this sort of modern production does not suit or flatter him at all. Frankly, it sounds more like a Florida-Georgia Line reject that Turner’s label forced him to record.

Vocally, “All About You” is about as poor a match for Turner’s voice as you could possibly get. His calling card has always been his rich, deep baritone, and he can comfortably reach depths that few other artists would even dare to attempt. This song, on the other hand, traps Turner exclusively in the upper portion of his range (save for a deep dive on the outro), making him sound almost generic as a result. While Turner’s a good-enough singer to make chicken salad out of this chicken you-know-what (his flow is pretty good, and he still comes across as believable in the narrator’s role), the song just isn’t compelling or interesting, and without his voice’s most potent quality, Turner is powerless to do anything about it.

I’ve never considered Turner to be much of a songwriter, but even he could have done a better job with the lyrics than what we ended up with:

I don’t care what we do, what we don’t girl
I’m just freaking digging living in your world
You got the hot, I gotta get next to
Where we go, where we get, how we get down
Don’t matter girl, as long as we’re getting around
Just messing around, baby ooh, baby ooh

While the track avoids the outright misogyny of most Bro-Country tracks and tries to empower the woman is references by saying “it’s all about you,” the sentiment rings a bit hollow next to lyrics like those posted above. Additionally, the phrasing in this song is beyond clumsy (see the bizarre “got the hot” line above), and the use of terms like “hillbilly” and “that there boy” come across as a desperate attempt to boost the singer’s country credentials by making them sounds backwoods and folksy. Oh, and for good measure they threw in a reference to writing an ooh-ooh-ooh “song,” which Thomas Rhett already did (and did a lot better). Seriously, MCA Nashville waited five years in between Turner’s album releases and couldn’t find songs any better than this?

Overall, “All About You” is a Josh Turner song that doesn’t sound anything like Josh Turner. It comes across as a poorly-conceived, half-baked attempt by Turner’s label to “update” his sound and image to fit a trend that’s already on its way out, and the fact that the current trend towards a more-traditional country sound would have fit Turner’s classic style perfectly makes it all the more frustrating when we end up getting garbage like this instead.

Josh Turner deserves better than this.

Rating: 3/10. Stay away from this one.