Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2022 Edition: Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Dylan Scott, Elle King & Dierks Bentley)

I haven’t been thrilled with the state of country radio in 2022, and while there have been some better songs introduced lately, there have also been a number of unremarkable soundalike tracks released more recently as well. With the end of the year fast approaching and my review backlog starting to grow, I think it’s time for another lightning round of reviews to cleanse the pallet and clear the slate as we head into the homestretch. YouTube is forever pushing creators to shorten their intros, so let’s follow their lead and get right into the content. Onwards!

Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, “Never ‘Til Now”

Cooke is a Florida native who developed a following on TikTok during the pandemic and leveraged it to score a record deal with Big Loud earlier this year. “Never ‘Til Now” was originally recorded as a Cooke solo, but because you can’t get on the airwaves without a collab these days, Brett Young was brought in to cover the second verse for the radio release. The song starts out with a self-portrait that’s piques the listener’s interest, but quickly pivots to a standard “didn’t think I’d find love until I found you” track that fails to hold the listener’s interest. Vocally, Cooke is a carbon copy of Kelsea Ballerini (with “HEARTFIRST” struggling, are they already trying to release KB?), but Ballerini has a knack for making songs feel personal and meaningful, and Cooke doesn’t quite get there with this track – it just feels like yet another song about unexpected love. (For Young’s part…well, there’s a reason this wasn’t a duet to begin with, and his performance here is utterly replaceable.) The sound suffers from the same issues: The acoustic guitar driving the melody at the start is decent, but it get overshadowed by some synths, strings, and a piano that feel a bit lightweight, and in the end the mix doesn’t create much of an atmosphere at all. I like some of the early lines in the writing, but it gets more and more predictable over time, and without the necessary emotion to move the listener, I wound up being pretty bored by this track. It’s not bad, but it’s not much of a debut either.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Jon Pardi, “Your Heart Or Mine”

The TL;DR of what’s admittedly a TL;DR review is that this is basically “After A Few” with heavier guitars, and no more interesting (in fact, I think I like Denning’s track better). I called out Pardi on “Last Night Lonely” for drifting back towards the mainstream with his sound and minimizing the fiddle-and-steel elements, and this trend continues on “Your Heart Or Mine.” The dominating instrument here is a raunchy hard-rock guitar that tries (and half-succeeds) to give the song a sensual feel, with the fiddle and steel guitar relegated to supporting riff duty. The dark tones and plentiful minor chords give the off-and-on romance an ominous feel, but Pardi doesn’t seem to be bothered by the situation at all—in fact, his vocals give us the impression that he’s enjoying all the sexual encounters, which makes him seem significantly more sleazy and significantly less endearing as a narrator. He’s asking questions about who’s responsible (“is it your heart or mine?”) but he doesn’t seem like he’s all that interested in the answer as long as the trend continues. As far as the writing, there’s nothing terrible clever or attention-grabbing here: The narrator and their partner are being drawn in an relationship that neither one can bring themselves to end because the sex is too darn hot, and that’s pretty much the story. (When they claim “we swear it ain’t love, love, love,” they’re trying to imply that it is love, but given that there’s nothing else to this pairing besides getting it on, I actually take them at their word: This is pure lust, and nothing more.) In the end, this one’s kind of a nothingburger to me, and should get tossed into the bin with all the other mediocre country sex jams Nashville keeps dumping on us.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Dylan Scott, “Can’t Have Mine (Find You A Girl)”

This is one of those songs that uses a lot of words but doesn’t actually have that much to say. “Find You A Girl” ought to be the actual title instead of a parenthetical, because that’s really all the song says: It brings to mind a bad Dr. Seuss book: Find a girl on a date, find a girl who is late, find a girl who is wild, find a girl who wants a child, in a box, with a fox, etc. The whole thing puts the listener to sleep by the second verse, and the production doesn’t help matters with its relaxed tempo, limp guitars, and punchless drums. I get that’s trying to create a soft, positive vibe, but it overshoots the mark and winds up feeling so laid-back that it encourages the listener to disengage and fail to absorb (or care about) the message. (There are a few rapid-fire moments that try to inject a little energy in the track, but they just feel kind of jarring and don’t actually add anything to the song, and only make the listener feel like the writers were just trying to cram too many syllables into a line.) The only thing weaker than the sound is the “can’t have mine” hook, which feels like a bolted-on aftermarket part that barely ties back to the rest of the song at all. Scott’s performance is similarly meh: You can feel his affection towards his partner and that he’d like everyone to find the happiness that he has, but he doesn’t sell his idea of paradise very well, and the writing doesn’t help matters by never discussing the narrator’s own relationship directly (all we get is “I got so lucky”). It is what it is, and what it is isn’t much, unless you’re looking for a drug-free, non-habit-forming sleep aid.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzz…

Elle King & Dierks Bentley, “Worth A Shot”

King was featured on Bentley’s “Different For Girls” back in 2016, and six years later Bentley is repaying the favor by backing King on her latest single “Worth A Shot.” Frankly, the premise of this song annoys me to no end: The two speakers have a relationship that appears to be on the way out, and they need to find a way to reconnect and repair the connection…so they decide to get wasted together and see what happens. Could country music please give up this charade around alcohol being a cure-all for everything? It’s a substance that tends to make situations like these worse rather than better, and everything that they want to do (“say what we need to say,” “get our pride out of the way,” even “lose our inhibitions”) could be done without involving inebriation. To its credit, the song at least feels more like a duet than “Never ‘Til Now” did, but I question just how much chemistry these artists have: Bentley is barely audible when the pair sings together, so much so that it feel like an intentional production decision (which seems like a bizarre choice, since there’s no way Bentley could overwhelm King the way, say, Jordin Sparks would have overwhelmed Thomas Rhett on “Playing With Fire”). Speaking of production, we get a guitar-and-drum mix that feels a bit too slick on the verses and then roughs up the sound slightly with some harder electric axes on the chorus. The resulting vibe feels surprisingly upbeat and even a little celebratory at times, which feels like an awkward fit for a song trying to get a rocky relationship back on course. In the end, this is a story that I’m not interested in hearing about people drinking themselves into oblivion in an attempt to bring them back together, and if that’s what it takes to make a relationship work, maybe this pair is better off going their separate ways.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth a shot.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2021 Edition, Side B)

The train for the Korner’s year-end lists leaves tonight, and if a song hasn’t gotten a ticket/review by then, it won’t make it to the list in time! This means that songs have one shot, one opportunity to seize everything they ever wanted. So will they capture it, or will they let it slip? Let’s find out…

Walker Hayes, “AA”

All the viral success in the world can’t hide the fact that Hayes is a really poor excuse for an artist, and “AA” merely confirms this point. The song tries to make light of life’s common hardships and strike a “laugh to keep from crying” tone to signal solidarity with the working class, but between the slick synthetic beat, the guitars marinated in audio effects, Hayes’s raspy, toneless voice, and his utter lack of charisma (hearing him try to sell himself as “just another John Deere guy” is not only unbelievable, it’s downright laughable), the song completely fails to connect with its intended audience. As a result, the upbeat sound clashes badly with the gloomy lyrics (which are hit-and-miss at best—the oil-changing lines are okay, the pointless Nick Saban reference is not, and the “keep my daughters off the pole” line is just awkward), and the song winds up as a failed attempt at pandering, feeling neither believable nor relatable. It’s not easy making that common-man connection as Alabama does in “Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’),” and Hayes doesn’t even come close here.

Rating: 4/10. We all should try to avoid songs like this.

Brett Young, “You Didn’t”

Five years ago Young looked like the future of country music, but these days he’s scrambling just to remain part of the genre’s present. This song was released a while ago, and I was wondering why it wasn’t finding any traction on the radio. Now that I’ve heard it, I think I see what happened: Country music is drowning in tracks where unlikeable dudebros make pushy demands to be liked or cling to long-lost romances for way too long, and Young bucks the trend by doing the exact opposite. The narrator admits that the relationship it over, casts no blame on anyone, and tries to act in the best interest of the other person, and while a weaker vocalist would fall on their face trying to sell that last part, Young pulls out his best impression of another Brett (Eldredge), and while he doesn’t quite reach BE’s level, he does more than enough to make the narrator feel genuine and believable. The slick guitars and mix of real and synthetic permission give the song a slightly-sensual feel (honestly, this comes closer to being a sex jam then some actual country sex jams), and while the steel guitar doesn’t get a ton of screen time, it provides some nice accents for the arrangement. This feels like a return to form for Young after his more-generic Ticket To L.A. singles, and I will happily take it.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth taking a chance on hearing.

Old Dominion, “No Hard Feelings”

…Wait, didn’t I just review this song? After the nihilistic tire fire that was “I Was On A Boat That Day,” Old Dominion has returned to their senses, and take the Brett Young approach to approaching a failed relationship. This takes a slightly different approach than “You Didn’t”: For one thing, the vibe is much more springy and upbeat, with bright acoustic guitars and light-touch, improvised-sounding production (are those wood blocks, glass bottles, or something metallic?), and even some swelling bass notes all anchoring the production. The narrator achieves believabilty through a) lead singer Matthew Ramsey putting a spring in his step and matching the positive atmosphere of the sound, and b) by being honest about how much the breakup affected them initially: They were mad, they got drunk, and they’d still rather be together than not, but they worked through their grief and eventually came to the same conclusion that Young does (i.e. what makes the other person happy makes the narrator happy too). Old Dominion is much better when they try to be more thoughtful in their work, and here’s hoping they stay sober and off of that boat for a while.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the turntable.

Ingrid Andress & Sam Hunt, “Wishful Drinking”

Sadly, we close out the year with a pair doing some delusional “wishful drinking,” and it’s no more interesting than Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson’s recent failed attempt at closure. In contrast to Swindell/Wilson’s more-fiery take on the scenario, this one takes a smoother, more-pop-infused approach, with its prominent snap track and synthetic beat and its overall minimalist approach (less loud, less busy arrangement, using a dobro to drive the melody instead of harder guitars), and while I think this approach is the more effective of the two (I’d also argue that Andress & Hunt have better vocal chemistry), it still doesn’t help make the story any more interesting or compelling. There’s too much alcohol and not enough detail here: We don’t get any sense of the relationship that was lost, so the listener is forced to fill in the gaps will all the things the pair misses about each other, and in the end the benders accomplish nothing of purpose or interest. (Unlike the Swindell/Wilson track, you don’t even get the sense that the narrators made out or even met up at the end of the night; they might as well be on opposite sides of the world.) It’s more of a boring song than a bad one, and if teaming up with Hunt is the only way to get Andress more time on the airwaves, I suppose I’ll just have to put up with it for now.

Rating: 5/10. Both Andress and Hunt have better songs that are more worthy of your time.

Song Review: Brett Young, “Not Yet”

Do we have any idea what Brett Young’s standing in country music is? “Not Yet.”

By the numbers, Young’s career is off to an incredible start, with all seven of his single releases reaching #1 (although “Sleep Without You” was a Mediabase-only chart-topper). What that actually means, however, is a different story: #1 songs are not that hard to come by (especially for products off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line), and Young’s tracks haven’t exactly steamrolled their competition (“Catch” took about 10 months to top Billboard’s airplay chart, “Lady” took nearly a year, and Young has never topped the Hot Country Singles chart, as “In Case You Didn’t Know” was eclipsed by the Summer of Sam Hunt). I’ve generally liked Young’s work, but I wouldn’t call him one of the genre’s leading stars, and my concern has grown as his style has drifted away from its “Cali-ville” roots towards the more-generic Boyfriend movement over time. “Not Yet,” however, is a slight step back from the edge (at least in its presentation), and while the writing is nothing to write home about, the song feels like an ever-so-slight attempt to reposition Young in the current landscape, trying to find a niche in the middle in a sea of mediocrity.

The production here feels more reminiscent of Brett Young than Ticket To L.A. or “Lady,” for two reasons:

  • The basic elements of the arrangement are nothing special (it’s the same guitar-drum-keyboard setup everyone else is using), but the focus seems to be more on the acoustic elements The acoustic guitar is much more prominent on the verses, and Young’s usual drum machine is completely replaced by a real drum set (which goes sticks-only for the first verse!). Yes, the mix returns to more-conventional territory on the choruses, but even then…
  • Rather the the hyper-polished feel of “Lady,” this mix has a rougher feel: The audio effects are removed, the electric guitars has some actual texture, and the both the guitars and drums seem a bit louder and more in-your-face than usual. The overall feel is one of raw, unrestrained exuberance, as if the producer decided to take a step back and let the session players turn it loose.

The result is a song that really captures the enjoyment and anticipation of being together with someone you love: The moment may pass, but it hasn’t passed yet, and the mix gives you the sense that the narrator and their partner are going to enjoy this time to the fullest while they have it. There’s an energetic vibe here that calls back to “Sleep Without You,” and overall it does a great job supporting the subject matter and driving home Young’s message.

Young is a charismatic presence who’s at his best singing happy love songs like this one, and he delivers a predictably solid performance here. The song presents few technical challenges, but it demands that the artist be up on the mic at times, delivering the necessary enthusiasm and optimism to sell the story to the audience. These demands, however, pose no issue for Young: He is a ball of excitement here, barely dwelling on the negatives and delivering the choruses with gusto. (There’s a bit of effective strain in the vocals to indicate the effort Young’s putting in, which enhances rather than detracts from the message.) He is all in on the narrator’s role, and he brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the part that the listener can’t help but believe him. What really sets Young apart from his competition is his easy (perhaps even excessive) charm: Where lesser artists would have dropped the ball and come across as a shallow meathead looking for a cheap thrill, there’s something about Young’s delivery that convinces you he’s in this for the long haul, and truly committed to the person he’s with. There’s a reason Young is 7-for-7 on #1 singles, and the way he delivers the goods here means there’s a good chance he goes 8for-8.

If there’s anything that’s holding Young back, it’s the mediocre-to-awful writing he keeps getting stuck with, and while he’s gotten pretty good at elevating such songs (there is no reason for “Catch” to work as well as it did), it a sign that he might want to stop relying on his co-writers and find more outside material for his albums going forward. The premise here is that the narrator and their partner are spending a romantic evening together, and while the narrator knows that it won’t last forever, they’re determined to make the most of the time they had (it’ll end eventually, “but not yet, no, not yet”). It’s a fairly weak hook, and we spend most of the song going over all of the ways the eventual end will be marked (the moon will set, the alcohol will run out, they’re “gonna run out of excuses to not go to sleep”) and the many run-of-the-mill things the pair still has plenty of (kisses, times taking away the narrator’s breath or driving them wild, etc.). Instead of describing the scene and getting the audience wrapped up in the moment, we get an uninteresting list that’s just kind of there, making the song overly reliant on Young and the producer’s efforts to add the necessary feeling and energy. Young isn’t an A-lister yet, but spending some V-bucks to upgrade his material would go a long way towards getting him there.

“Not Yet” is a forgettable song that is elevated to the realm of “okay” through its execution—specifically, through a strong, emotive performance from Brett Young and an effervescent sound to back him. While the track will be a welcome upgrade to the airwaves, it also makes me frustrated with the way Nashville does business: Instead of, you know, investing in ways to help their artists improve and make them better, they invest in things that will inflate coveted-but-artificial metrics of success such as their chart-topping single count. Young is a talented artist that has the ability to break into the Bryan/Aldean/Rhett orbit of stardom (maybe not the Thanos orbit though; that dude remains on another level right now), but his team is not taking the right steps to get him there, and that’s a shame. Hopefully this changes, or someday Young and his audience may be left wondering what might have been.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the Victrola to see what you think.

Song Review: Brett Young, “Lady”

I’m confused: Exactly which “Lady” is this song directed at?

For a guy who’s started his major-label career with six consecutive No. 1 singles (“Sleep Without You” wound up as a Mediabase-only #1), Brett Young has surprisingly little hype or buzz to his name (for comparison, Thanos only has only one more #1, yet has been the king of country music for a while now). Despite having the perfect single to release in our troubled times, Young and Big Machine decided to close the book on the Ticket To L.A. era (too bad; the title track would have made for a decent single too) and bring out a fresh serving of music in the form of “Lady,” the presumed leadoff single for Young’s next project. It’s a decent song that’s tries to sell itself as an ode to his newborn daughter, but the song seems far more centered on the mother than the child, making it feel like a low-key Boyfriend country track in disguise. It’s okay, but I still think dropping “Don’t Wanna Write This Song” would have been a better choice.

The vaunted “Caliville” sound from Young’s debut disc had already started to fade into a generic Metropolitan ballad on Ticket To L.A., and that trend continues on “Lady.” The track opens with a sound of a heartbeat from an ultrasound machine (which doesn’t match the song’s tempo and honestly doesn’t add anything to the track) before giving way to the serious piano that drives the melody the rest of the way. Said piano is backed by the predictable string section and a restrained percussion line that appears to blend real and synthetic instruments, with some electric guitars tossed in by the first chorus to offer a few random stabs and a solo that mostly just exists. It’s got a spacious and serious vibe that fits the subject matter fairly well, and it generates just enough energy to keep from bogging down, but it also feels like I’ve heard this mix a million times before, and there’s nothing here that really grabs the listener’s attention. It’s okay, but it’s nothing special.

Young is a talented and charismatic performer (and he was the only thing keeping “Catch” from falling into the gutter), but he doesn’t quite nail the balancing act between mother and child here. Technically speaking, Young delivers an easy, effortless performance that easily covers the minimal range, flow, and power demands of the track, but it’s the emotional side of the song that feels a little out of sorts. One one hand, Young is believable in the narrator’s role, he certainly seems to care about both women in the song, and he does a nice job subtly referencing his own fears and insecurities as a father as he goes along. On the other hand, he gushes over his partner so darn much that the kid kind of gets lost in the shuffle and the song starts to feel like one of those sleazy Boyfriend tracks where the guy just won’t leave the girl alone. Despite the commitment the parents obviously have to each other and their daughter, Young’s performance sticks so close to the Boyfriend lane that the listener really feel that commitment in the vocals. Once again, this falls into the good-but-not-great category, and doesn’t quite live up to the song’s potential.

There’s an old saying that if you’re try to do two things you really end up doing neither (Exhibit A: this country music and Nintendo blog), but that’s only if you devote equal time and attention to each thing. That’s definitely not what happens with these lyrics (or this blog, for that matter): The narrator gives us a brief glimpse at the ultrasound before spending the rest of the song gushing over the mother, going on and on about her patience and her tear-drying abilities and how “She’ll hear you, she’ll hold you, she’ll help you through”… I mean, that’s great and all, but it’s so over-the-top that you forget that the baby even exists. (Also, I’m a little wary about the way the narrator’s minimizes their own role in this process: I get that you’re afraid that you’ll suck as a parent, but nevertheless you do have a role to playas good as the mother is, she can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything!) Most songs is this vein try to visualize who the baby will be and all the things they’ll do in life (think Brad Paisley’s “Anything Like Me”), but here the daughter is nothing more than a vehicle for the father to highlight the mother’s amazingness. The sheer one-sidedness of the writing makes the listener question just who this song is actually supposed to be a tribute for.

“Lady” boils down to a solid premise with relatively poor execution: The sound is cookie-cutter and indistinguishable, the writing deifies the mother at the expense of the child, and Brett Young comes across as just another Boyfriend country artist singing the praises of his beloved. Despite all this, the song still qualifies as the best thing I’ve heard in over a month, and if it’s really a Boyfriend country song in disguise, it’s one of the best songs that trend has ever produced. Still, my expectations for Young are a bit higher, and after hearing this, I’m concerned that album #3 won’t be any more impactful on country music than Ticket To L.A. was. It’s not bad, but it could have been a lot better.

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

Song Review: Brett Young, “Catch”

If only Brett Young could “Catch” some better material.

I found Young’s sophomore album Ticket To L.A. to be a bit weaker than his self-titled debut disc, and after “Here Tonight” spent multiple weeks at No. 1, I didn’t see an obvious choice on Ticket To L.A. for a follow-up single (the title track? “Where You Want Me”? Maybe “Chapters” with Gaven DeGraw?). For Young and his team, the answer they settled on was “Catch,” and frankly, Big Machine is darned lucky that Young is as talented as he is, because this song wouldn’t stand on its own. The track is a “hey, I randomly bumped into my soulmate and I’m going to chase after them” creepfest along the lines of Jimmie Allen’s “Make Me Want To” (Chris Young’s questionable “Aw Naw” comes to mind as well), and it’s a credit to Brett Young that he not only manages to keep the song out of the gutter, but makes it feel inoffensive and earnest, if not terribly memorable.

In contrast to “Here Tonight,” “Catch” runs a bit closer to the original “Caliville” style that defined Young’s debut album. The song features the same deft balance of acoustic and synthetic elements that “Sleep Without You” and “In Case You Didn’t Know” had, leaning on an acoustic guitar and a subdued mix of real and fake percussion, adding a few spacious synth swells in the background to give the song a spacious feel. (A few extra elements get some space to breathe later in the mix, such as a clean electric guitar on the pre-bridge solo and a string section on the bridge proper. Heck, even a mandolin shows up to open the final chorus!) The brighter instrumentation meshes well with the narrator’s sudden elation at finding the perfect partner, and the slower tempo and softer sound add some emotional heft to the writing (while also keeping the drum machine from annoying the audience). That said, the result is the sort of light, inoffensive pop-country sound that blends in a little too well with everything else on the radio, and it doesn’t register as anything too exciting in the listener’s mind. I’d call it a no-op overall, as it’s neither terribly good nor terribly bad.

I’m calling an audible and jumping to the lyrics, because as clever as they might be, I really don’t like them. The narrator starts by claiming they were just out to decompress and go out with friends…

But then I saw your face
Now you got me trying to
Catch your eye, catch your name
Catch a spark and start a flame
The way you’re smilin’, I can’t help myself
Girl you got me trying to catch my breath

While I do like the way the “catch” phrase was worked into the chorus in various ways, it doesn’t obscure the fact that this narrator is just another pushy meathead who spots a women and just has to have her in his arms. Never mind what the other person wants or thinks; the stars have aligned for the speaker, so the chase is on. In a vacuum, this sort of attitude calls everything the narrator says into question: Were they really just out to “catch a buzz, catch a game, catch up with the boys”? Did this other person really “[mess] up all [their] plans”? And just how deep is this sudden devotion anyway: Is it really love, or will it only cover a one-night stand? The song doesn’t explicitly address this last question, but given the narrator’s aggressive behavior and the amount of sleazy songs in this vein I’ve heard in the last few years, I’d bet on the latter over the former. Simply put, this track is neither wholesome nor well-written, and I’m not impressed with its message.

So with objectionable writing like this, why am I not immediately exiling this track to sonic purgatory? The answer lies in the artist: Brett Young is one of the smoothest operators in country music, and much like Darius Rucker on “For The First Time,” Young surgically drains all the sleaze out of the song with his earnest charm and his incredible charisma. The song fits well within his range and doesn’t strain his flow, but it’s the honest and genuine feel of his vocals that fills in the many cracks in the writing and elevates the song to a respectable level. The highest compliment I can pay him here is that despite twenty or so spins of the song, I really didn’t notice the issues with the narrator or the similarities to other not-so-highly-rated songs until I really started digging into the lyrics. Yes, the song isn’t terribly novel or memorable, and the words tend to flow in one ear and out the other, but I have to tip my hat to Young here: He takes a song that has no right to be listenable and actually makes it enjoyable.

“Catch” is best described as an averted train wreck, with only the sheer force of Brett Young’s talent standing between the track and the garbage can. With such poor writing and unremarkable production, the fact that this even resembles a decent listen is a minor miracle, and makes the outlook for Young’s future in the genre even brighter. His debut album demonstrated how far he could go with good songs backing him, but this shows that he can take even a mediocre track a long way.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a shot and see what you think.

Song Review: Brett Young: “Here Tonight”

Yes, it’s lightweight and mainstream, but Brett Young doing “lightweight and mainstream” is better than most singers doing anything else.

Young was a revelation when he showed up in 2016 with “Sleep Without You,” and his self-titled debut album surpassed everyone’s expectations: Forget the four #1 singles (three Billboard, 1 Mediabase), the dude scored two Top 30 hits on the Hot 100 (neither topped the Hot Country Singles chart, however, because they were blocked by Sam Hunt and Bebe Rexha). All good things must come to an end, however, and now Young is preparing to launch his follow-up album Ticket To L.A. with his latest single “Here Tonight.” By the standards of the genre, it’s a pretty decent track, but Young set a high bar for himself with Brett Young, and the sound and subject here feel just a shade too conventional to allow him to clear it.

A lot of good things from Young’s first album carry over to “Here Tonight”: The inclusion of classical-but-oft-forgotten instruments like the dobro, and the well-balanced mix of real and synthetic percussion (none of which jumps in at all until the first chorus), and above all the understated tone that compliments the song’s emotion perfectly, capturing the uncertainty of the night ending on the verses and the happiness of staying “here together” for a while on the choruses. What I miss, however, is the acoustic foundation from Young’s previous singles, as a clean electric guitar and bass take the lead here. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the instruments give the track a spacious, energetic feel that really envelops the listener, but I can’t shake just how run-of-the-mill this sound is, and how much it reminds me of everything else on the radio. In theory this song should give us a hint of how the rest of the album will sound, so I would describe my feelings about this right now as “mildly concerned.”

Young’s easy, earnest delivery opened a lot of eyes when he came on the scene, and he throws down another solid performance here. “Here Tonight” is one of those feeling-driven tracks whose demands are more emotional than technical: Its range and flow requirements aren’t exactly strenuous, but connecting with the listener and allowing them to share in the song’s atmosphere is paramount to its success. For Young, this is a piece of cake: “In case you didn’t know,” romantic ballads are squarely in his wheelhouse, and he makes the narrator’s request to share a romantic moment for a few more minutes feel as heartfelt and genuine as anyone could. The lyrics leave the door open for the narrator’s request to feel forced and one-sided (for all we know, this could be a spontaneous request), but Young makes the passion feel natural and shared, and gives the listener no reason to question his intentions. There will never be another Conway Twitty in this business, but Young’s doing a darn good impression of him on this tune.

The lyrics here feel a bit more generic than I was hoping to hear. The narrator declares that he’s getting lost in the beauty of whoever’s he talking to, and proclaims that he’s open to ignoring the rest of the world for a while and letting the current romantic mood linger as long as it can (when he says “let’s just stay here tonight,” he’s talking about the emotion of the moment as much as the physical location). It’s got just enough detail to allow the listener to picture the scene, but honestly the story feels like the same old, same old to me: Same night sky, same passionate kiss, same old ‘only this matters’ plotline. On the plus side, there’s nothing overtly off-putting about it (no boorish remarks, no pushy attitude), and what openings that the song leaves for such interpretation are thoroughly papered over by Young’s charisma. It’s a perfectly reasonable track whose lyrics are light and fluffy enough to be carried along by the emotion provided by the sound and singer, but it’s just not as interesting to me as his prior work.

For a lot of other singers, “Here Tonight” would be a really positive step. Brett Young, however, set an incredibly high standard with his previous singles (with most of his first album, actually), and so I’m a little sad to see him adopt a more-mainstream posture with his sound and writing this time around. It’s still a decent song with plenty of emotion and energy, so I wouldn’t be too worried about how his next album will turn out, but for now I’m lowering my expectations a notch or two.

Rating: 6/10. Try it yourself and see what you think.

Song Review: Brett Young, “Mercy”

Is Brett Young sad about a relationship ending, or sad that it keeps dragging on? With a delivery like his, it doesn’t really matter.

While Young’s last single “Like I Loved You” was technically a success (#1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, cracked the Top 50 on the Hot 100), it was a noticeable downgrade in both quality and chart performance from the  massive hit that was “In Case You Didn’t Know,” and seemed to squander a sizable chunk of Young’s momentum. Now, he’s looking to recapture some of that lost buzz with “Mercy,” the fourth (and likely last) single off of his self-titled debut album. For the most part, the song does its job: It lacks lyrical clarity, but there’s enough emotion here to pull in listeners and make them sympathize with Young’s plight.

If there’s one instrument that’s experiencing a renaissance in country music, it’s the piano: Not only does it seem to be a standard background instrument on every new track, it’s now popping up as the primary melody-carrier more often (see: Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” Jillian Jacqueline’s “Reasons,” etc.). On “Mercy,” it’s pretty much the only instrument you hear the entire track: There’s some stray acoustic guitar strumming and a few bass drum shots, and some synthetic-sounding swells get pumped into the background, but otherwise it’s just the vocals and the piano. It’s a sparse arrangement that feels anything but sparse, as the somber, spacious instruments and frequent minor chords create a sad, emotional atmosphere that forges a strong connection with the listener and really makes them feel the narrator’s pain. It’s an incredibly effective mix that demonstrates how less really can be more.

While I still consider Brett Eldredge to be the most talented vocalist in country music right now, I’m starting to think that Young can do Eldredge better than Eldredge himself! Young’s delivery on “Mercy” is just awe-inspiring, as it feels so easy and effortless yet generates so much raw vocal power. The man is so charismatic and believable that not only can he effectively transmit his emotion to the listener and make them empathize with his plight, he can do so even when the lyrics leave an opening to question the narrator’s motives (more on that later). Furthermore, the song helps Young’s cause by ditching the whiny, mansplaining narrator of “Like I Loved You” for an aching, anger-free narrator that’s much easier to sympathize with. Add it all up, and it’s one of the most impressive vocal performances in a long while.

The lyrics are where a few cracks began to appear in the facade, leaving the door open for listeners to question whether the situation is as black and white as it appears. For the most part, this is a softer version of Brothers Osborne’s “Shoot Me Straight,” where the narrator laments how their partner is dragging out a relationship that obviously isn’t working and asks them to “have mercy” by just ending things. However, while the narrator’s opinion seems to be quite clear and unbending, there are a few lines thrown in (for example, “Why you wanna stop this flame if it’s still burning”) that indicate the narrator is just as conflicted about the relationship as their partner is. This leaves the listener a bit confused: Is the narrator sad that the relationship is dragging on, or are they sad that the relationship might be ending? Whereas a song like Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown” acknowledged this duality and addressed it in his plea to end the relationship, “Mercy” just kind of leaves the thought hanging and doesn’t offer any resolution. While it winds up being a minor nit that Young and his producer drown in a sea of emotion, it’s something I wish the writers had done a better job addressing.

Overall, “Mercy” is a welcome return to form by Brett Young, as the vocals and production easily overcome any issues the writing might have to leave a lasting impression on its listeners. While I will forever mourn the fact that “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me” was never released as a single, I’d still call this a satisfactory end to the Brett Young era, and I’m excited to see where Young goes from here.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

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: Brett Young, “In Case You Didn’t Know”

Does Brett Young have a hype train yet? ‘Cause if he does, I’d like to buy a ticket.

I’ve noticed a real influx of soul into the country genre lately, with several impressive crooners fighting their way into the spotlight (Brett Eldredge, Chris Stapleton, Drake White) and other non-soulful singers releasing slow-groove tracks to jump on the trend (Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’y Your Color,” for example). Young is the latest example of the former category, but his debut #2 hit “Sleep Without You” had more of a Metropolitan sound to it than a slow, sexy vibe. “In Case You Didn’t Know,” on the other hand, shows Young embracing the soul train wholeheartedly, with impressive results.

The production on this track is surprisingly minimal and even-more-surprisingly acoustically-based, with the melody being driven (and driven well) by…a dobro?! When was the last time a dobro got to do anything this extensive on mainstream radio. The combination of the dobro, piano, and drums set a relaxing-yet-sensual mood for the song, and provide just enough energy to keep the song from feeling slow or plodding. The one critique I have here is that the synthetic beats used feel jarring and out of place amidst all the real instruments.

Thematically, “In Case You Didn’t Know” is reminiscent of Toby Keith’s “Me Too,” where the singer talks about his struggle to convey his feelings to their partner. However, unlike Keith’s song, where the singer has to piggyback off of their partner’s words to express their emotion, the singer here show the strength and maturity to overcome their reticence and tell their partner exactly how they feel. The lyrics are the usual touchy-feely stuff, but they’re more about emotional needs and not the literal touching and feeling that we’ve come to expect from modern country songs.

Young himself has a soulful voice more along the lines of Eldredge than Stapleton and White, and his songs seem to have a more modern vibe than the retro stylings of the latter two singers. He exhibits enough charisma to sell what he’s singing, and his vocal tones enhance the romantic tone of the song immensely. He seems to be building a ‘sensual but thoughtful’ image will his material that meshes well the ‘sexy hunk’ image his management team seems to want to build. (Granted, I haven’t listened to the rest of Young’s EP, but you can bet I’ll be reviewing his debut album when it drops in February.)

Overall, “In Case You Didn’t Know” is a fantastic song, and only makes me more interested in hearing more from Brett Young. He just missed #1 on the Billboard charts with “Sleep Without You,” but I’ll bet this song will pick up where “Sleep” left off, grab that #1 slot, and build even more momentum for Young’s upcoming album.

Rating: 8/10. Definitely give this song a listen.

Post-Thanksgiving Music Recommendations

My current policy on music reviews is that I only review country singles that are “new”—that is, they have either just been announced and/or released as single, or have recently debuted on the Mediabase charts. However, that means that anything that doesn’t fit this criteria (or fit this criteria two months ago, but not since the blog started) gets ignored, so I decided to highlight some of the best stuff.

Chris Young feat. Vince Gill, “Sober Saturday Night”: For an album that was criticized as sterile and generic when it came out, I’m Comin’ Over has done pretty well for itself, with its first two single becoming No. 1 hits. Single #3 is “Sober Saturday Night,” and honestly, it might be the best one yet. It’s a nice twist on the “drinking to forget” trope commonly found in country music, and Young’s emotive performance meshes perfectly with the melancholy tone of the music. My only complaint: Gill is criminally underused on this track. Can a song really “feature” an artist if they’re relegated to singing barely-noticeable harmony vocals? They could have at least let Gill throw in a cool guitar solo or something…

Easton Corbin, “Are You With Me”: This song has about as unique a history as you’ll ever find: Originally an album cut on Corbin’s 2012 disc All Over The Road, the song became a surprise worldwide smash due via a remix by Belgian DJ Lost Frequencies, moving Corbin’s team to include the original song on their 2014 album About To Get Real, and even release a slightly-edited version as a single earlier this year. Neither the single nor the remix made much of a splash of the US charts, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a great song featuring minimal-but-spot-on production and Corbin’s George-Strait-like delivery.

Chris Jansen, “Holdin’ Her”: Is this really the same guy who wrote “Truck Yeah” and took “Buy Me A Boat” to No. 1? In a sudden pivot towards more-traditional country, Jansen released an autobiographical ode to the special women in his life. The production is classic country, the delivery is solid, and the sentiment will bring a tear to your eye. This may be the best song on the radio right now.

Josh Turner, “Lay Low”: No, Josh will never be the next Randy Travis, but he’s still a darn good singer with some decent material in his catalog. “Lay Low” was supposed to be the leadoff single to his yet-to-be-released new album, but the song flopped on radio and Turner was subsequently put in mothballs for almost two years. It’s a crying shame, given the song’s stellar instrumentation and calm, relaxing mood. Turner has one of the best voices on country radio, and this song is him at his best.

Brett Young, “Sleep Without You”: I haven’t been impressed with the majority of new faces in the genre, but I’m cautiously optimistic about Brett Young after hearing “Sleep Without You.” The production is more contemporary than the other songs on this list, but it has a nice acoustic foundation and mixes together surprisingly well. Similarly, Young’s delivery is a notch below the other singers on this list, but he stays within his vocal range and does a good job of making the song sound believable. Finally, while there’s some underlying insecurity in the narrator’s insistence that he’s cool with his girl going out without him, it’s nice change of pace from the “girl as the shiny object in my truck” songs that permeated the Bro-Country era. The song is on track to top the country charts soon, and I’m genuinely curious to see how high Young’s ceiling is.

Bonus Rec: Levar Allen, “Take On The World”: Take a minute to appreciate what Allen’s done here: He’s remixed themes from Super Mario World into a solid backing track, written a clever Mario-themed rap to throw on top of his mix, delivered a stellar vocal performance with excellent tone and flow, and then threw in a custom guitar solo to top it off. This is some very impressive work, and it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.