Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2021 Edition)

With the end of the year approaching and song reviews being some of the least-interesting posts that I make, it’s time to take a wider view of the genre and try to cover our bases for the end-of-year lists coming next month. I think the genre has improved slightly overall from the bland soundalike tracks we got for most of the year, but if the Pulse scores are any indication, there’s still a lot of uninteresting junk flooding the airwaves right now. So how does our latest crop of singles fare? Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch:

Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me”

This song has dominated the Hot 100 basically since it arrived on the scene, and bringing in Chris Stapleton seems like a dream pairing of two of the best power vocalists in the business today…so why is my reaction to it so muted? Part of it is that the writing here is surprisingly weak and vague, as it doesn’t really make it clear who the song is aimed at (I thought it was at her ex, but apparently it’s for their son?), and the narrator’s story and explanation just isn’t that compelling or interesting (people making relationship decisions that they later come to regret makes up at least 25% of Nashville’s entire catalog). The two artists have decent vocal chemistry and it’s nice to see a Stapleton feature that actually uses him to push the song’s emotional boundaries (probably because Adele is one of the few singers in the planet he can’t out-sing), but he adds a rougher edge to the vocals (especially when he’s screaming them out on the bridge) that clashes with the softer, slicker feel of the piano (which is the only non-vocal instrument present here), and the tracks veers hard into ear-splitting territory when both singers turn it loose on the bridge. In the end, the song is okay, but there are a surprising number of tracks on the Mediabase chart right now that I’d pick over it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, I suppose.

Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never”

This song is trying way too hard to be something it’s not. The tale of two star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to makes things work beyond the physical attraction is a tale old as time, and the song tries to use minor chords, dark, foreboding instrument tones, and loud, hard-edged guitars and percussion (which bounces between a drum set and a slicker beat) to inject a sense of drama and danger into the song. Unfortunately, the garden-variety off-and-on relationship in the lyrics simply doesn’t warrant the hype (it reminds me a lot of Travis Denning’s boring “After A Few”), and while both Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell put their hearts into their performance (honestly, I like their vocal chemistry far more than Adele and Stapleton’s), they can’t convince the audience of the story’s importance. It’s just an oversung, overproduced batch of empty sonic calories, and I sincerely hope that Swindell and Wilson find some stronger material to work with the next time around.

Rating: 5/10. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to remember this one.

Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”

Parker is a Georgia native who’s attempting to make to leap from songwriter to performer after signing with Warner Bros. in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the source you find, but he’s not going anywhere with his debut drivel. The song features yet another delusional narrator waiting for a traveling ex to come back and imagining how much she misses him (give it up bro, she ain’t coming back), and the fact that he occasionally admits the futility of his feelings (“maybe you really are long gone and I’m just fooling myself”) isn’t enough to make him a likeable or sympathetic character. Everything else here is cookie-cutter and generic: The reliance on a buzzword-filled waiting spot featuring beer and trucks in the evening (also, what’s the point of specifying that he has a “BP PBR”? It sounds as dumb as me saying I’m drinking a Hannaford’s Powerade), the bland guitar-and-drum production, and Parker’s undistinctive voice that could be mistaken for five other singers in the genre (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song wouldn’t change at all). The song offers no compelling reason to listen or pay attention to it, and I’m getting really tired of indistinguishable tracks like this, especially one that feature an annoyingly-presumptuous attitude from the narrator. I didn’t put up with it from Tucker Beathard or Taylor Swift, and I won’t do it here either.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait”

George Strait’s gotten enough name-drops in the last ten years to fill an encyclopedia, and has been around so long that this isn’t even the first song built around his song titles (forget Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off,” I remember Tim McGraw singing “Give It To Me Strait” all the way back in 1994). I’m kind of torn on this one:

  • McCreery is a talented vocalist, but he’s not terribly believable in this role (he’s seven years younger than “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” so was it really his ex’s favorite song?)
  • The song is just a by-the-book lost-love song, but it does a decent job balancing the genuine sentimentality of a breakup and the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of hating a singer because of it.
  • The song title references are hit or miss: Some work okay (“Blue Clear Sky” is probably the best of the bunch), but some feel really forced (the “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” ones especially).

I think what sells me on this one in the end is the production: It starts as your typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, but once the steel guitar shows up it becomes the defining feature of the mix. It gives the sound some warmth and texture, while also helping it stand out from other tracks around it, most of which sprinkle the instrument in just enough to convince Billboard it’s “country.” It allows the song to pass the context test, as it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Strait’s own material. That’s enough to elevate it above the mediocre masses for me.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it hits you.

Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”

While McCreery paid homage to Strait, Rice tried to tip his cap to the latest member of the name-drop club, Eric Church…except Church’s material is far better than anything Rice could dream of putting together. From the filtered guitars to the textured drums to the restrained vocal delivery, Rice and his producer do their darnedest to copy Church’s signature country-rock style on this track, and while they end up with a half-decent reproduction in the end, the song falls completely flat thanks to its random, pandering, borderline-nonsensical lyrics: It uses an overly-simplistic “if I was X, I’d be Y” setup to work in references to Dale Earnhardt, the SEC, Johnny Cash, and Jesus Christ, it uses a bizarre flag-patch reference to shout out the military, and it throws in a grandfather/grandson bit that is both blatantly obvious and completely pointless. This is about a scattershot a track as you’ll ever hear, and its weak attempt to bring it all together on the chorus as a lost-love song doesn’t work at all (and the generally-upbeat production doesn’t help matters). The bridge is the closest the song comes to tying everything together, but it paints the narrator is an unflattering light: It lays out a blueprint for what he should do if he was “a smart man,” while at the same time insinuating that that’s exactly what he didn’t do. Listening to this track is an exercise in frustration, and the only good thing that could come of it would be for Church to sue Rice for trademark infringement and doing damage to his brand.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

While this track is at least up front that it won’t be plowing new ground, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to. My first question is why Mitchell Tenpenny was allowed anywhere near this thing: It wasn’t written as a duet, the presence of a second person adds nothing to the song, and Tenpenny’s weak, raspy voice is completely outclassed by Young’s solid baritone. Where McCreery passes the context test, this song really doesn’t, as its paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum doesn’t fit in with either a classic bar setting or the 90s song it name-drops (“Brand New Man,” “Time Marches On”), and by taking a more-neutral and serious approach to a bar song, it deftly avoids all the reasons people actually listen to a bar song in the first place (i.e, it’s either to party hardy or cry in your beer). The imagery and scenes are exactly what you’d expect to see: Love being found, love being lost, bartender stories and (of course) lost and lots and lots of alcohol. By focusing on what happens in the bar, the song fails to give the place any atmosphere, or make it seem like somewhere that you would actually want to go. Toss in the fact that the song feels half-written with only one-and-a-half verses, and you’re left with a bland snorefest that exists merely for the sake of existing.

Rating: 5/10. There are way better beer-joint odes to spend your time listening to.

Song Review: Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen”

The best thing I can say about this is that it’s not quite as obnoxious as I expected. Unfortunately, it’s still obnoxious.

Chase Rice seemed to have a breakthrough with his (mediocre) #1 hit “Eyes On You,” but his career has been on a steep downhill slope since then. Not only was he unable to replicate his success with his awful 2019 follow-up “Lonely If You Are” (the song needed fourteen months just to peak at #12 on Billboard’s airplay chart), but his callous ignorance on the coronavirus pandemic has put him on the wrong side of the news cycle several times, such as with an ill-advised jam-packed concert in May and his recent inexplicable, inexcusable, and idiotic attempt to use a joke about having COVID-19 as a way to promote his latest single “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” Frankly, this dude’s brand is toxic right now (and deservedly so), and his only hope is to ride the coattails of the track’s featured group Florida Georgia Line back to the top of the charts. I expected this track to be an absolute train wreck when I saw the title and the FGL credits, so the fact that it turned out to be only a garden-variety bad song is actually a bit of a relief. Nevertheless, this is a generic, uninteresting grab-bag of Bro-Country clichés that simply fails to justify its existence.

The garbage title and FGL inclusion might scream “Bro-Country redux” at first glance, but the production is actually more of a Metropolitan mix, with a overly-slick finish and a surprising lack of energy. The core of the arrangement is a typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, leaning on an acoustic guitar and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track for the verses and swapping in some electric axes and real drums for the choruses (oh, and the token banjo makes a no-so-triumphant return). To their credit, the producer at least tries to incorporate some dobro notes and steel guitar riffs, but they’re used sparsely and seem to fade into the background as the song goes along, leaving us with the same old uninteresting mix we keep getting stuck with. Where hard-edged Bro-Country mixes at least brought some volume and punch to the table, this thing is lifeless and boring in comparison, and it does little to catch the listener’s ear and convince them to pay attention. It’s just one of those sounds that passes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

Rice remains one of the most nondescript voices in country music, and he contributes nothing of interest to this track. The song has no range demands, but the faster (but really not all that fast) portions of the chorus make Rice’s delivery feel a bit rushed at times (but even on the slower choruses, he’s doesn’t put any feeling into his lines). He’s a poor fit for the narrator’s role here, as he doesn’t give anyone the impression that he’s the kind of person to reflect on larger spiritual topics (in fact, he comes across as someone who doesn’t put much thought into anything at all). Florida Georgia Line doesn’t provide much more than name recognition here, but at least Tyler Hubbard has a distinct sound and a shred of vocal tone (and Brian Kelley is actually noticeable on the harmony vocals for a change). No one here seems prone to deep rumination, however, and none of the three do much to persuade listeners to pay attention.

The lyrics here amount to a typical Bro setup with a layer of superficial religion spread on top. The narrator is engaged in the novel activity of nighttime drinking around the bonfire, counting their predictably generic blessings (“a little piece of dirt,” “a country angel”) and claiming to be “talkin’ God” when there’s nothing religious here besides a little thankfulness and some random wondering about what heaven might be like. (There’s a bit of Cobronavirus nihilism here as well, as “when the world’s gone crazy, man, it all makes sense” to ignore it and drink yourself into a stupor.) There’s nothing here that you’ve haven’t heard a million times over the last few years, and it’s no more interesting now than it was then: There’s no real story, the level of detail is minimal, and there isn’t even enough said about the setting to make the song work on a “communing with nature” angle. It’s a party song with no party, a spiritual song with no spirit, and a throwaway track that will be forgotten the moment it falls off the charts.

“Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen” is a cookie-cutter snoozefest with zero creativity or inspiration, and is the sort of song that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor (and yet it still represents a slight upgrade the atrocious “Lonely If You Are”). The writing is hollow, the vocals are unconvincing, and the production only makes a token attempt to stand out from the crowd. It’s a blatant attempt by Chase Rice to leech off of Florida Georgia Line’s popularity in a desperate attempt to stay relevant, but any success it achieves will be in spite of its lead artist rather than because of it. This doesn’t even rise to the level of radio filler, and the sooner we kick both it and Rice out of the genre, the better.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are”

*sigh* Give Chase Rice an inch, and he takes a mile.

Up to this point, Chase Rice had been taking some small steps to distance himself from his Bro-Country roots with “Three Chords And The Truth” and “Eyes On You,” although neither was anywhere near a good song. The latter song, however, was apparently close enough for country radio, which awarded Rice his first ever Billboard #1 and gave the man some legitimate buzz for the first time in his career. You never know how someone will react when they finally “make it big,” however, and in Rice’s case, he fell off the wagon immediately, closing the book on the Lambs & Lions era and releasing “Lonely If You Are” as the leadoff single to his upcoming fourth album. The song is a callback to everything we hated about Rice and Bro-Country in general, and indicates that this zebra hasn’t changed his stripes quite yet.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like it would be a terrible mix, featuring a prominent acoustic guitar on the melody and a echoey dobro providing some background atmosphere. The minute the snap track appears, however, things go off the rails: Suddenly the guitar sounds a bit too clean and slick (it drowns out the squeals of the fingers sliding on the strings), and the minor chords start to add a real darkness to the track that isn’t warranted or useful. (While real drums jump in eventually, this song is the first one I’ve noticed using both a snap AND a clap track, and it makes things worse rather than better.) The mix devolves into the soundtrack of every Metro-Bro song ever made, and it overshoots the sexy vibe it wanted and lands deep in sleazy/creepy territory. (Good fricking grief, would country music just leave the sex jams to the professionals already?) In other words, this arrangement is less than the sum of its parts, and it feels generic and unoriginal in all the worst possible ways.

Whatever magic Rice captured on “Eyes On You,” it is not present here, as he comes across as a faceless meathead looking to score with a hottie no matter what the context might be. The song itself is a major contributor to this problem: It traps him a bit too deep in his lower range and forces him into a rapid-fire pseudo-rap cadence on the choruses, causing his voice to lose all semblance of tone, power, or emotion. (Notice the difference between the bridge, where Rice gets a little time and space to put an iota of feeling behind the lyrics, and the chorus, where he’s spitting out the lines so fast he takes on the serious, matter-of-fact tone of someone reading a grocery list.) Quite frankly, Rice doesn’t have the chops to handle what this track demands of him, and instead of the caring, understanding narrator he wants you to think he is, he sounds like a desperate sex junkie looking for a quick fix with a warm body. While I’d place the blame for this disaster on whoever thought this song was a good fit for Rice rather than Rice himself, but at some point, as Dirty Harry would say, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

Speaking of limitations: The lyrics here are basically an R-rated version of “Green Eggs And Ham,” with the narrator proclaiming that they are ready for some kinky sexual escapades anytime and anywhere the other person wants (“AM or PM,” “middle of the week or the weekend,” “late-night sidewalk” or “curled up on the couch,” in a box, with a fox, etc.) While he at least makes things contingent on whether or not the other person wants to participate or not, it’s not hard to see which decision the narrator prefers, and the lengths he’ll go to get the decision he wants make him sound pushy and insincere instead of flexible and gentlemanly. Songs in this vein aren’t inherently bad (for example, Midland’s “Mr. Lonely,” one of my favorite songs of the year, covers pretty much the same topic), but where “Mr. Lonely” takes a fun, lighthearted approach to the subject (and includes a lot more potential activities for the temporary couple), “Lonely If You Are” overly-serious, narrowly-focused approach makes the speaker much more unlikable and unsympathetic, and the audience is put off by then rather than singing along. This is one call that no one’s itching to make.

“Lonely If You Are” is a failure at every level: Slimy, copycat production, terribly-framed writing, and a harried, lifeless delivery from Chase Rice. It’s a monstrous step backwards from Rice (and a reminder of why we all mostly avoided him in the first place), and more evidence that country music really needs to get out of the booty-call business. I have no idea what prompted Rice to pivot back to his Bro persona, but it wasn’t a good idea then, and it’s a really bad idea now.

Rating: 3/10. Keep your distance.

Song Review: Chase Rice, “Eyes On You”

Wait…is Chase Rice actually improving? He’s still not good, but a baby step in still a step.

I referred to “Three Chords And The Truth” as both “the best single Chase Rice has ever released” and “not even remotely worth listening to.” Apparently country radio felt the same way, as the track ended up being Rice’s best Billboard airplay showing since the height of the Bro-Country era..but still peaked at a mediocre #25. Still, progress is progress even when it’s small, and his follow-up single “Eyes On You” represents another small step in the right direction. There are still a lot of problems here, especially in the vocals and writing, but much like with Dustin Lynch’s “Good Girl,” it’s a song that you can actually listen to all the way through, even if you’ll forget it exists within five minutes.

The production here is centered around two instruments: A piano (serious song alert!), and a drum machine (whose prominence is actually surprising, given the genre-wide trend back towards real percussion). A few other things are mixed in over time (an electric guitar, some effected drums), but they’re left mostly in the background. The dominant theme here is how the mix succeeds in its mission in spite of itself:

  • Despite the sparse arrangement, the mix has a surprisingly spacious feel, especially on the choruses (the backup singers help a lot here).
  • Despite the deep, darker feel of the piano and occasional minor chords, the atmosphere here feels celebratory and reverent, with whatever seriousness that pops up only underscoring the depth of the narrator’s feelings.

It’s an impressive achievement, it’s easily the best part of the song, and it’s sad that absolutely nothing else here can hold up its end of the bargain.

Unlike the charismatic failures we’ve catalogued on previous songs, Rice’s problems here are mostly technical. Specifically, his flow is downright awful: His delivery gets stiff and choppy and points, he’s forever trying to cram too many words into a line (the writing shares some blame here), and every time he tries to switch to a more-conversational singing style, he disrupts the smooth vibe of the production and completely ruins the song’s mood. The track tries to paint a picture of the scenes the narrator describes through its sound and writing, but the listener keeps getting snapped out of the trance to focus on Rice’s awkward delivery, and as a result the song never really gets a chance to move its audience emotionally. It’s too bad, as Rice actually comes across more sincerely here than on his past singles and seems to have the requisite charisma to take the listener around the world with the narrator. With a performance this bad, however, he doesn’t give himself the chance to show his stuff.

The writing here is more confusing to me than anything else. In theory, the narrator is trying to express their feelings for their significant other by declaring that he never sees anything when they travel because “I’ve got my eyes on you.” On the surface, it’s your typical lightweight love song that you’ve heard done a thousand different ways, albeit with terrible verse construction that forces Rice to occasionally cram too many syllables into a line. Dig a little deeper, however, and some contradictions to the narrative emerge, such as in the second verse:

Speaking of the coast, remember Pfeiffer beach?
You and me, that sunset, cliffs by the sea
And the night rolled in
And you still talk about that moon that I can’t recall

I’m all for having vivid imagery and detail in a song, but didn’t the narrator just get through saying he didn’t remember anything from places like this? It makes that claim feel a bit disingenuous, and leads me to question whether they really loves the other person as much as they say. The production tries to sweep the question under the rug by carrying the listener away on a piano melody, but Rice’s vocals stymie its efforts and keep the listener focused on the lyrics, leading them to raise some uncomfortable questions.

“Eyes On You” may be a noble effort from Chase Rice to move beyond his Bro-Country efforts, but it’s more radio filler than needle mover thanks to mediocre writing and Rice’s poor showing. A better singer could have made this track the aww-inducing love song it was intended to be, and if Rice really wants to continue moving forward in country music, “a better singer” is exactly what he needs to become.

Rating: 5/10. So close, and yet so far away.

Song Review: Chase Rice, “Three Chords And The Truth”

The good news is that “Three Chords And The Truth” may be the best single Chase Rice has ever released. The bad news is that it’s still not any good.

Chase Rice is a C-list creation of the Bro-Country era, best known as a co-writer for Florida-Georgia Line’s monster Bro hit “Cruise” and as the performer of generic, unremarkable songs like “Ready Set Roll,” “Gonna Wanna Tonight,” and “Whisper” (the last of which was so bad Rice wrote a pseudo-apology for it). I was hoping we’d heard the last of Rice after his last two singles crashed and burn outside the Top 40 on Billboard’s airplay chart, but he’s reappeared on the country radar with “Three Chords And The Truth,” the leadoff single for his new album Lambs & Lions. Unfortunately, the best I can say about this song is that it’s a halfhearted attempt to split the difference between classic country and Rice’s Bro roots, and while even a baby step like this constitutes progress for him, it’s still not even remotely worth listening to.

If you’ve heard the production on one Chase Rice song, you’ve heard them all: A prominent mix of real of synthetic percussion that’s left on its own during the verses, and some spacious electric guitars that swell up on the choruses. The only difference here is that the volume is dialed back slightly, and the guitars are pushed more to the background in favor of some dobro stabs and a token banjo. (There’s a squealing instrument near the end that might be a steel guitar, but if it is, it’s buried under so many effects that it’s nearly unrecognizable.) While the prevalence of minor chords do establish a more serious atmosphere than usual, the mix just doesn’t do enough do stand out from Rice’s past material, and comes off sounding like just another Bro-Country song. (It also doesn’t complement the writing at all: If you’re going to refer to classic songs to make a nostalgic connection with the listener, both the lyrics and the mix have to allude to those tracks, and the sound here is just too modern to make the references stick.) Overall, the small changes made here were admittedly for the better, but a lot more were needed.

Vocally, I’m not a huge fan of Rice’s delivery on this song. There are shades of Dierks Bentley in Rice’s tone, but Bentley is a much more charismatic performer and his a lot more texture in his voice, whereas Rice sounds more generic and struggles when the song asks him to drop into his lower register. Honestly, Rice doesn’t seem to have the comfort level with material like this that he does on his usual Bro-Country offerings, and it shows: He meets the minimum acceptable standard of believability for the track, but he doesn’t sell the story all that well and thus doesn’t leave much of an impact on his listeners.

The lyrics here focus on the power of music, and how a song can be a touchstone for a person’s past experiences. It’s certainly not a novel topic (see: Clint Black’s “State Of Mind,” Kenny Chesney’s “I Go Back,” Trisha Yearwood “The Song Remember When,”…heck, Sara Evans had a single with this exact title in 1997, though the topic was slightly different), and this song makes the strange choice of focusing on the present instead of the past: The chorus is just a laundry list of activities people partake in (and it’s the usual Bro stuff: drinking, partying, “roll[ing] around in a bed of a truck”), and very little attention is given to the memories these songs bring back (there’s a line about how you “almost feel the sand on your feet,” and that’s about it). Frankly, the writing feels a lot lazier than it should be, as it’s just a mishmash of Bro tropes, superficial song title drops, and other throwaway lines that don’t really fit together.

Overall, “Three Chords And The Truth” is a forgettable mess of a song that is caught somewhere between Bro-Country and the more-serious climate of today’s country radio, much like Chase Rice himself. While I won’t say Chase Rice isn’t capable of transitioning to a more-traditional country singer (hey, Cole Swindell seems to have pulled it off), he’s going to have to pick up the pace, or his songs aren’t going to bring back any memories at all.

Rating: 4/10. I’d pass on this one.