Song Review: James Barker Band, “Chills”

It’s not good when a new artists sounds exactly like an existing one. It’s really bad when that existing artist is Granger Smith.

The James Barker Band is a Canadian group who got their big break by winning the “Emerging Artist Showcase” at the 2015 Boots and Hearts music festival, earning a record deal with Universal Music Group. They’ve already made a fair bit of noise on the Canadian charts, grabbing the #1 spot with “Chills” in 2017 and peaking at #6 with their latest single “Good Together.” Now, hoping to replicate the (moderate) success fellow Canadians High Valley and Lindsey Ell have achieved south of the border, the band has started shipping the radio-tested “Chills” to American stations (and taken out a surprising amount of ad space in Mediabase publications). Unfortunately, when I listen to the song, I seem to hear every artist except the James barker band, and there’s not enough here to push the track out of generic territory and make it feel unique.

I’d sum up the production by saying that it has the same stuff every other song does, it just seems to have less of it. It’s the same old guitar-and-drum mix you’ve come to expect from country radio (the major exception being the High Valley-esque banjo that jumps in on the first chorus, which rolls along fast enough to at least not feel token), but the percussion doesn’t have the same kick that the song’s contemporaries feature, and the electric and steel guitar don’t quite have the spacious feel that we hear in, say, Granger Smith’s “You’re In It” (hold on to that comparison folks, we’ll be coming back to it). The instruments also don’t feel as bright as you would expect, and the minor chords that anchor the song give it a much more serious feel than it should. Finally, the overall mix doesn’t seem to have the power and volume it needs to really drive its message home, and is overly reliant on its tempo to provide energy and build momentum. Take away the banjo, and your average listener probably couldn’t pick this song out of a lineup, which isn’t good for a band trying to introduce themselves to a larger audience.

If you had told me this was a new Granger Smith single, I wouldn’t have questioned you at all, as singer James Barker is basically a Smith clone (with perhaps a shade of Zac Brown thrown in for good measure). The song’s key feels a bit below Barker’s comfort zone, but he has enough range to (mostly) maintain his tone and clarity. Barker’s flow is a bit more impressive, as he handles the song’s rapid-fire portions without skipping a beat. The charisma question, however, remains just that: While he certainly comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, he really isn’t able to transmit his excitement to the listener. (He may get chills, but I just get bored.) The serious production and bland lyrics don’t help matters, but in the end it’s on Barker to really sell me on how special his significant other is, and he just doesn’t pull it off.

The most disappointing performance on this song, however, goes to the “band” component of the James Barker Band, as they’re so invisible on this song that even Brian Kelley feels sorry for them. Their sound is so generic and their harmonies are so weak and indistinguishable that Barker might as well be a solo artist backed by a random group of session players. In short, the band doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, and if the group breaks up in a couple of years, no one will even realize they’re gone.

Lyrically, the song is yet another Bro-Lite track that focuses on how the woman in the song gives the narrator “chills” as the pair go through the usual activities (night driving, club hopping, dancing, etc.). Outside of the woman’s clothing (it’s a little black dress instead of tight cut-off jeans—shocking!), the song is devoid of wit and entirely predictable, and while it’s not as explicitly objectifying as songs from the peak-Bro era, the usual creepy attitude is still there (when he says “We’ve got all night girl, there ain’t no rush,” you get the feeling he’s not interested in just dancing), and it’s still not a topic I’m terribly interested in revisiting. I’m also struck by how rushed the song feels, as it tends to jump from location to location and only spend a line or two talking about the drive, the party, etc. Pair it with forgettable production and vocals, and the listener ends up spending up half their time checking their watch and waiting for the next song to start.

“Chills” is just another song by just another singer backed by just another band, and while it’s got that generic Bro-esque formula that the US charts just can’t get enough of, I don’t see it making much of a splash below the 49th parallel. The genre already has enough acts like the James Barker Band, and this song doesn’t do enough anything to convince country radio to make room for them. Unless something changes—new sound, new members, something—the only chills the band will feel are those of the Canadian winter.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*