Song Review: Chris Janson, “All I Need Is You”

Yet another coin flipped in Nashville has landed on its edge.

Harvey Dent once said that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” but Chris “Two-Face” Janson has kicked around Music City long around to go through multiple rounds of heel and face turns. He’s a maddening artist to observe: For every moment of great artistry he produces (“Holdin’ Her,” “Drunk Girl,” “Bye Mom”), he tosses out a corresponding flaming turd (“Fix A Drink,” “Good Vibes,” “Keys To The Country”). Some of this is undoubtedly an attempt to stay relevant on the radio, but that ship sailed a while ago: Since 2019’s “Done,” that’s exactly what Janson’s career has been, as he hasn’t even managed to crack the Top 35 in his four attempts since. He returns now with a new single “All I Need Is You,” a new record label (Big Machine, in partnership with Janson’s own label), and a new hope that someway, somehow, he can finally become relevant in the country music conversation once again. Frankly, I don’t see it: This is a middle-of-the-road, cookie-cutter love song that doesn’t do enough to engage the listener, and while Nashville loves nothing more than mediocrity these days, I don’t see this one reviving Janson’s career.

From a production standpoint, the song takes a more upscale approach that Janson is used to. Yes, the guitars and drums form the foundation for this sound, but the electric guitars are noticeably slicker this time around, the drums are turned down and don’t have the raw punch you might expect, and there’s even a string section that pops up from time to time to add some background atmosphere. There are actually a fair number of moving parts in this arrangement, but the issue is that the producer doesn’t deploy them effectively (or much at all). The steel guitar mostly mimics the repetitive riff of the electric axes, the keyboard is mostly left in the background, and the string section is only really noticeable on the outro and at a random moment during the second verse. (The YouTube video doesn’t credit one, but it sure sounds like there’s a token banjo bouncing around in the mix as well.) It’s like they really wanted to do more with the sound and assembled the pieces to do it, but didn’t end up executing the plan, and we’re left with a generically positive vibe that’s a bit too weak to move the needle for the listener. There’s some energy here thanks to the faster tempo and brighter instrument tones, but it just feels like empty sonic calories that don’t help drive the message home. It’s not a bad mix, but it’s not one I’m going to remember once I finish this review.

I hear a fair bit of Eric Church in Janson’s delivery here, but I’m not sure Church’s understated approach works as well for Janson. On one hand, I like the aura of confidence and contentment he has as the narrator, and when he declares that “all I need is you,” you absolutely believe him. On the other hand, his relaxed delivery doesn’t match the energy of the production, and while he’s a charismatic performer, he struggles to connect with the audience on this track (you can tell he cares about whoever he’s singing about, but you don’t really feel his happiness yourself). I think his performance needed a little more variation to it—without a few more power spikes to catch and hold the listener’s attention, it kinds of lulls the listener to sleep and causes their attention to wander. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what he does, but there’s not enough right to push the song beyond just another love song.

And when I say “just another love song,” I mean it: The crux of the writing is that while the narrator would like a lot of things, “all I really need is you,” which even among love song topics is a bit overused. Among the things the narrator would like are many of the usual buzzwords: Trucks, bucks, boats, name-drops…even the lotto tickets and tropical getaways aren’t exactly novel (on the bright side, there’s no alcohol here for a change, putting it a step above Janson’s previous drinking songs). Beyond that, the song really doesn’t have anything to say: We don’t get any look into the relationship (the “boys’ ball team” hints that the couple has been together for a while, but the line passes so quickly it doesn’t leave much of an impression), and we don’t know what the speaker loves the most about their partner (their laugh? Their smile? I appreciate the lack of objectifying, but they didn’t bother to replace it with anything). The whole thing just end up feeling kind of boring as a result, and makes it kind of a chore to stay engaged.

“All I Need Is You” is one of those songs that’s really hard to review: You can’t find a ton to say about it, and you’re forever getting distracted by things that are more interesting (curse you Bryce and Ria McQuaid!). From production that squanders its potential to Chris Janson’s even-keel delivery to the rare piece of writing that probably needed more songwriters to have anything useful to say, this is an unremarkable track all the way around, and doesn’t strike as the comeback song Janson needs to get off of Nashville’s D-list. He really needs to find a way to channel his inner Harvey Dent soon, or otherwise he won’t get a chance to become the hero Music City needs.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (July 2022 Edition: Jordan Davis, Keith Urban, Cody Johnson, Dan + Shay, Chris Janson)

(Why are all the names in the title, you ask? It’s so I can find the songs later for Pulse posts and year-end lists, because the tracks that end up here are usually far too easy to forget.)

Country music, like the rest of the economy, is suffering from some severe supply-chain issues right now. Demand for airwave slots is really strong and everyone and their cousin’s ex’s pet is trying to peddle their wares to radio, but with consolidation and syndication and playlist shortening there just isn’t a lot of space for songs right now. This also means that my review backlog is growing by the day, and unfortunately the increase in song quantity hasn’t come with a corresponding increase in quality. In order to stay on top of the charts, it’s time once again for a round of abbreviated reviews of songs that just aren’t worth the usual verbosity. Let’s get right to the action:

Jordan Davis, “What My World Spins Around”

I am really getting tired of dealing with lukewarm love songs like this. Ostensibly we’ve got yet another narrator proclaiming their love for their partner, but they waste the entire first verse cramming in every item on the current country buzzword list (fishing, drinking, trucks, football, nighttime campfires, etc.). It’s an approach that can work if executed properly (see: Luke Combs’s “Lovin’ On You”), but it needs a lot of help, and none is provided here. The production tries to use a faster tempo and louder drums to pump some energy into the track, but it lacks the seasoning of Combs’s mix (which mixed in some piano, steel guitar, and some electric axes with a distinctive tone), and winds up feeling like a generic summer anthem that’s neither romantic nor fun. As far as the vocals, not only does Davis fail to make the song his own (put any other random male artist behind the mic and nothing would change), but there’s only intensity (and no feeling) in his delivery, and he’s unable to share whatever emotion he has with the audience. Throw in a weak hook that feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the writing, and this is a track that the world would have been better off without.

Rating: 4/10. No thanks.

Keith Urban, “Brown Eyes Baby”

I’m really getting tired of dealing with Keith Urban, period. This is one of those kinda-pushy, kinda-creepy “wannabe boyfriend” tracks that we kept getting clubbed over the head with a few years ago, and it offers no good reasons to revisit the trend. The biggest offender here is the writing, which is flat-out terrible: It careens from slimy (“about to see where leanin’ in gets me”) to mind-numbingly obvious (“put the smile right back where your smile goes”? Really?) to completely nonsensical (what the heck does putting the “slow dance right back in your dirt road” even mean?), and the hook is a clunky Crystal Gayle callback that connects to the rest of the song even less than Davis’s hook did. The production is so stock (slick electric guitar, acoustic guitar underneath it, basic drum set) that it’s probably copyrighted by Getty Images, and the darker instrument tones, slower tempo, and regular minor chords make the song feel both ominous and lifeless. For his part, Urban barely registers a pulse as he sleepwalks through the song—he sounds as tired singing the song as I am to have to hear it, and I’m wondering if he needs a break as much as Luke Bryan does. As it is, by my count it’s been nearly five years since Urban’s put out a track that’s even remotely worth listening to, and I’ve run out of patience with him—he needs to just go away.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t it make my brown eyes burn with rage.

Cody Johnson, “Human”

I’m really surprised at how ambivalent I am about this song, given how much I liked “‘Til You Can’t” last year. “Human” tries to follow the same formula as its predecessor, but the main difference is in how hard it tries to push its message. For example, the production may still lean towards a traditional arrangement (the steel guitar is plentiful and the fiddle is…well, it’s there), but “Human” takes a much softer approach, dumping the electric guitars (mostly), quieting the drums, and making the steel guitar the primary accent instrument. Johnson is a storyteller rather than a preacher this time around, so he’s less forceful in his delivery as well (although he sounds no less heartfelt). My main problem here lies with the writing and specifically the hook, which is not only disconnected from the rest of the song, it’s downright contradictory. The narrator is an aspiring cowboy who stumbled into the music business and is struggling to balance the hard-living lifestyle of the road with his relationship at home, and the song serves as both an apology and a tribute to their partner, who has stuck with them through thick and thin. It’s a great setup and is executed with great conviction…and then the narrator says “I’m still learning to be human,” and throws it all away. It’s not the struggle for perfection that makes us human, it’s the mistakes we inevitably make along the way (“to err is human,” after all). It’s in the narrator’s faults and errors that they show us their humanity, not their attempts to avoid them. (Sadly, Dustin Lynch has proved to be very human.) It seems like a small issue, and yet it derails the entire track because it distracts the listener and makes them focus on the paradox (they’re learning to be human by being less like a human?) rather than the story. As a result, the song feels both confusing and unsatisfying to me, and with Johnson hamstrung by another paradox (“‘Til You Can’t” is still so popular that no one wants to hear anything else), he needed something less awkward as a follow-up.

Rating: 5/10: I’d still encourage you to give it a spin or two so see what you think, but this one does nothing for me.

Dan + Shay, “You”

I’m really getting tired of dealing with Dan + Shay, but I’m also really surprised that country radio is getting tired of them too. After years of basically recording the same darn song over and over and scoring #1 after #1, the genre raised a collective eyebrow at “Steal My Love,” asked “is this all you’ve got?”, and watched it limp to a #28 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. It was a stunning fall from grace, one that should have prompted some reflection on the direction of the pair’s music…but either the pair a) didn’t do any reflection, or b) reflected and found that they didn’t have any viable options on (Not So) Good Things, because their second single from the album “You” is pretty much the same song as all the rest. You know the drill at this point: Mooney plays a sappy narrator fawning over their partner while predictably dancing in the moonlight, and they declare that come what may, they’ve got “you” forever. This is closer to their wedding material than some of their slicker, slimier tracks (it’s more “From The Ground Up” than “10,000 Hours” or “Speechless”), and the producer throws in an organ and a choir to play up that angle and give the song a spiritual feel, but…you know what, if this duo can re-use their old material, so can I:

“At the end of the day this is yet another cheesy Boyfriend country ballad from a duo that only seems to release these sorts of songs…Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are no more interesting or romantic than they’ve ever been, and after re-plowing this ground so often, the listener is left wondering “is that really all you’ve got?” Basically, this song is a pandering-to-the-base move that won’t change anyone’s opinion of the duo: If you like them, you’ll like this one; if they bore you as much as they bore me, you’ll forget it exists in a month.”

—Kyle, from last August’s lightning review

Well said, past Kyle. Let’s hope this pair can at least force me to write something new about their work next time.

Rating: 5/10. *double yawn*

Chris Janson, “Keys To The Country”

I’m really…getting tired of this bit.

At this point, I just feel sorry for Chris Janson. He’s one of the few artists who’s willing to release songs with some depth and emotion (“Holdin’ Her,” “Drunk Girl,” “Bye Mom”)…and every time, the genre slaps him in the face and demands more braindead booze-fueled songs, and thus we get “Fix A Drink,” “Good Vibes,” “Waitin’ on 5,” and now his latest release “Keys To The Country.” Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this one: It’s a Bro-Country retread that checks all the boxes in an attempt to party like it’s 2013. We’ve got production that leans on loud, in-your-face electric guitars and a mix or real and synthetic percussion (and if you listen close, you can hear the token banjo floating around in the background), writing that runs through all the greatest hits of the era (the beer, the trucks, the nighttime rides to empty fields—hey, he’ll even park out by the lake!), and Janson reprising his role as a carefree dudebro narrator at a time when nobody feels like partying. This one is closer to Luke Bryan’s “Kick The Dust Up” than to Janson’s nihilistic prior work: Instead of encouraging the listener to ignore the problems of the world and drink themselves silly, it leans on a soft “us vs. them” angle, declaring that he doesn’t know anything about the city and isn’t a big deal there, but he can still show folks a good time because he’s “got the keys to the country” (and in keeping with the rest of the post, it’s a weaksauce hook that isn’t well-connected to the rest of the track). It’s a bad song that reminds us of an era that we’d all rather forget, and it brings nothing new to the table to justify its existence. Feel free to skip it.

Rating: 3/10. Sam Wilson called this one two months ago.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Bye Mom”

Darn you Chris Janson, you know I’m a sucker for songs like this.

There’s a thoughtful, talented country artist somewhere within Janson, and we occasionally get glimpses of it through songs like “Holdin’ Her” and the excellent “Drunk Girl.” Unfortunately, songs like these aren’t what Nashville is looking for these days, so most of the time we got stuck with drivel like “Fix A Drink” and “Good Vibes.” However, after “Waitin’ On 5” crashed and burned at #42 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Janson surprisingly decided to go back to the emotional well one more time, closing the book on the Real Friends era and bringing out “Bye Mom” as the presumed leadoff single for his next project (an unexpected and bold move given the stakes). The TL;DR version of this review is that this song is exactly what I’d like to hear more of from this genre: Mature, experience-rooted tracks that make the listener think more deeply about the subject matter and have some useful life lessons buried within them (and the classic, understated production doesn’t hurt either). After the tire fire that was Blake Shelton’s “Come Back As A Country Boy,” this was not only a welcome change of pace, but perhaps one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

While the production here is reminiscent of “Drunk Girl,” it’s not as heavy as that mix and is constructed very differently. While simultaneously impresses and confuses me about this arrangement is just how many instruments are included here: The video lists everything from the usual guitars and drums to a plethora of bluegrass instruments (dobro, mandolin, banjo) and makes you think that the sound will be incredibly busy and complex, but in reality this boils down to a simple acoustic-guitar-driven mix backed by a methodical drum set and occasionally featuring an electric axe and pedal steel. Everything else mentioned earlier is here, but they’re only used sparingly and are barely noticeable outside of a note or three (generally towards the end of the song). You could argue that some of these instruments are used so little that they could have been cut without impacting the mix, but they do help the song build some momentum as it approaches the climax, and their judicious use keeps the sound from drawing attention away from the lyrics and watering down the song’s message. This the rare Nashville mix that conveys seriousness without going dark: The instrument tones are bright and the chords are mostly major, giving the song a vibe that is equal parts reverent and reflective and inviting the listener to think about their own history and relationship with their mother. In other words, it’s an outstanding mix that does a great job driving home the song’s message, and it frames what’s ultimately a song about loss as a song about life instead.

I give Cole Swindell a lot of props for his flexibility, and while I wouldn’t put Janson in his league just yet (unlike Janson, Swindell can occasionally sell his Bro-Country nonsense), I’ve got to give him props for a) going in this direction for a radio single in the first place, and b) bringing the necessary emotion and charisma to the table to actually pull it off. He delivery gets a bit rough at times, but unlike on past singles, he tones down his talk-singing and sticks to a more-conventional style while still coming across as casual and conversational, making a song a bit more palatable and inviting to its audience. Lots of country singers praise Mama in their work, but Janson can bring a surprising amount of gravitas to his performance that others simply can’t match (witness his past forays into serious territory with songs like “Drunk Girl”), making him feel a lot more credible and his performance a lot more personal and heartfelt. In contrast to Shelton’s hard-line, exclusionary rant, Janson’s tone is non-judgemental: He just wants you to think about your mother and your relationship with her, and share what he’s learned about the bond over time. It’s a nice sentiment that’s well-delivered, and while it annoys me that current country music tends to frown on such songs, it’s nice to know that Janson is trying to do something about it.

The lyrics here tell the story of the narrator’s relationship with their mother, and the perspective and experience they’ve obtained about it as they’ve gotten older. If you’re lucky enough to have a caring parent, it’s something that you often take for granted and can even grow annoyed with (especially at a young age), and the writing does a nice job capturing the narrator’s nonchalance as they run off to new experiences (or more often are taken to said experiences by their mom). The line about how “you don’t know you’re somebody that somebody loves more than themselves” really strikes the listener because it explicitly highlights the depths of the mother/child relationship and forces us to think about and appreciate something that usually never crosses our minds. For a topic that could easily cross into cheesy and saccharine territory, the song mostly avoids this by focusing on the prior vignettes in which the mother was ignored/dismissed (and even though you know the death twist is coming, it’s limited to the bridge and isn’t dwelt on nearly as much as you expect). It’s perhaps not the varied advice of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a nice message that leads the listener to think about their own mother and how they may have treated their relationship in days gone by (and maybe even motivate some folks to be a little nicer to their moms), and that moment of rumination/reflection (regardless of what the exact subject is) is something that country music is lacking these days, and something I’d like to see more of from the genre going forward.

I don’t hold out a ton of hope for Chris Janson’s radio prospects with “Bye Mom,” but I have to give him some credit for trying to go against the grain. Writing with story progression and some words of wisdom to chew on, production that supports the subject matter and strikes a nice balance between the arrangement and the simplicity of the sound, and a heartfelt, believable performance from Janson himself resulted in a thoughtful song that’s easy to listen to yet gives you something important to think about. Amidst all the beer-and-truck background noise that dominates the airwaves, this song asks you to stop what you’re doing, listen closely, and consider your mother/child relationship and wonder if you truly appreciate what it’s meant to you over the years. Maybe it’s not a huge ask, but it’s something that’s worth thinking about, and if you can take the time to think about that, maybe you’ll be willing about bigger and deeper subjects down the line. It’s a potential first step towards a better genre of music, if only we’re willing to take it.

Rating: 8/10. You should check this one out, and let’s be honest: You should probably call your mom soon too.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round

2020 was many things (isolating, aggravating, a tragedy on a global scale), but it was also super busy for me, and it forced me to cut down my blog posting schedule from five days a week to three. The result of this is that the Mediabase charts started to outrun my schedule, forcing me to play catch-up and use preliminary grades for the weekly Pulse posts. Now, with time running out and the year-end lists approaching, it’s time to clear the queue and catch up on some tracks that I should have covered a while ago.

With so many songs to cover, I can’t go as in-depth as my usual reviews do, but honestly many of these songs don’t merit that deep a dive anyway. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the end of my 2020 review list…

Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

This thing was released back in September, but it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t really taken off after three months: It’s a run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track dedicated to drinking yourself into a stupor, released several months after the trend fizzled out. The mix is the usual guitar-and-drum mix, with the classic Bro instruments (clap track, token banjo) tossed in for seasoning. Janson’s performance is nothing to write home about (the dude really needs to stop talk-singing like he does on the bridge), and the writing checks all the usual Bro boxes (and that “waitin’ on five to start on six” is just groan-inducing). This trend has already been tossed into the dustbin of history, and this song belong right there next to it.

Score: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name”

Country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, so Rodgers decided to try and break the sophomore slump by recruiting Thanos himself for his follow-up single. Unfortunately, not only is this thing yet another  run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track, it’s actually worse than Janson’s lame attempt. For one thing, the guitar-and-drum mix here is oddly dark and lethargicwhere Janson at least tried to establish a fun, lighthearted atmosphere, this lethargic death march isn’t fun at all. Rodgers’s turn behind the mic is utterly replaceable, and Combs adds nothing but star power to the song (he’s trapped mostly in his lower range, and he sounds both oddly restrained and a little uncomfortable). Once again, the writing aims to check all the Bro boxes, and includes a couple a cringey moments (“my baby puttin’ sugar on me”? Ick, just say she kissed you and leave it there). If you asked me to sum this track up in one word, I’d just start snoring.

Score: 5/10. *yawn* Quick, let’s move on before I fall asleep.

Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”

Robb is an Ohio native who signed with Monument Records in 2018, but he only dropped his debut EP back in April, and it’s already being dumped for a new song. It’s a generic nostalgia track, one that features none of the interesting details that Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” or Justin Moore’s “We Didn’t Have Much” brought to the table. The story is pretty boilerplate, and doesn’t do anything to convince the listener of the hallowedness of the ground (the place sounds more like purgatory than heaven to me). The “heaven on dirt” hook is even more groan-inducing than Janson’s drivel, and there’s nothing special about Robb’s vocal performance (there are hints of Brett Eldredge in his tone, but Robb has none of Eldredge’s power or charisma). The acoustic guitar/banjo foundation of the mix is the best of the songs we’ve looked at so far, but the electric guitar that gets tossed in on the bridge feels really out of place. The whole thing feels incredibly bland and boring, and doesn’t encourage repeat listens.

Score: 5/10. Don’t tell me we’re starting this streak again…

Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat”

Corbin still can’t seem to find an actual record label that will sign him, but he’s managed to cobble together a new EP and release a new single. Yes, it’s the same darn guitar-and-drum mix I’ve been ranting about for months (years?), but at least this thing’s got some tempo and a decent groove that helps it generate energy and build momentum over time. I like the framing of the the writing on this one: Instead of wasting time drinking themselves to death and pining over a lost partner, we explore the much-more-enjoyable scenario where said person actually comes back and picks up an old relationship where it left off. No, there’s nothing deep or poignant here (the narrator asks why their partner came back, but we never get an answer), and the overall relationship still feels kind of ephemeral, but Corbin’s still a likeable guy with charisma to burn, and he persuades the listener to forget about the future and get lost in the moment for a while. It’s a decent effort overall, and given the songs it’s rated above in this post alone, I’m still surprised that this guy hasn’t found a new permanent home in Nashville yet.

Score: 6/10. It’s a fun little spin that’s worth hearing again.

Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her”

Bandi is a Missouri native who, like Robb, dropped a debut EP and single earlier this year, but never found any traction on the airwaves. The production is one of those piano ballads I’m generally a sucker for, but the electric guitar and drum machine make the song feel a lot slicker than it should. There’s a very neutral feel to both the mix and Bandi’s raspy vocal performanceinstead of balancing the happiness of gaining a wife and baby daughter and the sadness of wondering how the narrator’s dead father would have felt (Bandi thinks he “would have loved her,” of course), it feels like neither emotion is really present here, and it’s really hard to tell who the focus of the story is: Is it the people the narrator is gushing about, or the ghost he’s gushing to? It’s mostly predictable and kind of sappy, but I’ll admit that the inclusion of the child’s birth was an unexpected and appreciated twist (otherwise it would felt like an awkward Boyfriend country song). Cole Swindell may run circles around this song with “You Should Be Here,” but at least it features some story progression and maturity, and no one’s encouraging you to drink the world’s problems off your mind.

Score: 6/10. Corbin’s song is better, but I guess this one is okay.

Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair”

It killed me that this thing didn’t get more attention when it released back in July, because I consider Randy Travis the GOAT when it comes to country singers.The song was a demo that Travis had been recruited to sing back in the early 1980s, but it got pushed aside during the Urban Cowboy movement and mostly forgotten until recently, where it was touched up with 2020 production and released into the wild.

The production here is reminiscent of Randy’s most-recent work (no surprise, given that his longtime producer Kyle Lehning put it together), and it features the kind of arrangement diversity that modern country music lacks (it’s got fiddle, steel guitar, and piano, with the light-touch drums and understated electric guitar serving as complementary pieces rather than the main attraction). The overall feel is more polished than slick, and it does a really nice job capturing and accentuating the emptiness of the narrator’s feelings.

You can tell that early-career Randy in behind the mic here (the voice wouldn’t be out of place on Storms Of Life or Always & Forever), but the recording feels a little awkward with 2020 production values (Travis almost sounds auto-tuned at points). The subject matter is pretty standard as far as cheating songs go, but you never hear these sorts of songs anymore (Midland tried to push one and failed), and it provides enough detail to bring the listener into the story and let them imagine the scenes as they go alone. Overall, it’s a well-executed track with a legendary voice, and if any of the songs we’ve covered here really deserved a full review, it was this one.

Score: 8/10. Is it better than “Cheatin’ Songs”? I’d say they’re about equal in quality, though they approach the topic in different ways.

With that, I think I’m finally ready to tally up the scores and put together my year-end song rankings. Look for them to come out next week!

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Done”

Wait, didn’t I just review this song? Twice?

Chris Janson just can’t get country music to take him seriously. When he sticks to lightweight, alcohol-fueled ditties like “Buy Me A Boat,” “Fix A Drink,” and “Good Vibes,” he gets a decent chart position and a little buzz, but the minute he tries to say something more substantial like with “Holdin’ Her” or “Drunk Girl,” he’s either kicked off the escalator early (#20 peak for “Holdin’ Her”) or is made to wait an inordinate amount of time for a lesser amount of praise (“Drunk Girl” took about a year just to reach #7). Now, however, Janson thinks he’s found an opening: The current fad in the genre right now is men promising women the moon and stars and listing all the ways they’ll change if the women reciprocates their interest (and if the woman does not, the guy hangs around like a stalker until they do). Janson’s got a ready-made story for this sort of schtick (heck, “Holdin’ Her” already tells the story of how Janson’s wife turned his life around), so he trimmed out the details, polished up the sound, and shifted his hyperbole machine into high gear. The result is “Done,” a less-interesting, more-radio-friendly origin story that is indistinguishable from the last few songs I’ve reviewed. Quality-wise, this splits the difference between Dillon Carmichael’s decent “I Do For You” and Mitchell Tenpenny’s decidedly-not-decent “Anything She Says,” and doesn’t quite reach the threshold of getting the listener to pay attention or care.

There isn’t a whole lot to the production here, both in terms of the instruments or the general atmosphere. At it’s core, this is the same old guitar-and-drum arrangement we’ve come to expect from today’s country music, although the guitars are a bit slicker than Janson’s previous work. (There’s a keyboard here as well, but unlike the mood-setting classic sound from “Drunk Girl,” we get a higher-pitched, synthetic-sounding instrument that’s constrained to long-winded chords that try to make the atmosphere feel a bit more expansive and spacious.) The tempo is a bit faster, and the drums at least attempt to drive the song forward, but at the end of the day there isn’t a lot of energy or emotion created here. The minor chords try to inject some seriousness into what is otherwise a brighter, optimistic mix, but it falls far short of the anthemic feel it’s going for, and mostly fails to catch the listener’s attention. The mix stands out only for how much it doesn’t stand out, and calling it “generic” undersells just how nondescript this sound is.

Janson can be an earnest, charismatic artists when he’s in his element, but this track is nowhere close to his comfort zone. Part of the problem is that the song really doesn’t seem terribly suited to his voice: It makes him stand on his toes to reach his upper range the whole time, and really forces him to exert a lot of energy to maintain his tone and power. As a result, he sounds like an engine that’s seconds away from overheating, and his delivery lacks the crispness and poise he usually exhibits. Frankly, he sounds really uncomfortable at points during the song, especially when the chorus pushes him to find another gear that he really doesn’t have. As a result, he doesn’t have enough cycles left to transmit his feelings to the audience, and while they certainly believe that he loves his wife, they don’t see why they need to spend three-plus minutes listening to him blow a fuse while gushing over her.

The lyrics here don’t feel nearly as shallow and cheap as “Anything She Says,” but they don’t have the depth of “I Do For You” either. Yes, the narrator claims that their wild days ended the moment they met their partner and that they would give their last breath to fulfill any and all of their partner’s wishes, but beyond that the writing waffles between vague and generic: No dreams are actually specified, the images we get are retreads that are nothing to write home about (counting stars, fading songs, sunny days, etc.) and the only difference between Janson’s ideal house and the generic American dream is that the fence he has around is a four-plank rather than a picket one. The story progression and narrator maturation here are token at best: These are the same darn pledges men have been making to women for centuries, and they’re delivered no more interestingly here than they’ve ever been. Finally, the writers’ uses of the “done” hook are telegraphed worse than Yu Darvish’s pitches, and are far from clever or interesting. It’s an uninspired retelling of a story we already know, and the reboot is just not worth hearing.

“Done” is a strange name for a song that feels this half-baked and unfinished. The production and writing lack the variety and attention to detail to elevate their rehashed material, and Chris Janson gets shoved into a role that he just doesn’t have the chops to fill. Put this in the hands of a stronger vocalist (maybe Chris or Brett Young?), add a little spice to the mix with an extra instrument or two, and push the writing through an extra draft or three, and you might have something that stands out from the crowd and catches people’s ears. As it stands, all we have is radio filler, and “done” only describes what the listener wants this song to be so they can move on to the next one.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve pretty much already heard this. Why hear it again?

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Good Vibes”

Somebody light up the Bat Signal, because it sound like Two-Face is back in town.

It seems to be a coin flip as to which Chris Janson is going to appear on the charts. Good Janson has some serious substance to his material back up with some real emotion (“Holdin’ Her,” “Drunk Girl”), while Bad Janson is an unrepentant nihilist who’s forever dreaming of an escape from reality (“Buy Me A Boat,” “Fix A Drink”). Unfortunately, everyone loves a bad boy, and after “Drunk Girl” only made it to #7 on Billboard’s airplay chart after a ten-month slog, “Doesn’t Care Chris” is making a return on “Good Vibes,” the intended debut single for his upcoming third album. The song is basically “Fix A Drink, Part 2,” with the same narrator ignoring the same world and chugging the same drinks, running for the nearest exit while his “Drunk Girl” counterpart tries to, you know, make the world a better place or something.

The biggest difference between “Good Vibes” and “Fix A Drink” is that this track drops all pretense of seriousness and goes into full-on party mode like it’s a LoCash track. The guitars and drums are the same ones you hear all over the radio these days, but they’ve got their volume and brightness knobs cranked up to the max, giving the mix a bouncy, almost beach-like feel with a lot of energy. It’s a good fit for the writing, both because it fits the happy, care-free lyrics and because the cacophony distracts the listener from the fact that said lyrics have absolutely nothing to say. (When the guitars step back and let Janson take the lead, the results are not pretty.) This mix is the sonic equivalent of cotton candy, providing a cheap, short-lived high while giving the listener absolutely nothing of substance.

For as good as he was on “Drunk Girl,” Janson doesn’t acquit himself very well here. His range is as good as always, but his flow is awkward and stilted when he tries to do his Jake Owen impression on the bridge, and he just comes across as insufferable and in denial as the narrator. It’s as if he’s got in his fingers in his ears saying, “La la la la la, I can’t hear you! I’m just going to sit here in my little bubble drinking myself to death while the world burns, la la la!” In “Fix A Drink,” he at least made the case that all the badness in the world was out of his control, but here he doesn’t even care to make the effort: He’s out, and whatever happens happens. Escapist songs like this are not inherently bad (see: Danielle Bradbery’s “Sway,”), but Janson’s putrid mix of defiance and nihilism makes him completely unsympathetic, and only moves the listener to give the narrator a wide berth and leave him to imbibe by himself.

Of course, the lyrics don’t give Janson a lot of room to work with: All the details and specifics included in “Fix A Drink” are gone (no stock market, no TV networks, nothing), and this narrator specifically declares that they “aren’t trying to hear the negative,” have “my windows down and my blinders on,” and if you want to rain on their parade, you can just “shut your mouth.” Forget ignoring the world’s problems, this dude doesn’t even to want acknowledge them, to say nothing about pitching it and doing something about them. (Seriously, how many issues in the world are now at a crisis point because people have turned a blind eye to them in favor of having another round and “feelin’ them good vibes”? Like, say, income inequality, climate change, and every “ism” you can think of?) I get that everybody needs a break from the spin cycle now and again, but the narrator’s refusal to leave their bubble and rejection of the world around them isn’t just irresponsible, it can be downright dangerous, and it’s the last thing I want to hear encouraged on the radio.

I don’t get a lot of good vibes from “Good Vibes,” because it’s essentially the exact opposite of “Drunk Girl.” Whereas Chris Janson previously encouraged people to take a look in the mirror and do the right thing, he now hands you a shot glass and says “Who cares about the right thing?” The sad truth, of course, is that this sort of drivel gets eaten up by country listeners and leads to larger spin counts and bank balances, and since “doing the right thing” led to a whole stack of nothing for Janson on his last single, he’s stuck going back to what sells to keep his career afloat, regardless of the consequences. Understanding what he’s doing is one thing, however; liking it is another.

Rating: 4/10. Just…no.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl”

Let’s end 2017 on a high note, shall we?

It’s a shame that Chris Janson only seems to find success with shallow singles like “Buy Me A Boat” and “Fix A Drink,” because he can throw down a darn solid country song when he wants to. He proved it last year with “Holdin’ Her” (#4 on my 2016 top song list), and he does it again with his latest single “Drunk Girl,” a powerful ballad that combines the clever songwriting and less-is-more production of Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me” with the progressive message of Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s “Speak To A Girl” and Keith Urban’s “Female.”

The production starts with pianos everywhere: Carrying the melody, providing the bass, and even keeping time in lieu of any percussion—in fact, outside of a cymbal here and there, there aren’t any drums here at all! This isn’t the gentle piano of “Marry Me,” however—these are louder, prouder and more prominent, with the constant bass line injecting intensity and establishing a serious atmosphere right from the start. The mix slowly adds more instruments (first an acoustic guitar, then a steel guitar, and eventually a string section deep in the background), and while it may not reach the intense climax that “Marry Me” does, it does an excellent job building momentum while maintaining a vibe that feels raw and personal. It’s an excellent match for the writing, and unlike some of the low-impact songs I’ve reviewed recently, this mix pulls no punches and leaves a mark when it lands.

I don’t consider Janson a standout vocalist, but when he gets away from the talk-singing that defines his biggest hits, he’s got the chops to make some magic. (Then again, I suppose it takes some talent for a teetotaler like Janson to sell a song like “Fix A Drink.”) The song is a good fit for Janson’s voice, keeping him within a comfortable range and not overtaxing his flow, but the more important thing is the level of earnestness and believability he maintains, turning in the best song-selling effort I’ve heard since Trace Adkins’s “Watered Down.” The song might sound better in the hands of a stronger singer, but I don’t think anyone (outside of maybe Garth Brooks at his peak) could match Janson’s charisma and make this track as believable or impactful.

If Cole Swindell’s You Should Be Here was “the last Bro-Country record” and Brett Young’s self-titled debut was the first shot across the Bro bow, then hopefully “Drunk Girl” is the final stake through the subgenera’s heart. The song starts with a head fake similar to “Marry Me,” watching as an inebriated woman sheds her inhibitions in favor of painting the town red. Everyone knows what happens next: Hey girl, you’re the hottest thing on two legs, let’s hop in my truck and ditch this scene in favor of some good ol’ fashioned hay rollin’!

And then the chorus arrives:

Take a drunk girl home, let her sleep all alone
Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone
Pick up her life she threw on the floor
Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door
That’s how she knows the difference between a boy and a man
Take a drunk girl home

Wait, what?! If “Marry Me” was a pump fake, this thing is an ankle-breaking Allen Iverson crossover.

Of course, we’ve already heard a couple of songs address the proper treatment of women this year (“Speak To A Girl,” “Female”). These songs, however, were undermined by writing that felt lazy and uninspired (and occasionally bizarre). “Drunk Girl,” however, suffers from no such problem, as the song is chock full of unique and interesting imagery and described with an incredible level of detail, with not a wasted or confusing word to be found. (My only nitpick is that the song occasionally tries to cram too many words into a single line, as if the writers had so much they wanted to say that they couldn’t quite fit it all in.) Simply put, this is the sort of song with the sort of impact that McGraw, Hill, and Urban wanted to create, but only Janson pulled it off.

Back in March, I labeled “Watered Down” as “the perfect marriage of song, singer, and sound.” In my opinion, Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” meets or exceeds Adkins’s effort on nearly every front, and it deserves the same score. I was ambivalent about “Fix A Drink,” but I’ll gladly grin and bear it if it means we get more songs like this one on country radio.

Rating: 10/10. A late entry, but a strong contender for my favorite song of the year.

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.

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.