Song Review: Chris Young, “Looking For You”

It’s safe to say that no one was looking for this song.

I’ll be honest: I straight-up forgot Chris Young was a thing in country music. He’s had some scattered moments over the last decade or so, but he seems to be perpetually stuck on the Nashville B-list, consistently overshadowed by the bigger names in the genre. Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s released some of the blandest material in town over the last half-decade or so (the man has gotten 5/10 scores on five out of six songs that I’ve reviewed here, and the exception was the tire fire that was “Famous Friends”). Sadly, the trend continues on his latest release “Looking For You,” a lukewarm love song that doesn’t do anything to entice the listener to tune in.

The production here is a run-of-the-mill guitar-and-drum arrangement that brings to mind the phrase “Bro-Country-Lite.” Yes, the prominent guitars are acoustic (the electric axes are mostly shoved into the background, and even on the bridge solo they don’t have the volume or energy you might expect), but the punchy drums, deliberate tempo, and token banjo harken back to the early 2010s, and remind me of how Bro-Country tried (and mostly failed) to evolve with the times a few years ago by moving from synthetic to acoustic elements. (The video mentions other instruments, such as a pedal steel, but good luck finding them in this mix.) The instrument tones are bright, but they don’t seem have to much of an impact, and the mix is devoid of any energy and just plods along from start to finish. The only thing that even kinda-sorta catches your ear is the occasional high-pitched guitar riff, and that’s mostly because it feels out of place with the rest of the sound. It’s the sort of arrangement that oozes mild sameness, the sort of song you’ll swear you’ve already heard a hundred time before, and it does nothing to create the sort of romantic atmosphere that the writing requires. It feels like a placeholder mix that needed some serious fine-tuning to suit the mood, and it mostly lulls the listener to sleep as a result.

Young remains one of the better voices in country music, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with here, and he feathers the gas pedal instead of putting his foot down and letting the audience know how he really feels. While this is not a particularly easy song to pull off and Young does well to get through it without breaking a sweat, that’s actually part of the problem: He seems to be holding back a bit in his delivery, and while he seems pretty smitten with the other person, he struggles to let the listener share in those feelings. This easygoing, awkwardly even-keel approach hurts him on the flips side of the coin as well: He really doesn’t sound all that bothered while talking about his life before meeting his future partner, making you wonder why (or how hard) he was looking for them in the first place. He’s just kind of a guy who lucked into something good, and while I’m happy for him, I’m not all that interested in hearing his story.

Of course, it would help if there was an actual story to be told here. The narrator…well, they were looking for a romantic partner, and they found one. That’s pretty much it. The chorus is wasted on overused phrases and imagery that don’t really tell us that much about the relationship, the hook is a weaksauce attempt to tie into the search for romance, and the general lack of detail here is absolutely astounding. The line that really bugs me is when the narrator says “you were so original”…and then proceeds to tell us nothing about what makes the other person so original. (I already know what my retro review is going to be this week, because I’m really tired of this fill-in-the-blank style of writing that forces the listener to provide the details that the song omits.) The bars, the sunset, the “up all night long”…we’ve been here a thousand times before, and there’s nothing here that lets this song stand out and stand on its own. By the second verse (which is really only half of one), the listener is completely tuned out, and no amount of looking is going to bring them back.

“Looking For You” is one of those tracks that can’t justify its own existence, one that tries so hard to get you to tell your own story that it never tells one of its own. The production is some reheated Bro leftovers that don’t fit the song’s vibe, Chris Young doesn’t bring enough emotion or charisma to the table to hold the audience’s attention, and the writing manages to come up about ten drafts of a decent story despite the fact that they’re copying someone else’s story anyway. The whole thing feels like a halfhearted endeavor, a feeble attempt to remind the world that Young still exists. The sad part is that in this regard, it succeeds: We’re reminded just how bland and boring the man’s work has been over the last half-decade, and the harsh truth that emerges is that we haven’t missed him at all.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzz…

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: Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends”

There’s a reason we’ve never heard of these “Famous Friends” before: Judging from the song, they’re not worth knowing.

Chris Young may well be the Barbara Mandrell of our time, because while everyone is jumping onto the same-sounding Blandemic trend right now, Young was boring before boring was cool (seriously, I’ve been running this Korner for four years now, and he’s earned a 5/10 every flipping time he’s popped up on my radar). I didn’t expect him to break that streak when I saw that he and Kane Brown (another artist whose star has waned recentlyhe’s topping the charts, but he’s not driving the country conversation the way Thanos is) had joined forces for the presumed third single off of Young’s presumed eighth album (it’s been nearly two years since “Raised On Country” came out; that album’s got to be coming out someday…right?). Spoiler alert: He actually did manage to break his streak…except he did so in the worst possible way: I hate everything about this track, making it the perfect closer to this tire fire of a year. (Editor’s Note: There are still some songs that need to be reviewed before the year-end lists come out, but this may be the last song to get a full review.)

To say this is the same stupid guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is using is giving it too much credit: The song opens by smashing you in the face with several barely-distinguishable electric guitars (the only one you can really pick out is a slicker, higher-pitched one borrowed from Jake Owen) and a run-of-the-mill drum set, creating a toneless, relentless wall of noise that the mix just beats you over the head with for the entire song. (There are some keyboards buried deep in the background, but they contribute nothing to the overall feel of the arrangement.) The volume level, darker guitar tones, and frequent minor chords give the song an ominous and even slightly aggressive feel, causing it to clash badly with your subject matter—the song comes across less like a celebration of their “famous” friends and more of an opportunity to shove them in the listener’s face for no apparent reason. While Jason Aldean would be proud of the result, everybody else is repulsed by the unnecessary attitude and seriousness of the sound (this isn’t fun, it’s just annoying). This is about the worst possible mix that you could use to back a song like this, and the audience is heading for the exits before the second verse is complete.

We all might like to name-drop important people we “know” to feel special by association, but nobody likes to listen to other people do it, and unfortunately that’s pretty much all Young and Brown do here. There aren’t any technical issues here (both artists are capable singers who breeze through the song’s minimal range, flow, and power demands), but no one sounds like there’s actually having fun here. Instead, the vibe I get from the singers is smug self-importance, flaunting their connections to “important” people to make themselves appear above the city folk they’re addressing. There’s a defiant, holier-than-thou edge to both artists’ vocals, and it puts listeners on the defensive instead of bringing them into the narrator’s camp: Instead of the reaction being “Oh wow, it’s super cool that you know these people!” it becomes “F*ck you, I know some important people too, unlike the two-bit hacks you hang out with!” It reminds me a lot of Robert Counts’s “What Do I Know,” as there’s a strong undercurrent of “us vs. them” exclusivity in the deliveries of both men. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that there’s no reason this should be a duet: Having two singers here brings adds absolutely nothing to the trackit’s just an excuse for Young to try and use Brown’s star power to jump-start his stagnant career.) Instead of elevating the track, Young and Brown actively drag it down with their vocals, making the narrators unlikable and the song unlistenable.

My biggest problem with the lyrics is that completely fail at their main task: Framing the narrator’s not-actually famous connections as people we should respect and care about. Instead, the song reduces them to a laundry list, and we get throwaway lines about preachers and teachers and some brief mentions of people who frankly aren’t worth celebratingwhy should we care that someone is ” the life of every party” or holds a local football record? (The attempted bragging about the narrator’s police officer connection really irritates me, as it smacks of undeserved privilege, and it’s more than a little twisted that the line is given to Brown, a biracial man who knows all too well how police officers would view him and that they wouldn’t just let him go.) You could potentially make these characters into interesting figures, but the writing leaves them as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts and relies on the listener to fill in the details. (Think you can’t flesh out characters like this in the span of one song? Randy Travis begs to differ: He took “a farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher” and turned in into one of the best songs of the 2000s.) Throw in the fact that these are the sort of generic roles and professions that everyone name-drops on a track like this, and the writing winds up feeling more lazy than anything else (and no, randomly tossing in the county you grew up in does not make the song feel personal). As I mentioned before, there’s a reason these “famous friends” aren’t actually famous, and the writers completely fail to convince us that they should be.

“Famous Friends” is a complete failure on every level: The production is dark and edgy instead of warm and celebratory, the lyrics are bare-bones and run-of-the-mill instead of descriptive and unique, and Chris Young and Kane Brown make the narrators less instead of more likeable. Much like with “What Do I Know,” there was a possible way forward with a track like this, but everyone involved did the exact opposite of what they should have, and we’re left with this monotonous, aggravating drivel that has no place on country radio, pop radio, ham radio, or any sort of radio. Brown still has enough clout and popularity to survive this misstep, but is this is what Young is going to drop on us after several years of putting us to sleep, then it’s time to let Brett fill our Young quota in Nashville, and put Chris on a shelf (next to the elf) for a while to make him think about what’s he’s done.

Rating: 3/10. Get that garbage outta here!

Song Review: Chris Young, “Drowning”

You know that awkward moment when a joke doesn’t land and everyone’s just staring blankly at the teller? That’s how this song makes me feel.

Chris Young has taken a lot of heat in recent years for his blatant trend-hopping, from the Bro-Country-inspired “Aw Naw” to the slick, synthetic “I’m Comin’ Over” to his recent “I’m so country!” declaration “Raised On Country” (which eventually got squeezed off the radio and had to settle for a #5 airplay peak). For his second offering off of his Raised On Country album, Young and his team went with “Drowning,” a lost-love lament with the trusty “death, not desire” twist that’s guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. Faced with this uncontested layup of a premise, however, Young ended up missing the backboard entirely, giving us a track that was so sterile and unfeeling that I felt absolutely nothing when the punch line landed, leaving me yawning instead of crying when the song finished.

The production deserves the majority of the blame for this misfire, because it comes across as “I’m Comin’ Over, Part 2” and just does not suit the story. The tracks opens with an electric axe so slick you have to play it with ice skates instead of picks, a couple of lightweight synth riffs that try (and fail) to establish some atmosphere, and a limp percussion line that mixes in both real and synthetic elements. A piano (of course!) jumps in to help with the verses, but it gets buried again on the chorus, and the overall atmosphere ends up feeling cold and lifeless instead of emotional. The brighter synths clash with the darker feel and minor chords of the rest of the track, and the slower tempo and lack of synergy with the writing leave the song without energy of any sort. This thing comes across as a leftover Metropolitan mix someone dug out of a closet and tried to retro-fit on this song, and it leaves the listener unmoved even in the face of tragedy.

Against a sound this robotic and frigid, even a singer as talented as Young is left shouting into a metaphorical blizzard. On the surface, his performance doesn’t sound much different from any of his other singles: Sure, he doesn’t get to show off his range, power, or flow, but he’s still got the smooth delivery, incredible tone, and easy, earnest charisma that have defined and powered his career up to this point. However, I wouldn’t call this the most emotional of Young’s performances either, as he seems a bit more stoic and subdued that someone coming off a mortality-forced breakup would be. Singers in this position either have to bring more raw energy (think Joe Diffie in “A Night To Remember”) or temper their sorrow with optimism (think Dierks Bentley’s “Gonna Get There Someday”), but there’s a calmness and polish to Young’s delivery that just doesn’t fit this situation and leaves him stuck in the mushy middle. He’s just not believable in this role, and he makes the audience question just how broken up he is about the relationship. With someone as capable as Young behind the mic, a placid performance like this is an absolute worst-case scenario.

The lyrics follow the well-worn playbook of this trope: Set the scene as if the narrator is mourning the loss of yet another relationship, and them bam! Hit them with the twist, reveal that the other person has passed away, and leave the audience to weep over the finality of the whole matter. So what when wrong here? For one thing, the writers give the game away way too early: Usually such a twist is left for the bridge or final verse, but here the curtain is anti-climatically pulled away on the first chorus when the narrator reference “how you were taken way too soon.” (At least Thomas Rhett waited until the final line of the chorus to provide the truth behind “Marry Me”; this bombshell was dropped so nonchalantly that I actually missed it during my first listen.) Beyond that, the song is fairly generic, with a lame hook and few details beyond predictable references like answering machines and religious allusions (“I know you’re in a better place/And one day I’ll see you again”). The writing doesn’t do anything explicit to sabotage itself (outside of not being able to keep a secret longer than fifty-five seconds), but it doesn’t do enough to help its case either, and when it gets saddled with poor production decisions and mediocre vocals, the whole thing collapses under its own weight.

With a title like “Drowning,” this song holds surprisingly little water: The production is recycled and bland, the lyrics are cookie-cutter and unsuspenseful, and Chris Young doesn’t do anything to sell the song to the listener. I was really surprised how little I was moved when the twist happened, but given the mediocre showing from all involved, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. When you get upstaged this badly by the other Young in the genre, it’s time to re-evaluate your marketing strategy and settle on a distinct sound rather than hopping between what’s popular.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler, no more, no les.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Raised On Country”

Twenty years from now, no one’s going to tell you they were “raised on Chris Young.”

Once upon a time, Young was one of country music’s golden voices and brightest stars, releasing deep, thoughtful songs like “Voices,” “Tomorrow,” and “The Man I Want To Be,” songs that stuck in listeners’ minds for days afterwards. Fast forward to 2019, however, and Young’s name has become synonymous with bland, generic, “fast food” songs that people hear once, say “Huh, that’s a thing,” and then immediately forget about. From “Lonely Eyes” to “Hangin’ On,” Young has spent the last few years chasing trends and releasing singles that feel as processed as American cheese, and he changes nothing on the leadoff single to his upcoming seventh studio album, “Raised On Country.” Taking his cue from Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, Young feels the need to loudly declare his “countryness” to the world, and the result is yet another forgettable waste of his talents.

I have to give the producer some credit for letting this song pass the “context test”: If you’re going to make a song that praises classic country, the song should at least kinda-sorta sound like a classic country sound. The biggest contributor to this is the 70s-sounding electric guitar that opens the song and has the most bite I’ve heard from an axe in a really long time. Behind it, the producer basically just tries not to screw things up: Lean on real percussion, add some background banjo and organ for flavor, and crank the volume up to 10 to add some energy to the choruses. Unfortunately, that energetic feel is fleeting and leaves the songs to plod along through the verses, and giving the solo to a different electric guitar (one with more bark, but no bite) doesn’t help matters. There’s some punch and attitude to this mix (especially in the dark tones of the biting guitar), but it feels overstated and unnecessary, especially since unlike Bryan and FGL, no one has been spending the last decade questioning Young’s credentials. (This attitude isn’t really reflected in the writing either, which leaves the audience wondering “y so serious?”.) In the end, it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its peers on the radio, and winds up feeling like empty sonic calories with some reheated posturing poured on top.

Young’s “golden voice,” hasn’t gone anywhere (thank goodness), but it’s not used to great effect here. This is the sort of slow, narrow-range track that he could knock out in his sleep if he wanted, but to his credit Young declines to mail in his performance and at least tries to inject some life and passion into the narrator. However, although he adds some attitude to his delivery to match the production, his heart isn’t quite in it and he ends up lacking the edge that, say, Bryan had (again, this is with good reason: Young is basically arguing with himself, because no one is going around saying “Chris Young ain’t country!”). This isn’t really supposed to be an angry song, and thus the emphasis Young uses to drive his point home feels like overkill to me. It’s still a solid performance delivered by one of the better voices in the genre, but it’s a bit overdone for what the song is, and doesn’t leave much of an impression on the audience.

Lyrically, this is just another “I’m so country!” song that you’ve heard a million times before, once that just doesn’t make sense in the current context of Chris Young’s career. The references are the same old people everybody name-checks (Merle, Willie, Hank Jr., Alan, George…even the Joe Diffie reference was played out five years ago), the traits are the same old stereotypes everything professes (trucks, drawls, neon, whiskey, etc.), and there’s absolutely nothing here to support to pseudo-edgy attitude of Young and the production. This is supposed to be a happy song that celebrates past greats instead of addressing past slights, and no amount of darkness or anger is going to make this into anything more. The narrator was simply “raised on country,” and given Young’s current stature and position in the industry, the audience’s immediate reaction is “Tell me something I didn’t know.” A newer artist might be able to get away with singing a song like this, but a veteran singer who devotion to the genre is unquestioned? There’s no reason for him to be singing this song. As Keyshawn Johnson might say, “C’mon man!

“Raised On Country” is about as pointless a song as you’ll hear all year in country music. Everybody already knew that Chris Young was “raised on country,” so he’s left to pick a fight with himself using generic, decidedly-uncontroversial writing and an empty, run-of-the-mill sound. It’s no more memorable than the rest of Young’s recent discography, and if it this trend keeps up, Brett will wind up being the only Young in the genre before too long.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t waste your time.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Hangin’ On”

QUESTION 1. “Hangin’ On” : Bro-Country :: __________
a) Bud Light : Bud
b) Filtered cigarettes : Cigarettes
c) LOCASH : Florida Georgia Line
d) The song is so boring that nobody cares anyway

Chris Young has taken a lot of heat over the last few years for following Blake Shelton’s lead and releasing only the safest, most-sanitized, least-interesting music the genre has ever seen. While I don’t completely agree with this assessment (for example, “Sober Saturday Night” was a bit of a risk that wound up on my ‘Best of 2016’ list), his previous single “Losin’ Sleep” certainly fit that bill, and the trend appears to be continuing with “Hangin’ On,” the second single from his Losing Sleep album. The song is essentially a Bro-Country single that’s has most of its overdone tropes and rampant misogyny surgically removed, and although that’s a nice first step, the song fails to take advantage of its opportunity to delivery a truly memorable performance, and never rises above being “Aw Naw Lite.”

The production bears a fair share of the blame for this song’s failure, as the mix is lifted straight from the Bro-Country era with little alteration. It features in-your-face electric guitars with a distinctly “Cruise”-like cadence, a classic ‘pull back for the verse, crank up on the chorus’ volume balance (the verses are the only place an acoustic guitar gets to breathe), and a prominent mixture of real and synthetic percussion. The differences here mostly amount to sanding off the rough edges: The volume and intensity levels don’t go quite as high as “peak Bro” songs, there aren’t any token instruments tossed in (no banjo, for example), and the instruments that are present waffle a bit between lighter and darker tones. The result is that neither the party vibe nor the sleaze factor are nearly as strong here, and while that’s admittedly a good thing, cutting out the bad stuff isn’t terribly effective when you don’t replace it with anything that’s good or interesting. As a result, the track just chugs along mechanically, and the listener forgets that it existed within five minutes of hearing it.

Chris Young is one of the better vocalists in Nashville today, which is what makes it so maddening to hear him squander his gifts on stuff like “Losin’ Sleep” and “Hangin’ On.” The song isn’t a technically-demanding one, and Young glides over the lyrics with his usual effortless delivery (so much so that it makes him feel a bit distant), but I can’t shake the feeling that the song would sound the exact same in the hands of a generic Bro singer like Chase Rice or Michael Ray. Young certainly has more charisma than your average singer, which helps him sell the song while keeping the sleaze level to a minimum, but it doesn’t feel as personal or powerful as Young’s best work. It’s not a bad performance per se, but in a world where “Gettin’ You Home,” “Tomorrow,” and “Sober Saturday Night” exist, it’s a bit underwhelming, and makes you wish Young would use his powers for good a bit more often.

At a high level, the lyrics are about what you’d expect from a song like this: The narrator is leering at a woman from across the bar, and can’t wait until he gets a chance to make a move. The difference here is the type of details included/excluded from the track: Drinking is mentioned once in the opening line and never referenced again, the party atmosphere surrounding the pair is mostly ignored, and the only physical attribute of the woman that’s referenced is her eyes. (Also refreshingly absent: trucks, bonfires, name dropping, and hay-rolling.) This would be all a great thing, if all these things were replaced with unique, interesting topics and images. Instead, the writers don’t bother to fill the holes at all, and we’re left with a vacuous song that doesn’t really go beyond a guy being a creeper. The whole “hangin’ on” hook is more eye-roll-inducing than clever, and the narrator never actually takes action to get the object of his affection “hangin’ on to me.” The song, like the narrator, doesn’t actually go anywhere, and by the end the listener has given up on the track to focus on more important things, like catching on on their sleep.

“Hangin’ On” is the sonic equivalent of a redacted document: All the sensitive and explosive parts have been removed, leaving behind an incomplete piece of work that lacks meaning or purpose. It feels like a calculated, focus-tested track designed to do one thing only: Climb the charts, reach No. 1, and then immediately self-destruct and leave no trace of its existence. From lesser artists, this might be quite an achievement, but for Chris Young, it’s just a disappointment.

Rating: 5/10. Go check out Brett Young instead.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Losing Sleep”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.