Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (August 2021 Edition)

The alternative title: “How Many 5/10 scores can Kyle give out at one time?”

My limited weekly posting schedule means that keeping up with new singles on the radio can be a struggle, and while I was hoping that my last lightning round post would help me keep pace, the rate of new singles (especially those from bigger-name artists that aren’t announced in Country Aircheck ahead of time and use the radio’s express lane to rack up big first-week numbers) has mitigated whatever advantage I thought I had. (The blog’s split focus on music and gaming puts me further behind too, but gosh darn it sometimes you have to talk about the latest Pokémon news or rant about Nintendo’s will-they-or-won’t-they DLC support strategy.)

The good news is that we aren’t dealing with the garbage that we ran into last round, but the bad news is there’s a lot of mediocrity being pushed on the airwaves right now. I’m not always keen to waste 800+ words on a song that could be summed up with a single “Meh,” so let’s see if we can knock these out quickly, shall we?

(Editor’s Note: There’s one notable omission from this list, but we’re going to need a full review to talk about Morgan Wallen…)

Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love”

You know that old line about putting lipstick on a pig? The ukelele and organ may give the production a slight island vibe, but 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 (seriously, it feels like I’ve reviewed this drivel five times already over the last few years). Some of the more over-the-top declarations in the writing (like getting a tattoo of the other person’s name) make the song feel slightly creepy, and the “steal my love” framing of the track seems weirdly awkward to me (when contrasted with falling skies and unraveling worlds, artists usually say their love will never falter rather than never be stolen). 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.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO”

I’d seen and heard a lot of hype for this song, so I was surprised to discover just how much it didn’t move me when I finally heard it. Part of it is the poor production choices, resulting in a song that too sounds too slick (that synthesized guitar on the bridge solo gives the song a strangely psychedelic vibe that doesn’t complement the story at all) and not moody enough for the subject matter—check out Montgomery Gentry’s “Speed” and note just how dark that song sounds in comparison. (Adding the fiddle sample from McGraw’s “Where The Green Grass Grows,” was an interesting idea, but its limited use means it clashes with the rest of the arrangement and feels tacked on and out of place.) The writing falls flat as well, as it relies too heavily on generic country tropes (yep, we’re back to aimless cruising and making out on tailgates) and spends way too long giving us pointless details about the truck that add nothing to the song. (Even the accident vignette doesn’t land like it did in Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” mostly because it’s quickly glossed over and doesn’t give us a glimpse of the other person’s personality.) McGraw doesn’t show much personality either; his delivery is awfully clinical and matter-of-fact for a guy who misses their partner so much that they have to sell their truck to forget them. I think there might have a been a good song in here somewhere, but poor execution from everyone involved dooms this track to irrelevance.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth its listing price.

Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts”

A more appropriate title for this one would have been “Tame Hearts.” Despite ostensibly being an ode to “the wild cards and all of the wild hearts just like mine,” there’s nothing terribly wild (or interesting) about Urban’s latest release. The production acts like it’s trying to build up to something on the first verse, but it just settles into a standard midtempo, mid-volume routine on the chorus, squandering whatever momentum it had generated. The second verse is just a mess: Whoever decided to cram a million extra syllables into it and make Urban talk-sing his way through it need to be sent back to English class (seriously, who decided to use “tail-of-a-dragon” as a adjective? What does that even mean?). That whole thing could have been trimmed down and sung normally to much greater effect instead of breaking up the flow of the song trying to fit it a few pointless extra words. For his part, Urban doesn’t do a great job selling the narrator’s role despite the unorthodox swings he’s taken on the production side lately (admittedly this would be hard for any mainstream performer; you really need an outsider/”outlaw” persona à la Eric Church to pull it off), and he doesn’t bring enough feeling in his delivery to stick the landing. In the end, the song winds up being an underwhelming celebration of bold dreamers, and just kind of exists.

Rating: 5/10. Whether you’re dreaming big or not, you have better ways to spend your time.

Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”

This is a track that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. The lyrics try to tell the story of a pair of exes that can’t seem to let each other go, but the primary focus seems to be the constant rendezvous and the sentiment that this isn’t actually what the couple wants only gets a few lines of lip service. The production leans on plentiful minor chords and darker instruments tones to indicate that the relationship is not ideal, but the quicker tempo and busy, spacious choruses (and especially the lively guitar on the bridge solo) over-infuse the song with energy and push the focus away from the conflict and towards the lovemaking (it reminds me more of Thomas Rhett & Maren Morris’s “Craving You” than something like Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown,” despite the latter being closer thematically). Brown himself seems to be just along for the ride: His narrator clearly prefers that the relationship be on rather than off, but he seems to consider himself completely powerless in the matter and subject to the whims of the alcohol and the other person.(which simply isn’t true; he can always cut things off completely or at least broach the subject of getting back together more permanently). I’m not sure what to make of this song, but it’s certainly caught my attention and given me something to think about, which is more than I can say for the most of these other tracks.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it strikes you.

Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty”

Chalk this one up as yet another unimpressive debut single from an artist that just rolled off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line. The production is mostly the standard guitar-and-drum mix everyone relies on (there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s relegated to background support for the entire song), and while it sets a suitably reverent tone to support the writing, the general vibe isn’t all that romantic, and it doesn’t do enough to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the story. It’s just as well, however, because you’ve already heard this story a hundred times: The narrator’s partner doesn’t believe that they’re pretty, and the narrator spends the entire song insisting that they are. It’s cut from the same Boyfriend country cloth that “Steal My Love” is, and it’s actually less interesting than Dan + Shay’s single because it tries to hard to blend in instead of stand out. For Barnes’s part, his voice reminds me a little bit of Neal McCoy, but his delivery lacks the emotion and charisma to really connect with the audience and let them share in his feelings. This thing was barely on the Mediabase chart long enough to say so, and it’s not hard to see why.

Rating: 5/10. Better luck next time, I guess.

Dylan Scott, “New Truck”

Can someone tell me why we’re still trying to make Dylan Scott a thing? I mean, did “Nobody” take the hint after “Nobody” took sixteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1? To add insult to injury, this is the exact same song as “7500 OBO,” and given Tim McGraw’s long track record and serious radio clout, this thing is pretty much dead on arrival now. The irony is that while neither song is any good, I think I like Scott’s take on the memory-haunted truck idea better: The details are a bit more novel (finding lost hair ties and chapstick), and the production doesn’t feel quite as slick (the drum machine isn’t as prominent here). Unforutnately, the improvements are relative but not substantial, and the song still relies on the same old generic memories to haunt Scott’s narrator (and Scott’s performance is nothing special either). I’d buy this truck over McGraw’s, but I’m not really in the market for either of them.

Rating: 5/10. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left”

Oh joy, another attempted sex jam from a genre that should know better by now. To its credit, the production at least attempts to change up the formula by leaning on spacious electric guitars that match the starry night sky of the cover art and give the song a psychedelic vibe (unlike McGraw’s tune, it kind of suits the mood here), but it doesn’t capture the depth or the recklessness of the sentiment within the writing. Said writing is little more than a bunch of intercourse euphemisms, and there’s nothing here that differentiates this encounter from a garden-variety hookup (there’s passion, but no substance, and I wish there a bit more explanation behind the feelings involved). For her part, Cam does a decent job infusing the some with emotion, but I still wouldn’t call this track terribly sensual or romantic—you can hear the passion in her delivery, but she isn’t quite able to transmit that feeling to the audience. All in all, this is probably the closest that country music has come to a sex jam in a while, but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two—maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist”

Let’s just say I’m not terribly thrilled that this song exists.

Days like this are when I curse my overly-wrong review format: We all know the Dan + Shay formula by now (sing over-the-top love song, back it with lightweight pop production, rinse and repeat), so why spend 800+ words lamenting it? Unfortunately, the duo’s approach continues to earn them plaudits and prime chart placement (their last single “I Should Probably Go To Bed,” while not exactly a love song, earned them yet another Top 40 peak on Billboard’s Hot 100, although they had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 because Thanos), so Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney just keep cranking these things out, and their latest single “Glad You Exist” is more of the same. This formula, however, was already getting old after tracks like “From The Ground Up,” “Speechless,” and “10,000 Hours,” and with absolutely zero iteration on the formula, this track defies its title by failing to justify its existence.

Let’s start with the production, which unfortunately proves to be as stale as the subject matter. Every song this pair releases features the same three instruments (acoustic guitar, keyboard, and drum machine) and nothing else, and with the exception of a few wood-block notes, this track is no different. The guitar is the primary melody driver and its bright tone gives the song a needed dose of positivity, but it’s striking just how little the producer does with the arrangement: The guitar just strums, the piano just offers chords, and the percussion mostly just plays on the beat (it gets a little more complex after the choruses, but not by much). The mix is so monotonous that it sounds like a bunch of Garageband loops mashed together and set to repeat (there isn’t even a bridge solo!), and comes across as so clinical and sterile that it could have been arranged in a hospital. As a result, the song never builds any momentum or swells with emotion, and is just kind of there as the song goes along, leaving nary a trace in the listener’s mind.

Judging from his tone here, lead singer Shay Mooney appears to be as tired of these songs as we are. It’s a pretty decent performance technically (Mooney handles the rapid-fire sections of the lyrics flawlessly), but he can’t seem to muster the charm needed to sell the story. He sounds surprisingly tired in his lower range, and the way he lets the opening verse lines tail off weakly doesn’t help matters. There are a lot of not quites here: His delivery is not quite clinical like the sound, but it’s not quite passionate enough to let the listener feel the love either. His utter neutrality seems to spoil the mood of the song, leaving it in an awkward spot that is neither romantic nor interesting. (For Smyers’s part, the harmonies are sharp enough, but they don’t add real passion to the song either.) In the end, there’s nothing in the vocals to encourage the audience to pay attention, so they’ve mostly checked out by the time the second verse rolls around.

You can probably guess what the lyrics are just by looking at the title: The narrator is grateful that their partner has stuck with them through all the “bad decisions” and “every high and every low,” and they’re just “so glad you exist.” I’ve been grousing about super-saccharine love songs for a while, but this thing has the opposite problem: Could there be a more lame or limp statement of love than just saying “glad you exist”? (I get that it’s supposed to be an understated expression of deep devotion, but that requires a level of passion in the delivery that Mooney simply doesn’t bring here.) Beyond that, the song is bag of vague platitudes and clichés, with its only attempt at wit is copying Brad Paisley’s “The World” and mentioning the number of people and places in the world without tying it back into the rest of the song. Throw in the super-repetitive bridge that can’t even pad out the song to reach two-and-a-half minutes, and you’ve got a track that feels equal parts lazy and lifeless.

For all the love songs that Dan + Shay insist on flooding the market with, “Glad You Exist” might be the worst of the bunch (although it’s at least not as sleazy as “All To Myself”). The production is bland and boring, the writing is vague and weak, and the vocals are too bereft of emotion to make the song feel romantic. At this point, Dan + Shay are starting to feel like a one-trick pony, and all they’re doing is competing against themselves and devaluing their content. There’s enough filler like this on the airwaves as it is, so this duo needs to freshen up their act quickly, because they risk being left high and dry by the fickle winds of genre trends.

Rating: 4/10. There’s no reason for this to exist.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed”

This title feels very appropriate for a song that could double as a non-habit-forming sleep aid.

Unlike Mark Chesnutt, Dan + Shay have found themselves in the right place at the right time, as their pop-styled, lightweight, and generally awful declarations of love were the perfect fit for the Boyfriend country trend that swelled up over the last few years. Songs like “Speechless” and “All To Myself” rode the wave to become Top 40 hits as well as country chart-toppers, and their pairing with former teen heartthrob/current pop icon Justin Bieber “10,000 Hours” climbed all the way to #4 on the Hot 100. After “10,000 Hours” peaked in late January, however, the pair inexplicably dropped off the radar for the next six months, watching from the sidelines as the Cobronarivus trend took over the genre. Now, the duo have gotten back up off the bench and released “I Should Probably Go To Bed,” the presumed second single from their next album. The song is the answer to the burning question, “What would happen if we took Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown” and made it worse in every possible way?” It’s a poorly-executed track that completely falls apart at the end, one whose only redeeming quality is being eco-friendly: It passes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

The production only does half of its job here, reflecting the seriousness of the situation but not the tension generated by the narrator’s internal conflict. The song is driven exclusively by a moody piano whose tone sits in the awkward middle ground between light and darkness, with a string section featuring a robotic-sounding cello joining the party for the first few choruses. While the mix comes across as very clean and formal, the slow tempo and smooth textures make the track feel more like a conventional love song rather than an internal struggle to avoid reviving a failed relationship. The choppy violins and rapid-fire lyrics on the bridge attempt to ratchet up the pressure and give the listener a sense of the narrator’s state of mind, but the moment is short-lived. The producer then throws their hands in the air and gives up on the atmosphere completely, dropping in a loud, generic percussion mix that dominates the final “chorus” and drowns out what little the lyrics have to say. Things go from “meh” to messy in the span of about two minutes, and the listener is more than ready to move on when the song finally ends.

Lead singer Shay Mooney does a pretty decent Gary LeVox impression, but he tries to be Adam Levine on this track, and he misses the mark badly. Just like the production, Mooney’s shtick is mediocre but tolerable to start, showcasing his decent technical skills and doing a passable job filling the narrator’s role (although the performance feels a bit too slick and clean for someone wrestling over meeting or avoiding their ex). The harmonies start sounding a bit too robotic on the bridge, but Mooney does step up and add some frenetic urgency to his delivery…and then he suddenly decides to show off his falsetto and climbs the ladder far beyond his comfortable vocal range, with ear-splitting and headache-inducing results. (The title of this article is a perfect description of this: Dan Smyers was aiming to imitate Pet Sounds (a 1966 Beach Boys album), but what we got were pet sounds in the form of Mooney imitating a dog whistle.) The final stretch is just Mooney trying to shatter our eardrums over the top of the drums and the Transformers’ harmony vocals, and by the time the outro hits, the audience is pleading for the song to just end already.

The lyrics are surprisingly bare-bones here, as the song boils down to the narrator learning that their ex will be at whatever function they were planning to attend, and then wrestling with “do I stay home or go out?” for the remainder of the track. The lack of detail here is just astounding: We learn nothing about the event, nothing about what might find in the two people meet (all we get is a vague mention about a vague future apology), and nothing about the two people involved aside from that they were once involved. The listener never feels a connection to the narrator because they never get a picture of who they are or how deep the previous relationship was, and thus they’re never compelled to become emotionally invested in the storyin fact, given how repetitive the song gets, by the end they’re just yelling at the narrator to freaking go to bed already. It’s a song that’s far too reliant on the listener to fill in the gaps with their own experiences, and simply doesn’t convince the listener to care about the story.

The only good thing I can say about “I Should Probably Go To Bed” is that despite being uninteresting, poorly-constructed, and generally mediocre, it’s still a step up from the tire fire that was “10,000 Hours.” That said, this track is nothing more than radio filler, with ill-fitting production, vacuous writing, and an overly-ambitious vocal performance that probably should have been left on the cutting-room floor. With Boyfriend country being pushed to the back burner in 2020, I’m curious to see if Dan + Shay can pivot to something a bit more substantial and maintain their dominance on their airwaves. Based on what I’m hearing here, the early returns don’t look promising.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzz…

Song Review: Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours”

I doubt this song is what Malcolm Gladwell had in mind…

Country music has been drifting back towards traditional sounds for a while now, but it seems Dan + Shay never got the memo, and they keep cranking lightweight pop-flavored tracks that lean heavily on the earnest charisma that they don’t have. Sticking to their guns like this has certainly earned them chart success (their last single “All To Myself” topped the country charts and nearly cracked the Top 20 on the Hot 100) and made their sound a bit more distinct by comparison, but it hasn’t made their material any more interesting or memorable, and their songs are promptly forgotten the moment it falls off the chart. With pop-country in a lull, however, the duo has decided to break out the nuclear option, bringing in former teen idol and current pop hitmaker Justin Bieber to guest-star on their latest single “10,000 Hours.” Sadly, you can file this thing under “same stuff, different day”: It’s yet another overly-slick love song with some seriously creepy undertones à la Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You,” and it’s not something I’m even remotely interested in hearing on the airwaves.

The production here it exactly as bland and basic as you’d expect from Dan + Shay: An inoffensive-but-boring acoustic guitar on top of a prominent drum machine, and oustide of some electric guitar stabs, that’s pretty much all you get. The vocals are so loud in the mix that they overwhelm everything else, and they try to use background “ooh-ooh” vocals to make the thing feel spacious and atmospheric, which only kinda-sorta succeeds. Such a move throws the vibe here in flux: The brightness of the instruments only occasionally breaks through the vocals to project an uplifting vibe, and while the beat is catchy and energetic enough, it’s a fairly disposable percussion line that you’ve heard a million times in the last couple of years. The whole thing feels like a poorly-put-together mix that doesn’t move the needle in any noticeable direction, and certainly doesn’t entice the listener to pay attention.

The $10,000 question, of course, is how does Bieber sound on this track? Honestly (and maybe this is because I’m really not familiar with Bieber’s work or voice), he and Shay Mooney sound virtually indistinguishable on this track. (I’d give a slight vocal edge to Mooney, as his Gary LeVox impression gives his voice a bit more tone than Bieber’s, and the key falls more in his comfort zone than it does the Biebs.) Part of the problem is that both singers are buried under an avalanche of vocal effects, so I’m not sure I know exactly what Bieber sounds like based on this song alone. (Normally I would call out Dan Smyers for pulling a Brian Kelley disappearing act, but with Bieber playing a bit role, it’s probably wise for Smyers to step back and avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen.) Neither Mooney nor Bieber exhibit the charm or charisma here to actually seduce whoever they’re interrogating, and they come across as more slimy than sympathetic to the audience. In sum, Bieber brings nothing to this track but his brand power, and frankly, that’s more than Mooney can claim.

It’s the lyrics that really irk me here: This is basically a repeat of Lane’s track, with the narrator peppering someone with personal questions and proclaiming that they’ll spend “10,000 hours or the rest of my life” trying to learn everything about the other person. It’s the sort of pushy, stalker-like attitude I’ve been railing against for a while, and rather than feeling endearing or sweet, it instead leaves me rooting for the other person for make the narrator wear their drink. (Also, given that 10,000 hours translates to about 13.7 months, it isn’t exactly a statement of deep devotion.) Seriously, when did people start thinking that asking all sorts of prying questions was sexy? The writers try to disguise their intentions with inquiries like “Did you get your middle name from your grandma?” or “When you close your eyes, tell me, what are you dreamin’?”, but these are cheap pickup lines that are no better and no less awkward than “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” Here’s a hint: A person will tell you about themselves only when they’re good and ready to do so, and probing like this will often make them a) more likely to withdraw from the conversation and go into a shell, and b) question the speaker’s intentions just as I’m doing now. Such a tactic is not sweet, is not sexy, and is not an attitude that I’m willing to put up with.

Much like “All To Myself,” “10,000 Hours” feels like another step in the wrong direction for Dan + Shay. They’re becoming less likable with each passing single, and adding Justin Bieber only makes them slide farther down the slippery slope they’re standing on. The production is no more than present, the singers come across as shady instead of sincere, and the aggressive tone of the writing makes me gag every time I hear it. Country music has been trying to move past this sort of drivel in 2019, and this song is a clear reminder of why it’s doing so.

Rating: 3/10. No.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “All To Myself”

I can’t believe it! Against all odds, Dan + Shay have managed to make themselves sound even more generic!

As much as I find Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney’s style to be unoriginal, unemotional, and incredibly boring, I seem to be in the minority: With mediocre songs like “Tequila” and “Speechless” cracking the Top 25 of the Hot 100 (to say nothing of the country charts), the duo has perhaps the most momentum of any act outside the Luke Combs/Kane Brown orbit. Following the old adage “Don’t kill the golden goose,” the pair returns to the radio with “All To Myself,” the third single from their current self-titled album, and not only does the feel like the same darn song they’re always singing, but it has a more-overt “Metro-Bro” feel to it, making it one of their worst and most uninspiring songs yet.

You know it’s one of those songs the moment it opens with a slick electric guitar riff and a snap-track percussion line (in fact, it’s almost the exact same setup Old Dominion uses on “Written On The Sand,” which seems weird considering that’s a melancholy song). Despite the inclusion of a Spanish acoustic guitar and eventually a real drum set, and an attempt to make the mix brighter on the chorus, it never manages to shake that sleazy feel, and doesn’t even come close to the sexy vibe it’s shooting for. It’s got a little energy on the chorus, and the bridge solo from the acoustic guitar is a nice touch, but overall it’s too dark, too sketchy, and too generic to really make its mark on the listener. Seriously, this thing sounds like every awful Metro-Bro retread from the last two years, which is fine if you’re trying to blend out, but not if you’re looking to stand out.

After doing something a little different on “Speechless,” Mooney reverts to his usual Gary LeVox impression on this track, but the result isn’t any more interesting than before. The song keeps Mooney is his lower range for most of the time, and not only does he get a little breathy on the lowest valleys, but until the track lets him put a little emotion and power behind his words of the chorus (and only then at short, specific moments), he comes across as detached and uninvested in the whole thing. Just like on “Speechless,” Mooney sounds like he’s totally in love as the narrator, but I don’t feel one iota of romance from his delivery. (Also, where the heck is Smyers during all this? Brian Kelley is more noticeable on an FGL track than Smyers is here.) Instead of coming across as slick and straightlaced as the production, I would have liked Mooney’s performance to feel a bit more raw and emotional, and seen him get more opportunities to dial up some volume and power on the vocals. As it is, however, it’s just another run-of-the-mill Dan + (mostly) Shay performance, and just like the rest of their discography, I’m just not feeling it.

It the lyrics that mark the biggest departure from the duo’s recent material, and not in a good way: Instead of the awestruck, thank-their-lucky-stars narrator from Dan + Shay’s wedding fare (“Speechless,” “From The Ground Up”), this dude here has got one thing on his mind, opening the track by ogling the other person’s lower half and declaring that he wants them “all to myself” for some good ol’ fashioned hay rolling. Never mind how the other person feels about the whole thing, this meathead’s so horny he wants to drag them into bed right this very moment. (When they say their feelings “might be selfish,” my reaction is “Gee, ya think?”) It’s supposed to sound all sexy and romantic, but it falls far short of that mark: It’s just a list of things the narrator’s “jealous” of (the moon for staring, the song for being on their lips), and a play-by-play description of exactly what they’ll do between the sheets. Whoever wrote this junk was apparently not familiar with the concept of foreplay, because instead of setting the mood like a good sex jam, it skips right to the end to the story (“and they banged happily ever after”) and leaves the audience wondering “Is that all you’ve got?”

Country artists have a terrible track record when it comes to these sorts of sultry numbers, and “All To Myself” is yet another failure to add to the list. The production is generic and unimaginative, the lyrics are ham-handed and boorish, and Dan + Shay couldn’t have mailed in a performance better if they worked for UPS. Sadly, there’s a lot of money in mediocrity these days, and as long as the pair can keep cashing checks with lots of zeros, we’re going to keep hearing stuff like this on the airwaves. When a quality song like Kacey Musgraves’s “Rainbow” gets passed over for yet another sexless sex jam, it makes you wonder why you’re listening to the radio at all.

Rating: 4/10. They should’ve kept this song all to themselves.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Speechless”

Well…at least they tried, I guess.

In my review of “Tequila,” I delivered an ultimatum to Dan + Shay: Either find a way to make more interesting music, or find their way to the exit. Of course, nobody is Nashville actually listens to me, and after the song found its way to the top of Billboard’s airplay chart for two weeks, the duo’s response was essentially “Scoreboard, baby.” Now, the pair is back with “Speechless,” the second single from their latest self-titled album, and unsurprisingly it’s more of the same safe, middle-of-the-road pop-country the pair is known for. While there’s a bit more to like here than on their last few singles, it’s still not enough to really hold my attention.

The production here has the same piano foundation as “Tequila,” but that’s where the similarities end. The arrangement is less spacious and more stripped-down than its predecessor, with the piano playing a more-prominent role and only an electric guitar and a restrained mixture of real and synthetic percussion behind it. It’s really kind of a “tweener” song, as it lacks the tempo and energy to feel happy, but doesn’t feature enough passion or groove to push it into sexy territory. Instead, the song has a general (and generic) romantic feel to it, establishing a casual, relaxed vibe that suggests a bit more depth and investment in the relationship than the average love song. It’s certainly easy enough to listen to, but it’s missing that je ne sais quoi that really draws the listener in and elevates it beyond an “okay” sound.

I was unimpressed with lead singer Shay Mooney’s performance on “Tequila,” but he seems to do a better job on happier subject material, to the point where his vocals are about the only thing that generate any energy on “Speechless.” He’s still a bit breathy at times, but he maintains a bit more tone in his lower range this time around (and more interestingly, he seems to differentiate his voice from Rascal Flatts’s Gary Levox more than I’ve noticed before, at least on the verses), and the song smartly gives him the freedom to climb the ladder and apply some power on the hook. (His flow during the faster portions of the vocals is also decent.) Unfortunately, Mooney falls a bit short in the charisma department: Even though he brings enough emotion and earnestness to the table to convince the listener that the narrator is head-over-heels in love, he isn’t quite able to move the listener and make them share in that emotion. Once again, it’s a passable performance, but not once I’m interested in revisiting.

The lyrics are as unoriginal as you might expect: The narrator is rendered “speechless” by the sight of their significant other (yet somehow has the words to deliver a whole song about the moment), as romantic feelings from the past and present flood into their mind. We get just enough detail at the beginning of the song to set the scene (the perfume smell, though overused, is a nice touch), but we lose this as the song progresses, with the second verse’s allusion to the couple’s first meeting falling flat because the audience doesn’t get enough information to imagine it. It’s one of those songs that is overly reliant on the listener having the requisite experience to fill in the lyrical gaps by substituting their own details in for the narrator’s, which means that anyone without the proper memories is left with just half a song. Mooney and the producer try to fill in the holes with their own performances, but in the end the gaps are too big to bridge and the listener is left disappointed with the payoff.

I’d group “Speechless” in the same category as Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty”: It’s certainly trying to make me feel something, but for whatever reason it efforts just fall short. It’s too reliant on the listener’s memory to make the emotional connection it needs, which means it’s going to be hit-or-miss with its audience, and it missed with me. It still qualifies as the best Dan + Shay song I’ve heard in a while, but I’d like to see them take another step in the right direction before letting them back into my good graces.

Rating: 5/10. It’s worth a spin to see if it suits your fancy, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Tequila”

And I thought Midland had a drinkin’ problem

You only get so many attempts to make an impression on the radio, and Dan + Shay strikes me as a group that is rapidly running out of chances. “How Not To” was an unremarkable pop-country track that seemed to be forgotten the minute it went recurrent (despite reaching No. 1 on the airplay chart), and “Road Trippin'” was forcefully rejected Dikembe Mutumbo-style before it could even make the Top 40. Now, the group has decided to close the book on the Obsessed era, releasing “Tequila” as the leadoff single for their currently-untitled third album. Unfortunately, the pair seems to bringing the same old sound to the new project, and the result is an undistinguished snorefest that fails to justify its existence.

The production here is an eclectic mix of instruments, opening with a piano and slowly bringing in an acoustic guitar, a steel guitar, a quiet organ, an atmosphere string section, a dobro solo, and a mix of real and synthetic percussion. The mix seems to do a lot of good things (its’s surprisingly cohesive for the size of the band, it creates a spacious but serious atmosphere that fits the mood of the writing, the dobro is a nice touch), but like most of Dan+ Shay’s work, it feels incredibly generic and run-of-the-mill, as if I’ve heard this same sort of ballad a million times before. The mix is also completely devoid of any energy (although the drums on the second verse do their best to add some), and just plods along lifelessly until the listener falls asleep or changes the station. For a song that clocks in around 3:15, it feels like I’m waiting forever for the darn thing to finish so I can hear something else.

Vocally, lead singer Shay Mooney turns in a mediocre performance here, and is no more interesting than the production. The song feels a bit low for his range, making him sound more breathy and less Gary LeVox-esque than usual (then again, given how badly “Back To Us” crashed and burned, perhaps sounding less like Rascal Flatts was actually the goal), but Mooney mostly makes it work, and his flow on the faster portions of the writing is sharp and on point. He also comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, but he seems to interpret the character too literally, which is a problem because when the lyrics are taken at face value, the narrator is not a terribly sympathetic character (more on this later). Most of all, however, Mooney’s performance is just So. Darn. Boring! His steadfast dedication to the production’s sleepy tone makes him just as forgettable as everything else here.

Lyrically, the song features a narrator telling his ex that he’s totally over her, except when the taste of tequila brings back memories of their time together. If written and performed with the proper subtly, the song could be a tacit admission that no, the narrator is not actually over his ex and that he want her to come back. As it is, however, the narrator comes across as whiny and annoying, to the point where you just want to grab the guy and tell him that if his life is as good as he claims, just freaking stop drinking tequila and all your problems will be solved. Unfortunately, not even a frustrating narrator is enough to draw a reaction from the listener, as the production and vocals anesthetize them so deeply that they’re too busy sleeping to lodge a complaint.

In short, after listening to “Tequila,” I’ve officially run out of patience with Dan + Shay. No matter what approach they take, they always seem to wind up with subpar, uninspired material, and they’re taking up radio space that could be filled by more interesting pairs (Sugarland, Brothers Osborne, Maddie & Tae, etc.). At this point, my advice for Dan + Shay is simple: Shape up or ship out.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Road Trippin'”

Does Dan + Shay have any sort of core musical philosophy? Because it feels like they’re just flinging songs at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Dan + Shay kicked off their Obsessed album with the ready-made wedding ballad “From The Ground Up,” then pulled a complete 180 with their melancholy followup “How Not To” (a No. 1 single that seems to have already been forgotten). For the album’s third single, the duo has switched gears again by releasing the Bro-sounding summer anthem “Road Trippin'” (which will actually see its meaningful chart life happen after the summer), and frankly, it’s a major step backwards from their last few singles.

The production here is very reminiscent of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” with its bombastic synthetic beat, rock-band guitars, and even a token banjo for good measure. The off-brand Bro-Country sound is a jarring transition from the restrained country-pop sound of “How Not To,” and it doesn’t fit Dan + Shay’s style nearly as well. The song strives to give off a fun, carefree vibe, but it fails because its tones are too dark (especially the guitars), its tempo is too slow, and its minor chords introduce too much uncertainty. Of all the songs I want blasting from my speakers as I cruise down the highway in a convertible, this one is pretty low on the list.

Lead singer Shay Mooney’s Gary LeVox impression is the clear high point of the song, as it’s the only thing providing the bright, fun-sounding tone that the song requires. While Mooney’s low range doesn’t sounds as full or rich as LeVox’s, he can match the Rascal Flatts singer note-for-note in his upper range, and the song wisely keeps Mooney there for the choruses and bridge. (However, he sounds a bit awkward when the song stress-tests his flow during the fast-rapping portions of the chorus.) Most importantly, Mooney sounds like he’s having a good time singing the song, and he has the vocal charisma to pass that energy and enjoyment on to his listeners.

The song itself is basically a man trying to sell his significant other on the prospect of a fun road trip, describing all the things they could do. Unfortunately, the imagery here is all bland and boilerplate, mostly checking off the usual things you’d here in a Bro-Country tune. (Nighttime driving? Check. Imbibing a libation or two? Check. Skinny-dipping in a river? Check.) While it omits the overt misogyny of most Bro-Country tunes, it still feels like a song we’ve heard a hundred times before. (In particular, Lonestar’s “What About Now” did a much better job covering this topic back in the day.) In addition, the rap sections here feel really out of place, and the constant repetition of the title phrase (“Row-whoa-whoa-whoa trippin’, trippin’, trippin'”) gets old fast. Combine this with the poor production, and you’ll be reaching for the “Skip” button pretty quickly.

Overall, “Road Trippin'” is a disappointing song that missed its relevance window by a few years. The writing is forgettable, the production is generic and aritifical, and the vocals aren’t enough to cover its flaws. I thought that Dan + Shay had some “potential staying power” after hearing “How Not To,” but not if they release subpar singles like this.

Rating: 4/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “How Not To”

I’m not sure country music was looking for an heir to Rascal Flatts, but it appears that it’s got one in Dan + Shay, if “How Not To” is any indication.

Dan + Shay have been making a name for themselves with fluffy pop-country ballads since 2013, and their most recent single “From The Ground Up” will probably be driving us all crazy at weddings for the next twenty years. “How Not To,” in contrast, strikes a more melancholy tone as it explores the difficulty of walking away from a failed relationship.

The production here is by-the-numbers pop country, and while it does a nice job of creating an unsettling atmosphere for the song, it isn’t particularly memorable or interesting. However, the song deserves some credit for its effective use of volume in tandem with the lyrics: It uses a muted, acoustic-driven sound on the verses listing the easy parts of walking away, and then ramping up the electric guitars on the chorus to convey the pain of the hard parts.

The lyrics suffer from a similar problem, as they describe the narrator’s feelings while they go through the motions of a breakup despite still having feelings for the other person. Sure, they’re fine, they’re inoffensive, and they get the job done, but there’s nothing particularly interesting here, nothing that makes the song stand out from the plethora of tracks that have already plowed the same ground.

Honestly, the most noticeable part of this track is how much lead singer Shay Mooney (at least, I think the one singing is Shay) reminds me of Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox. This similarity is both a blessing and a curse: On one hand, LeVox has great range, a smooth, charismatic delivery, and (at least until now) a distinct voice that was immediately recognizable, and Mooney’s voice exhibits those same traits. However, that also means that Dan + Shay will be hard-pressed to create their own identity beyond being “the guys who sound like Rascal Flatts,” at least until LeVox and the gang decide to retire. (It doesn’t help that fluffy pop-country has been Rascal Flatts’s calling card for the past 16+ years.)

Overall, “How Not To” is okay, and speaks to the potential staying power of Dan + Shay, but it’s not something I’m going to go out of my way to listen to.

Rating: 5/10. It’s worth checking out, but it probably won’t stick with you for long.