Song Review: HARDY ft. Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, “One Beer”

When your song tries to be two different things, it usually winds up being neither of them.

Given that Michael “HARDY” Hardy’s debut single “REDNECKER” earned the distinction of being the worst country single of 2019 en route to a mediocre #26 Billboard airplay peak, you have to figure the dude had nowhere to go but up with whatever he chose as his follow-up release. Now that he’s finally given us “One Beer,” I can officially say that the song is not worse than “REDNECKER”…but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. This song, which mashes three singers (HARDY, Lauren Alaina, and Devin Dawson), two goals, and several musical genres, is the sonic equivalent of taking five different jigsaw puzzles and trying to put them all together into one giant picture, and the result is one big mess that leaves the listener more confused than anything else. There may be things to like and things to hate, but there’s nothing here worth remembering.

For the sake of comparison, let’s start by revisiting a track that plowed this same ground back in 2003 and got things mostly right in the process: Kenny Chesney’s “There Goes My Life.”

Let’s start with the differences in the sound. Chesney’s track  opens with a soft, reflective piano, transitions to an acoustic guitar and subdued snare drum that pushes the lyrics to the forefront, slowly builds in volume and complexity (steel guitar, electric guitar, a full drum set), and builds to a perfect crescendo at the end of the bridge. The tempo was deliberate, the noise level was careful not to trample on the writing, and that mix had a real warmth and humanity to it that accentuates the emotional impact of the song.

In contrast, HARDY opens with a mind-numbingly simple guitar riff marinated in audio effects, tosses in a drum machine on the chorus, and makes them the primary focus of the arrangement for the rest of the song. While the producer eventually adds a few other instruments here and there (pianos, guitars…actually, many of the same pieces from Chesney’s song can be found here). The result is a song that feels as sterile as a doctor’s office, and it generates a limp club-beat vibe that doesn’t fit the subject matter at all. This sound is not inviting enough to be thoughtful and not energetic enough to be danceable, which pretty much makes it good for nothing.

Speaking of nothing, that’s pretty much what HARDY brings to his vocal performance. His flow is basically his only redeeming quality: His voice is monotone and flat, his range is so limited that he’s uncomfortable when the song pushes him into his lower register (he voice tails off and gets raspy at the end of nearly every line), he delivers his lines with less feeling than an Amazon Echo, and worst of all, he doesn’t breathe any life into his characters and make them sympathetic. Where Chesney really made you feel for the protagonist as their dreams disappeared (and then brought his charisma to bear to make the rest of the song adorable instead of cheesy), HARDY never gives you the sense that he cares about the characters here, so why should the audience care? (What’s even more jarring is that the lyrics try to make a point about how alcohol consumption has unintended consequences, but HARDY’s stoic monologue explicitly refuses to take the same stand.)

You would think the track would make more use of the featured singers to prop up HARDY’s lackluster lead, but Alaina only shows up of the chorus harmony work, and Dawson is…er….well, I’m sure he’s here somewhere, but you’d never know it from listening to the song. The song squanders the talent of the singers who actually have talent, and make us sit through HARDY’s ear-grating performance, one that makes us pray to every spirit we can think of that the song is over when he reaches that long pause on the bridge.

And then we get to the subject matter, and…*sigh*. It may be the same story that Chesney tells about two people who get surprised with an unexpected pregnancy and discover that it’s more of a blessing than a curse, but the lyrical construction of this song is vastly inferior. For one thing, the verses are nothing but disjointed laundry lists featuring choppily-sequenced snapshots:

Seventeen in this small town
Weak knees in a CVS
Door locked in the bathroom
What’s it gonna be waitin’ on that test?

Sesame Street on the TV
A race car rollin’ on a cardboard bridge
Crayon stick figure family
Stuck right there front center on the fridge

The detail is there (and it’s actually impressive), but the thread between the images is missing, and the song feels more like a context-less photo album than a true story. (The song also stops short at this point, while Chesney’s tune at least sent the kid to college and tied the ends of the tale together by having the kid fulfill their parent’s dream.) To their credit, the writers try to use the “one beer” hook to point out how alcohol can change the course of someone’s life, but the point lacks enough punch to overcome HARDY’s nonchalant reading of the text. (To their discredit, the extended schoolyard “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” song reference feels more lazy than clever.) In the end, the writers seemed to have good intentions, but all they do is keep the devil’s paving company in business.

The only good thing about “One Beer” is that it is, in fact, a better song than “REDNECKER,” but then again, so is the sound of a cat running its claws across a chalkboard. The writing has some flashes of competency, but neither HARDY nor the producer actually care about what’s being said, and the sound does it own thing while HARDY does nothing at all. (Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson could have added a lot to the track, but they’re criminally underused and are reduced to bystanders gawking at a train derailment.) It’s a mess of clashing ideas wrapped in a layer of sheer indifference, and instead of convincing me that HARDY deserves a more-prominent place in the genre, it tells me we need to throw him out before he can do any more damage.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Devin Dawson, “Dark Horse”

MR. DAWSON:

People always ask why I wear black
Where’d I get my style and why I never smile in pictures…

MRS. WOODRUFF:

Senator Bentson?

SEN. BENTSEN:

Sir, I listened to Johnny Cash. I owned his records. He was a friend of mine. Sir, you’re no Johnny Cash.

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but apparently Devin Dawson doesn’t even qualify as “just about anyone”: His debut “All On Me” couldn’t eke out a #1 on either major country chart (he got stuck at #2 on both Billboard and Mediabase), and he hit the rookie wall hard with his follow-up single “Asking For A Friend,” which crashed and burned at #52. With his career already at a crossroads, Dawson decided to take a page from Eric Church’s playbook and bill himself as an Nashville outsider with “Dark Horse,” the third single from the album of the same name. While it’s actually a decent song that taps into the powerful sentiment of feeling different or out of step with the mainstream, the lyrics also write checks that Dawson can’t cash, using loaded terms and references and pushing an “outlaw” narrative when right now Dawson isn’t even Justin Moore, let along Waylon or Willie. At its core, it’s an ambitious track that does some good things, but it also stretches itself too thin and doesn’t land all of its punches.

The production has an extremely moody and contemplative feel to it, one that reminds me of a lot of turn-of-the-millenium pop music. The primary instrument here is a slick electric guitar that sounds like it was stolen from Three Doors Down and run through the washing machine a few times to give it a slightly cleaner and brighter sound, and aside from some atmospheric tones and an effected drum set that jumps in at the second verse, that’s basically all you get. (A keyboard adds some background noise during the solo, but is otherwise inaudible.) Despite its minimalist approach, the mix has a real heaviness to it, lending its weight to the lyrics to make them feel serious and lead the listener to really ruminate on them. The energy level is strictly managed here, with enough punch to keep the song from bogging down but also measured enough to not distract the audience from the speaker’s message. It’s got a very different feel from a lot of what you’ll hear on the radio today, which is exactly what you want if you’re billing yourself as a “Dark Horse.”

Dawson throws down a solid performance on this song, but the writing sets him up for failure by asking way too much of his charisma. His range and flow aren’t really tested, but his raspy, serious tone gives him the feel of a person who’s really seen some sh…er, stuff in his day, and makes him feel earnest and believable in the narrator’s role. However, while he leaves no doubt that he is an “outsider” or “dark horse,” bringing up the “outlaw” label (and all its related baggage) is a bridge too far for me, especially for a new artists with all of three singles to his name (all of which feature a slick, modern sound that feels like the exact opposite of “outlaw”). Dawson has shown himself to be a talented artist, but drawing a direct comparison to Johnny freaking Cash in the opening lines is a tall task for anyone to live up to, let alone a singer like Dawson.

As you’ve likely already deduced, most of my concerns about the song stem from the writing, which (over)sells Dawson as an independent, outside-the-mainstream person who doesn’t engage in the sorts of behaviors (drinking, church-going, romantic advances) that are expected of him. On that level, the message is quite powerful: In today’s fractured society, there are a lot of people who feel out of place and different from those around them, and the song is basically saying that it’s okay to be true to yourself and not fit nicely into societal stereotypes. (There are darker sides to this sentiment, of course, but the writing mostly sidesteps these landmines…although I get a whiff of a “sexually-frustrated male” odor from the back half of the second verse.) There’s also some telling meta-commentary as well: Up to this point, Dawson has been pointedly rejected as a “mainstream Nashville star,” and the song is essentially his response that he’s totally okay with that. Overall, the song is aimed to be a positive affirmation of our differences, and I’m cool with that.

Where the track falls apart, however, is when it tries to take the extra step and explicitly claim the fabled “outlaw” label for the narrator:

People always ask why I wear black
Where’d I get my style and why I never smile in pictures…

My heart bleeds for country music
Where the honest outlaw truth is…

(For those who aren’t familiar with Cash’s work, the first few lines above are a direct reference to his iconic song “Man In Black.”)

First of all, there’s more than a hint of irony present when a song about rejecting conventional labels tries to claim what has become a pretty conventional label. More importantly, however, the term “outlaw” is loaded with both sonic and lifestyle stereotypes, featuring a rougher, hard-driving sound and reckless behaviors that often cross over into dangerous territory (and often require penance and salvation afterwards). In contrast, the song here has a slick, Metropolitan-esque sound and explicitly eschews some of these behaviors (drinking is downplayed, and the formal trappings of religion are eschewed completely). Being an outlaw in country music requires a certain amount of gravitas, rebellious experience, and a certain level of punch to your songs, and only two artists active today (Eric Church and Dierks Bentley) can even think about claiming the title today. (Give Ashley McBryde a few more years, however, and she might be right there with them.) Dawson has neither the sound nor the service time to be branded an outlaw, and the writers should have known better than to saddle him with an albatross he’s not ready to bear yet.

“Dark Horse” might be a great song for Davin Dawson in 2023, but in 2018 it feels like a premature labeling of him an against-the-grain artist. There’s still a lot to like here, however, as it offers a level of self-reflection and acceptance that’s rarely seen in the genre these days (most songs don’t go farther than claiming “Oh, I am so country!” Sound familiar, Luke Bryan?). It’s the song that declares it’s okay to be different, and given the bland predictability of a lot of newer country artists, I’m more than happy to hear a little difference on the radio right now. (Along those lines, can we finally address the genre’s gender imbalance now?)

Rating: 6/10. Give it a few spins and see how it make you feel.

Song Review: Devin Dawson, “Asking For A Friend”

It’s not “The Chair,” but considering the depths we’re coming from, it’s not bad.

Country music is always looking for the next big thing the next generic young male artist, and Devin Dawson fit that bill perfectly when he debuted with “All On Me” last year. The song got some polite applause and a #2 ranking on Billboard’s airplay chart, but it was a forgettable effort that offered nothing in terms of Dawson’s long-term viability in the genre. Now, Dawson has returned with “Asking For A Friend,” the second single from his debut album Dark Horse, and frankly, after hearing it a few times, I still don’t have any idea if he has a future in this league. It’s a slightly better tune than “All On Me” and won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, but it won’t leave much of an impression on its audience either.

The production is a standard guitar-and-drum mixture, albeit with a bit more restraint and natural texture that I expected. While your basic strummed acoustic guitar handles the rhythm duties, another axe (which I would describe as “amplified” rather than “electric”) provides some spacious atmospheric noise, and the percussion (“effected” rather than “synthetic”) keeps time in the background. (Some random stabs from traditional country instruments—dobros, steel guitars—are also tossed in for flavor.) Outside of the drums getting cranked up at the start of the chorus, the mood is surprisingly chill and relaxed, and this vibe remains oddly consistent even as the tone of the writing starts to shift (more on this later). Despite the fact that the track obeys the usual serious-song rules (darker guitar tones, frequent minor chords, etc.) and the atmospheric noise fades away as the song reaches its climax, it never feels like the sad song it tries to become. Overall, the production falls into the mushy middle of the genre: Not bad enough to offend the listener, but not good enough to interest them either.

In my “All On Me” review, I declared that “while Dawson’s voice comes across as nondescript and slightly nasal, his delivery is sincere and believable enough to keep the song from feeling creepy.” The same is true for “Asking For A Friend”: Same old middle-of-the-road, nothing-to-write-home-about voice, same old lack of technical difficulty (the song shows off little of Dawson’s range or flow), and the same old just-believable-enough performance to make the narrator feel sincere and sympathetic. (He’s not George Strait smooth, but he’s not Morgan Evans pushy either.) In truth, Dawson’s delivery is a hair better the second time around, as his tone is more consistent and his delivery is less flashy (there are no unnecessary jumps into his falsetto, for example). It’s a decent showing, but he still feels like an off-brand Brett Young who can’t quite connect with listeners on the same level.

The lyrics are centered around the tired, not-clever-at-all “asking for a friend” joke, where the narrator asks about getting into the good graces of a woman on behalf of someone else (and who eventually reveals themselves to be said woman’s old flame). It’s about as lame of a hook that you could think of, and while the song tries to execute a head fake by not revealing the truth behind the relationship until halfway through the song, it’s completely predictable and winds up being not much of a surprise. That said, the writing does a nice job of keeping the story moving (the narrator’s play-it-cool attitude slowly transforms into a desperate plea for forgiveness), and the structure helps keep the narrator feeling sincere rather than sleazy. You won’t be crying into your adult beverage, but you will feel bad for the guy, even if you’ll only remember the song for about three minutes.

“Asking For A Friend” is a slightly better song than “All On Me,” but as a follow-up single I’m not sure it will have the same impact. Still, Devin Dawson shows off some moderate depth and decent charisma here, and given the low bar the genre is setting right now, that’s enough to extend his grace period a little bit longer.

Rating: 6/10. You won’t mind hearing this song and you might even enjoy it, but in a few months you won’t remember it ever existed.

Song Review: Devin Dawson, “All On Me”

Look no further than “All On Me” if you want proof of Brett Young’s success, because it shows that “Caliville” imitators are already coming out of the woodwork.

Devin Dawson, a California native whose breakthrough came courtesy of a viral Taylor Swift mashup, signed with the Warner Music Group back in 2015, but did not release a debut single until “All On Me” dropped back in May. While the track borrows heavily from Young’s playbook—respectful lyrics, restrained-and-balanced production, etc.—and certainly won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, it seems to lack that extra something that makes Young’s songs so compelling, and thus it doesn’t have the impact o f a “Sleep Without You” or “In Case You Didn’t Know.”

The production is anchored by a split-the-difference drum set (effected, but not synthetic), and cycles through a series of restrained guitars to handle the melody: It features an acoustic guitar on the intro, drops the guitars completely at the the start of the lyrics, and then slowly mixes in an electric guitar starting halfway through the first verse (perhaps too slowly, as it never becomes loud of prominent enough to generate any energy, not even on the bridge solo). Outside of an organ floating around in the background, that’s really all you get here. Compared to “Sleep Without You,” the tempo of “All On Me” is slower and the guitar tones aren’t as bright, making the mood feel a shade too serious for the subject matter. It’s not bad (aside from an incorrect note at the very end of the song that was inexplicably left in the mix), but nothing really stands out or demands your attention either, and that’s a major problem for a debut single.

The lyrics here show the narrator offering himself as a shoulder for the woman in his life to lean on, declaring that when life’s troubles become too overwhelming, she can always “put it all on me.” There’s nothing particularly novel here, and while the writing features some clever turns of phrase (“When it don’t add up, you can count on me” is my personal favorite), the constant “you can ___ on me” chorus line endings get a bit repetitive after a while. The lyrics also send some mixed messages about the narrator’s true intentions, as the singer invites the girl to “come get high on me” and “come and lay one me,” while also insisting his feelings are deeper and more permanent by declaring “you can bet your life on me.” This sort of ambiguity leaves the song heavily dependent on its delivery to keep it from veering into the gutter.

Thankfully, while Dawson’s voice comes across as nondescript and slightly nasal, his delivery is sincere and believable enough to keep the song from feeling creepy. He show flashes of potential with his range and flow during the song, but not always at the right time: His tone is suitably serious for most of the song, but his over-exuberant “come on!” and subsequent falsetto piece on the bridge feel awkward and out of place. While the Brett Young comparison is an easy one, Dawson exhibits nowhere near the amount of charisma and earnestness that Young does, and he fails to make this song particularly memorable.

Overall, “All On Me” is an okay song, but that’s all it is, and that’s not the first impression Devin Dawson or any new artist wants to make. It fits the current radio climate well, and doesn’t make any egregious missteps, but it’s a bit too safe/forgettable a play for my tastes. Being Brett Young may be a good place to start, but Dawson needs to do more to forge his own identity if he wants to stick around.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.