Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2022 Edition: Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Dylan Scott, Elle King & Dierks Bentley)

I haven’t been thrilled with the state of country radio in 2022, and while there have been some better songs introduced lately, there have also been a number of unremarkable soundalike tracks released more recently as well. With the end of the year fast approaching and my review backlog starting to grow, I think it’s time for another lightning round of reviews to cleanse the pallet and clear the slate as we head into the homestretch. YouTube is forever pushing creators to shorten their intros, so let’s follow their lead and get right into the content. Onwards!

Ashley Cooke & Brett Young, “Never ‘Til Now”

Cooke is a Florida native who developed a following on TikTok during the pandemic and leveraged it to score a record deal with Big Loud earlier this year. “Never ‘Til Now” was originally recorded as a Cooke solo, but because you can’t get on the airwaves without a collab these days, Brett Young was brought in to cover the second verse for the radio release. The song starts out with a self-portrait that’s piques the listener’s interest, but quickly pivots to a standard “didn’t think I’d find love until I found you” track that fails to hold the listener’s interest. Vocally, Cooke is a carbon copy of Kelsea Ballerini (with “HEARTFIRST” struggling, are they already trying to release KB?), but Ballerini has a knack for making songs feel personal and meaningful, and Cooke doesn’t quite get there with this track – it just feels like yet another song about unexpected love. (For Young’s part…well, there’s a reason this wasn’t a duet to begin with, and his performance here is utterly replaceable.) The sound suffers from the same issues: The acoustic guitar driving the melody at the start is decent, but it get overshadowed by some synths, strings, and a piano that feel a bit lightweight, and in the end the mix doesn’t create much of an atmosphere at all. I like some of the early lines in the writing, but it gets more and more predictable over time, and without the necessary emotion to move the listener, I wound up being pretty bored by this track. It’s not bad, but it’s not much of a debut either.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Jon Pardi, “Your Heart Or Mine”

The TL;DR of what’s admittedly a TL;DR review is that this is basically “After A Few” with heavier guitars, and no more interesting (in fact, I think I like Denning’s track better). I called out Pardi on “Last Night Lonely” for drifting back towards the mainstream with his sound and minimizing the fiddle-and-steel elements, and this trend continues on “Your Heart Or Mine.” The dominating instrument here is a raunchy hard-rock guitar that tries (and half-succeeds) to give the song a sensual feel, with the fiddle and steel guitar relegated to supporting riff duty. The dark tones and plentiful minor chords give the off-and-on romance an ominous feel, but Pardi doesn’t seem to be bothered by the situation at all—in fact, his vocals give us the impression that he’s enjoying all the sexual encounters, which makes him seem significantly more sleazy and significantly less endearing as a narrator. He’s asking questions about who’s responsible (“is it your heart or mine?”) but he doesn’t seem like he’s all that interested in the answer as long as the trend continues. As far as the writing, there’s nothing terrible clever or attention-grabbing here: The narrator and their partner are being drawn in an relationship that neither one can bring themselves to end because the sex is too darn hot, and that’s pretty much the story. (When they claim “we swear it ain’t love, love, love,” they’re trying to imply that it is love, but given that there’s nothing else to this pairing besides getting it on, I actually take them at their word: This is pure lust, and nothing more.) In the end, this one’s kind of a nothingburger to me, and should get tossed into the bin with all the other mediocre country sex jams Nashville keeps dumping on us.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Dylan Scott, “Can’t Have Mine (Find You A Girl)”

This is one of those songs that uses a lot of words but doesn’t actually have that much to say. “Find You A Girl” ought to be the actual title instead of a parenthetical, because that’s really all the song says: It brings to mind a bad Dr. Seuss book: Find a girl on a date, find a girl who is late, find a girl who is wild, find a girl who wants a child, in a box, with a fox, etc. The whole thing puts the listener to sleep by the second verse, and the production doesn’t help matters with its relaxed tempo, limp guitars, and punchless drums. I get that’s trying to create a soft, positive vibe, but it overshoots the mark and winds up feeling so laid-back that it encourages the listener to disengage and fail to absorb (or care about) the message. (There are a few rapid-fire moments that try to inject a little energy in the track, but they just feel kind of jarring and don’t actually add anything to the song, and only make the listener feel like the writers were just trying to cram too many syllables into a line.) The only thing weaker than the sound is the “can’t have mine” hook, which feels like a bolted-on aftermarket part that barely ties back to the rest of the song at all. Scott’s performance is similarly meh: You can feel his affection towards his partner and that he’d like everyone to find the happiness that he has, but he doesn’t sell his idea of paradise very well, and the writing doesn’t help matters by never discussing the narrator’s own relationship directly (all we get is “I got so lucky”). It is what it is, and what it is isn’t much, unless you’re looking for a drug-free, non-habit-forming sleep aid.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzz…

Elle King & Dierks Bentley, “Worth A Shot”

King was featured on Bentley’s “Different For Girls” back in 2016, and six years later Bentley is repaying the favor by backing King on her latest single “Worth A Shot.” Frankly, the premise of this song annoys me to no end: The two speakers have a relationship that appears to be on the way out, and they need to find a way to reconnect and repair the connection…so they decide to get wasted together and see what happens. Could country music please give up this charade around alcohol being a cure-all for everything? It’s a substance that tends to make situations like these worse rather than better, and everything that they want to do (“say what we need to say,” “get our pride out of the way,” even “lose our inhibitions”) could be done without involving inebriation. To its credit, the song at least feels more like a duet than “Never ‘Til Now” did, but I question just how much chemistry these artists have: Bentley is barely audible when the pair sings together, so much so that it feel like an intentional production decision (which seems like a bizarre choice, since there’s no way Bentley could overwhelm King the way, say, Jordin Sparks would have overwhelmed Thomas Rhett on “Playing With Fire”). Speaking of production, we get a guitar-and-drum mix that feels a bit too slick on the verses and then roughs up the sound slightly with some harder electric axes on the chorus. The resulting vibe feels surprisingly upbeat and even a little celebratory at times, which feels like an awkward fit for a song trying to get a rocky relationship back on course. In the end, this is a story that I’m not interested in hearing about people drinking themselves into oblivion in an attempt to bring them back together, and if that’s what it takes to make a relationship work, maybe this pair is better off going their separate ways.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth a shot.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “Gold”

Honestly, this is what I wanted Blake Shelton’s “No Body” to sound like.

Zack Kephart wrote a poignant article recently on the generational turnover within country music and how quickly artists can move from defining the genre to complete irrelevance, and it appears that Dierks Bentley is on the business end of this cycle right now. Yes, his chart performance is still strong (“Gone” made it to #2, “Beers On Me” to #1), but #1 songs aren’t the indicator of popularity that they once were, and other warning signs are started to flash: For example, the pace of his chart climbs has slowed to where he’s only dropped one single a year since 2019, and it’s been over four years since we’ve seen a new album (or even an EP) from him. You get the sense that after almost twenty years in the business, Bentley is slowly being shown the door, and nothing short of a monster hit will delay the inevitable.

So is “Gold” the monster hit Bentley needs to stay afloat? No, but it’s a step in the right direction, a rare note of optimism and a literal and figurative silver lining in the face our current beer/truck/Ex-Boyfriend era. Bentley might be on his way out, but I’d like to think that he’s at least leaving on his own terms.

This isn’t the tribute to 90s country that “No Body” is (and it isn’t meant to be), but there’s a throwback feel to the production nonetheless, capturing that 2000s-era spirit that Chris Owen preaches about and that Bentley broke in with long ago. It’s a by-the-book guitar-and-drum mix at its core, but there’s a fair bit of variety within each category: The acoustic guitar sets the tone in the opener and joins with an electric axe to form the foundation of the chorus, while a squealing electric guitar provides accents over the top and handles lead duties on the bridge solo (even if the solo isn’t terribly intricate). The drums are mostly real (Grady Smith’s favorite clap track is here too), but the sounds are rich and diverse enough that even when the percussion is left alone for most of the verses, it manages to hold your attention and help drive the song forward. The instrument synergy here is surprisingly good: The pieces’ bright tones blend together beautifully while still maintaining the identity of each individual player (no indistinguishable wall of noise here), and the result is a warm, full-feeling sound that conveys a sense of unbridled happiness and contentment that complements the writing perfectly. (The faster tempo here compared to “No Body” can’t be overstated here either: It helps keep the energy level up and lets the song steadily build momentum over time.) Unlike Shelton’s track, this is fun to listen to, and it’s been a while since I’ve said this about a radio single.

Vocally, this song is a really good fit for Bentley for three reasons:

  • As one of the senior members of the genre, he’s can speak to his audience from a place of experience and authority in a way that newer artists can’t (honestly, I think even Thanos would struggle to sell this song, to say nothing of stiffs like Dustin Lynch).
  • I’ve always considered Bentley and Eric Church to be the true heirs of the outlaw movement in country music, and Bentley’s leaning in to that drifting, carefree persona over the years (“Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do,” “Free And Easy Down The Road I Go,” etc.) lets him come across as the guy who’s really put these miles on his shoes, so when he says it’s about the journey and not the destination, you believe him.
  • Bentley’s sung his share of sad songs over the years, but he’s also pretty good when talking about the sunny side of life (compare this to the dark turn Shelton’s taken over the last few years). Bentley’s proven on tracks like “Living” that he can play the optimist card when he needs to.

So yes, I’d say this song is squarely in Bentley’s wheelhouse. That’s not to say, however, that this is a case of “right place, right time,” as he’s able to match the warmth and energy of the sound while also bringing some confident determination to the table to show that he practices what he preaches. It’s the sort of charismatic performance that gets people to buy what he’s selling, and serves as a reminder of why Bentley has lasted this long in the genre.

So what is Bentley selling? Basically, this is a “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” tale, with the narrator counseling his listeners not to develop tunnel vision on their end goal and appreciate the things around them along the way. It’s not much, but it’s something, and it feels like a natural progression from the awakening experienced in “Living.” The hook isn’t terribly good (“feels like gold” is a really awkward phrase), and of course the writers find a way to sneak in some buzzwords (enjoy the ride…at night! In a rusty Chevrolet!), but they managed to sneak in a decent line or two as well (“You finally find that greener grass but you’re still in the weeds” is my favorite). In a world that seems to be spinning at an increasingly-fast rate, a song like this resonates because sometimes we need a reminder to stay in the moment and appreciate the things around us, and while we’ve got plenty of party songs that preach staying in the (inebriated) moment, this song doesn’t have the odor of complacency and willful ignorance that said party songs give off. We’re still working towards something here, but we don’t want to do it at the expense of our happiness and well-being, and this track asks its audience to take stock of their situation to make sure they’re enjoying the ride. It’s the sort of takeaway that I wish more songs would offer, and while it may not be groundbreaking, it’s still important.

“Gold” is a straightforward song that features perfect execution from everyone involved. The writing is solid and thought-provoking, the production is upbeat and features great synergy, and Dierks Bentley states his case with a level of skill and charm that shows why he’s lasted this long in the music business. He may be playing the last few holes of his mainstream career, but he’s still got something to say and he’s still got a knack for saying it, and it’ll be really hard to see him go with so little indication that anyone will be able to fill his shoes properly. My hope is that he’ll at least be able to finagle another album out of his current deal, but even if it doesn’t happen, I hope he reaches the end of his own musical journey knowing that he found something to smile about every step of the way.

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

Song Review: Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me”

Beer has never been this boring.

Despite an illustrious career that’s spanned nearly twenty years, Dierks Bentley has never been able to grab a spot on country’s coveted A-list, and isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Bryan, Aldean, Rhett, or Thanos when someone lists the genre’s current stars. Part of this is by choice, as Bentley has been unafraid to sacrifice his Q rating in the name of passion projects (his bluegrass album in 2010, his Hot Country Knights alter ego in 2020), but part of this has been a noticeable inconsistency in his mainstream releases, with a periodic drift towards mainstream blandness (such as his previous single “Gone,” or most of his 2016 album Black). Unfortunately, despite teaming up with the genre’s flavor-of-the-month HARDY (hasn’t he ruined enough songs lately?) and the genre-blending artist BRELAND (good grief, not more all-caps names), Bentley finds itself stuck in the same old rut with his new release “Beers On Me,” a paint-by-numbers snoozefest whose only value is as a PSA for sobriety.

The production here is a limp, lifeless mix that works against the ultimate goals of the track instead of supporting them. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: This is same old guitar-and-drum mix that everyone else leans on, and outside of a steel guitar that buried in the background and barely audible, that’s pretty much all you get. With its simple riffs, neutral tones, and slower pace, the sound winds up feeling incredibly heavy and lethargic, and lacks any of the punch, groove, or energy that might catch a listener’s ear and draw them into the story. Instead, the vibe is dull and gray, and makes the song feel like more of an extension of the listener’s daily slog rather than an escape from it. In turn, it makes the audience skeptical of the song’s offer: Why would they go to a bar and drink themselves into a stupor when the experience sounds this boring, and they could go do nearly anything else and have more fun? In other words, this mix is a terrible choice for the song, and it makes the track more of a grind to get through than it already is.

My first question about is vocal is this: Who on earth thought it was a good idea to put three singers on this track? It’s only written for a single performer, and neither HARDY nor BRELAND add any value to the song with their presence. (At least BRELAND’s not-quite-a-rap breakdown on the bridge is ultimately a wash; HARDY’s irritating persona/baggage and weak, disinterested delivery do more harm to the song than good.) There aren’t any technical issues with Bentley’s performance, but his lack of energy and enthusiasm makes him sound like he’s reading the lyrics off of cue cards and would rather be anywhere else in the world than the bar he’s supposed to be touting. He sounds like he’s trying to dissuade people from joining him instead of persuading them (which, to be fair, would be exactly what I’d sound like if I knew I would have to pay for everyone that showed up). The overall level of apathy on this track is just astounding, and if the listener is still awake by the time it’s over, they’re left wondering “If these three can’t be bothered to care about this track, then why should I?” A charismatic performer like Bentley should never be this boring or uninvested, and whoever let this slide as an album cut (much less a single) should be embarrassed.

The lyrics here are about as simple and cookie-cutter as you could get: The narrator’s buying, so bring your troubles to the bar and beer yourself to death because “the beer’s on me” (the fact that the title is missing the apostrophe bugs me far more than it should). Once again, alcohol gets pitched as a snake-oil cure for all of life’s troubles, and this time they don’t even bother to make the pitch that the experience will be fun or exciting (we get one line about “feel-good standard time,” and that’s it). In general, the writing is really bad here: We’ve got a lame “that’s on you, ’cause the beer’s on me” hook that’s neither witty or clever, groan-inducing lines like “leave the sweatin’ to the beer” and “I like my drinks like my roof: On the house,” and even some sleazy-sounding stuff like “I could be your sponsor if you like how that sounds.” (Spoiler alert: We don’t.) With their exclusive focus on beer, the lyrics don’t even offer the usual generic amenities to the listener: We hear nothing of music, dancing, or even the shoulder of a fellow patron to cry on. With so many places from so many other songs that offer a better atmosphere and more things to occupy your time, why would you ever waste your time at a place like this? You wouldn’t, and you shouldn’t bother with this halfhearted sales pitch either.

I’ve heard a lot of drinking songs in my time, but they’re rarely botched as badly as “Beers On Me” is. Everyone from the writers to the singers to the producers just goes through the motions here, leaving us with a hollow shell of a track that all the lager in the world could never fill. No one walks away from this mess looking good, least of all Dierks Bentley and his all-caps collaborators BRELAND and HARDY, and the best thing I can say is that if they’re lucky, no one will remember this drivel even exists in a few months. Bentley remains an effective artist when he’s really invested in the material, so if this is the most feeling that he can muster for a radio single, maybe he should stick to his passion projects instead.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “Gone”

So much for the career of Doug Douglason…

Dierks’s Bentley alter ego Douglason and the Hot Country Knights were intended to be a fun, bizarre, slightly-off-color tribute to the neotraditional sound of the 1990s, and looked like a shoo-in for the weirdest thing to happen all year. In 2020, however, they don’t even make the Top Twenty on the list of absurd occurrences for the year (heck, Old Dominion meowed their way through an entire album), and their official single with Travis Tritt “Pick Her Up” didn’t even crack the Top 40 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, Bentley has come back down from The Mountain to headline a single under his own name: “Gone,” a rumination on lost love and the presumed leadoff single for his next project. Unfortunately, Bentley seems to be stuck in the same malaise as the rest of Nashville these days: The song is a bland retread that simply fails to capture the listener’s attention.

The production is the first problem here: The deep, forceful piano on the opener piqued my interest, and the occasional dobro riffs were a nice touch, but for the most part this is a same standard guitar-and-drum mix that everybody else is using (most notably, there’s a slick feel to the arrangement that calls to mind Bentley’s Black album, not to mention the Metropolitan and Boyfriend country eras). The instrument tones and minor chords suggest a serious tone, and the guitars have some moderate texture in their lower range, but the vocals and percussion are a bit too loud in the mix, and the guitar stabs on the chorus aren’t sharp or emphatic enough to draw any attention (and yet the wall of noise that’s generated is just loud to push the dobro into the background and out of the way). It’s the sort of minimally-acceptable effort that establishes a melancholy mood for the track, but does so without providing any energy or momentum, and so the track just plods along from start to finish while the audience wonders “Is this it?” By the time it reached the bridge, I was already ready to jump ship and start working on my next review.

In terms of vocals, this is easily one of the weaker efforts I’ve heard Bentley put forth in quite some time. From a technical perspective, while he deserves props for hitting some impressive low notes on the verses without losing his tone (he quickly returns to his normal voice, but even a few judicious demonstrations are impressive), his flow gets stretched a bit too thin in both directions (it comes across as slightly choppy in the first verse when the lines are stretched out, and then he struggles to get the words out on the rapid-fire section of the chorus). The biggest issue, however, is the lack of emotion in Bentley’s delivery: He sounds more like a political commentator than a heartbroken fool, over-emphasizing his lines with a mix of frustration and determination without giving us any sense of the pain behind them. It’s the worst of both worlds: He cares too much and he sounds too forceful to really be “gone,” but he doesn’t show enough vulnerability to make the narrator feel sympathetic and or convince the listener to care about his plight. It’s a surprising stumble from a veteran performer like Bentley, and one that makes me a little nervous for that next album…

The writing here is a mixed bag: On one hand, it does a nice job providing details supporting the narrator’s claim that they’re “gone” à la William Michael Morgan since the relationship ended: isolation from friends and family, the images of undone chores and empty bottles on the bridge, and so on. The problem is that by doubling-down on this tack, we get no details about how the relationship endedthe narrator claims to be “overthinking” the events that led to their partner leaving, but they never let the audience in on their thought process, so we have no idea how or why things went south. (Sticking those random rapid-fire lines in the chorus feels like a bad and unnecessary decision as well, especially when the rest of the song is fairly slow.) Using places like “memory lane” and “hotel heartbreak” to detail a mental road trip on the second verse isn’t nearly as clever as the writers think, and back-loading all the details about an unkempt house on the bridge feels like too little too late (by then the listener has likely already checked out). It’s the sort of song that feels like it has potential, but needed a few more drafts to reach it.

The truth is that “Gone” is a forgettable lost-love lament, nothing more and nothing less. The production lacks inspiration, the writing only tells half the story, and Dierks Bentley’s passion on the mic feels misplaced (too much force, not enough feels). There’s something missing from this genre right now, and it’s feeling, as if the constant drumbeat of bad news had made country music numb to the emotional ups and downs of life. As much I’ve (generally) enjoyed Bentley past work and as much as I hate giving out all these fives, I’m going to keep doing it until someone in this genre steps up and moves the needle.

Rating: 5/10. No one would care if this song were here or “Gone.”

Song Review: Hot Country Knights ft. Travis Tritt, “Pick Her Up”

Would I call this fun? I guess. Would I call it good? Not really.

The “official” story of the Hot Country Knights is that ex-adult-film-star Doug Douglason and his band of merry misfits have been making sporadic live appearances for the last few years, and only signed a major label deal with UMG Nashville a few short weeks ago. Unofficially, Dierks Bentley (who’s been known to pitch more-traditional styles of music to the masses in the past, most notably on his 2010 bluegrass disc Up On The Ridge) has been using this alter-ego to escape the constraints of modern country music for a while (the fact that Douglason showed up right around the time Bentley was recording Black doesn’t seem like a coincidence), and with a mini-revival of the 1990s neotraditonal style going on in the genre, he decided the iron was hot for the Knights to strike, pulling vaunted Class of ’89 member Travis Tritt out of mothballs for the group’s debut single “Pick Her Up.” As far as throwback tracks go, the group absolutely nailed the sound of the era, but they also whiffed badly on the writing, making the track feel like a Bro-Country retread and leaving the overall product merely okay as a result.

Let’s start with the production, which is definitely the star of this sideshow. The electric guitars come at you withe full force from the word go, and they not only recapture the tone and rollick that dominated the 1990s, but they don’t slow down or miss a beat from start to finish. All the other requisite pieces are here as well: The fiddle, the steel guitar, the piano, the full drum set, and especially the rowdy energy Tritt himself championed on tracks like “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” The tempo is brisk, the various instruments each get a chance to shine, and the momentum is unstoppable, so much so that the musicians have to extend the outro for an extra minute just to burn off the excess fuel. (Unfortunately, where the extended ending of “Run Wild Horses” enhanced the mood, this one absolutely kills it, as the players ungracefully bang out the same repeated note over and over and over until your ears starts bleeding and the whole mess starts to sound like a skipping CD.) Still, the sound is perfect for the bottle rocket that it is, and serve as a nice vehicle for the fun, lightweight lyrics that helps distinguish it from the pack.

Something about Douglas…er, Bentley sounds a bit off to me during this performance. His tone is mostly okay and he’s enough flow to keep up with the rest of the track, but he doesn’t sound as comfortable in his lower range as I expected, and occasionally sounds a bit flat when he closes a line. Luckily, this isn’t Bentley’s first spin around an old-school approach (heck, I’ve been calling him an “outlaw” throwback for years), so he’s got the cachet and charisma to cover for any minute flaws in his delivery. In truth, Tritt’s in a similar spot: He’s lost a little off his fastball over the years (his tone and flow don’t quite measure up here), but as the poster-child for the rowdy side of 90s country, he’s basically required to be part of a song like this, and he’s got just enough of that old swagger to forge a connection with the audience. While I wouldn’t say the pair has great vocal chemistry (they don’t sound all that good harmonizing together, which is probably why they spend much of the song trading the lead instead of sharing it), the switches are seamless and the listener gets the full dosage no matter who is delivering it. In other words, the performers aren’t the problem here.

The problem, however, is the writing: The narrator spends the song dispensing advice about how to win the heart of a country girl, and…well, I’ll let them explain it:

Pick her up in a pickup truck
And take her out to a honky tonk
Turn an ice cold longneck up
Dance around to an old jukebox
If you really wanna rock the world
Of a pretty little country girl
Just know when you pick her up
Pick her up in a pickup truck

Fairly or not, this song is only a bonfire and a pair of cutoff jeans away from pretty much every Metro-Bro song we’ve heard over the last decade. The 1990s certainly had their share of songs in this vein (think Garth Brooks’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)”), and while they generally weren’t as ear-grating or misogynistic as what was coming, the truth is that songs like this have been done to death over the last ten years, and I’m really sick of writing that’s this shallow and predictable (that “pick her up in a pickup truck” is more groan-inducing than anything else). Once you get beyond the sugar rush of the sound, you realize that this is the same old drivel wrapped up in a different package, and adding some fiddle and steel to a song like this doesn’t make it any more interesting.

“Pick Her Up” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using a wall of neotraditional noise to set off your nostalgia sensors before you realize that neither the Hot Country Knights nor Travis Tritt have anything interesting to say. However, I can at least say that they did a nice job wrapping this package: The neotraditional sound is executed perfectly, to the point where this really feels like it could have been a hit from the 1990s, and Dierks Bentley and Tritt have more than enough charisma between them to deliver the mail. The question now is this: Do the Knights have enough (better) material in their pockets to really make this sound stick, or is it all just window-dressing to sell the same old stuff? Personally, I’m not holding my breath.

Rating: 6/10. It’s a great imitation, but you’ll go back to the real thing after a few spins.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “Living”

Now this is an escapist song I can get behind.

Time catches up with every artist eventually, but every time it gets close to Dierks Bentley, he just mashes the gas and drives away like he’s Joey Logano, following up every underperforming single (“Bourbon in Kentucky,” “Riser,”“What The Hell Did I Say”) with a string of #1 and #2 songs. He’s two-for-two with The Mountain so far with “Woman, Amen” and “Burning Man,” and I look for him to make it three in a row with his latest single “Living,” a simple tune about taking a step back to smell the roses and notice the beauty of life around you. It’s an interesting take on the subject, as instead of the adrenaline-fueled, ragged-edge-of-disaster activities that people associate with “really living” (and unlike the shallow, party-all-your-problems-away mindset of songs like Chris Janson’s “Good Vibes”), “Living” asks you to take a step back and appreciate what the world has to offer, even as its stressors constantly demand your attention.

The production doesn’t have the hard-driving edge of “Burning Man,” but that wouldn’t suit the song well anyway. Instead, the sound is softer and more spacious, with a bright, uplifting feel that complements the writing nicely. Arrangement-wise, it’s the same old guitars and drums everyone else is using (clap track and all), but there’s something slightly different about it—the sound is a bit more raw and vibrant (perhaps the Colorado mountains had an impression on the session players after all). For the most part, the producer does a nice job with the chord structure, tossing in a few minor chords on the chorus to call out the struggling and anxiousness of those times when you’re not living, and otherwise sticking with brighter major chords to keep the good vibes rolling. (The one exception is the guitar solo after the second chorus, which feels dark and foreboding for no good reason.) It’s not a particularly fast song, but its relaxed pace fits the “stop and soak it all in” messaging, and it leans more on the electric guitars as the song progresses to give it a shot of extra volume and momentum. I wouldn’t call anything here innovative or novel, but the fit is good and the execution is sharp, and sometimes that’s all you need to make things work.

Timing is everything, and 2019 might be the perfect time for Bentley to drop a song like this. He was known for his grueling 300-shows-a-year schedule back in the day, and not only has the man been part of the mainstream scene for sixteen years now, but his previous Black album felt like a slight concession to age and popular opinion, as if he needed to hop on the latest trends to stay relevant in the genre. “Living,” in contrast, can be seen as an affirmation of what Bentley has accomplished, and declares that no matter what life demands from you, what he’s already done, seen, and gotten is pretty impressive. This backstory makes Bentley a believable and sympathetic narrator for the track, and furthermore, while he may not be the same person he was on “What Was I Thinkin’,” his voice sounds almost the exact same. “Living” tests the artist’s earnestness and charm more than their technical abilities, and Bentley does a great job threading the needle by coming across as genuinely moved and grateful without straying into humblebrag territory. It’s a solid performance from a veteran singer that shows that he stuck around long enough to become a veteran for a reason.

Lyrically, the narrator seems to have woken up with a heightened sense of the world around him, and and he observes the simple (maybe even generic) happenings around him (sunrises, birds, significant others), he declares that it is moments like this that truly constituting “living,” as opposed to the high-energy, high-stress moments that are normally associated with the term. As crazy as it sounds, the comparison that kept jumping to mind here was Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash’s iconic “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” as both narrators suddenly wake up one morning to witness the small moments in life that most of us take for granted. Where Kristofferson’s narrator is filled with regret and depression, however, Bentley’s narrator goes in the opposite direction, embracing the moment and reminding themselves how good they’ve got it (granted, “Living”‘s narrator seems to be in a much better place in life than “Sunday Morning Coming Down”‘s hungover protagonist). None of the imagery here is novel or unique, but that’s the whole point: These are the things we all see and ignore on a daily basis, and we should pay more attention to them and truly recognize the good (and perhaps acknowledge the bad) around our situation. It’s a nice message that leaves the listener with some things to think about long after the song is over.

It seems fitting that both Eric Church and Dierks Bentley are pushes reflective, optimistic singles up the charts these days: I still contend that they’re the true banner-carriers of the “outlaw” movement, and a key part of that was recognizing the true goodness in life and love, even in throes of self-destructive behavior. “Living” may not feature the dark clouds of those classic songs, but the message is no less meaningful: Don’t forget to stop and recognize the little things in life, as they are truly what leaving is all about. Bentley and his producer wrap the lyrics in a nice package to sell the story, and while I think “Burning Man” is the better of the two songs, I wouldn’t mind hearing more stuff like this on the airwaves.

Rating: 7/10. Take some time to hear this one out.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

Darn it, is my 2018 Top Ten list out of date already?

Black was probably the most ambivalent I’d ever felt about a Dierks Bentley album. It was fine, sure, but the album’s slick, modernized style felt like an awkward fit for Bentley’s rough-edged persona. In contrast, Bentley’s latest album The Mountain puts him in a much more comfortable position, letting him return to the hard-charging, Outlaw-esque style that made him one of country music’s biggest stars while also allowing him to ruminate on his experience and contemplate his career mortality. While “Woman, Amen” was a feel-good, well-executed track that moved Bentley closer to his comfort zone, his latest single “Burning Man” brings him all the way back, harnessing his forceful, unapologetic approach and old-school street cred to put a distinctly Dierks twist on the classic “getting old” track.

The driving bass drum is about the last instrument I expected to experience a resurgence in 2018, but it’s been used to great effect in several songs recently (“Run Wild Horses,” “All Day Long,” “Lose It”), and “Burning Man” does the same thing here, pairing it with a nimble-but-dark acoustic guitar to give the track a shot of serious energy from the start. The drums slowly become more numerous and complex as the song progresses, and an electric guitar adds some empathic stabs during the chorus (not to mention a decent solo courtesy of John Osborne), but for the most part the track leans on the simple, unrelenting guitar/drum combination for its energy and momentum. There’s an intensity to this mix that not even “Run Wild Horses” can match, but it meshes with the lyrics to give the song a “raging against the dying of the light” feel that suits Bentley and the material perfectly. It’s one thing to tell your listeners that you can still rock as hard as you used to, but only the best can put together a mix like this and prove it.

Vocally, “Burning Man” requires a special sort of singer to pull off convincing, and Bentley is one of the select few who fit the bill. It’s nothing terribly strenuous in terms of its range or flow (though Bentley sounds totally comfortable here), but it requires a certain amount of cachet and charisma to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. (Forget current singers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt; I’m not even sure Alan Jackson could have made this feel earnest.) Thankfully, not only is Bentley the perfect fit as a (sort of) reformed rapscallion who can still get loud from time to time, but TJ Osborne’s weathered voice and recent singles (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight”) gives him enough credibility in this lane to also feel genuine (even if he isn’t really old enough to reflect on a life of hard living and lessons learned). Bentley and TJ Osborne have a surprisingly amount of vocal chemistry, and while John Osborne doesn’t contribute any noticeable vocals, unlike the Brian Kelleys of the world, he adds least adds to the song through his solid guitar work. It’s not a Willie-and-Waylon sort of pairing (yet), but it’s as close an approximation as we’ll get in the genre today.

The lyrics here focus on the duality of a old, wise narrator (or two) who hasn’t fully accepted his age and wisdom yet, and instead declares that while he’s slowed down from his wild and woolly days, he certainly hasn’t stopped (hence the hook “a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”). On one hand, there’s a lot of wit baked into how the narrator describes his current situation, especially in the second verse:

I always loved the highway
I just don’t run it as fast
I still go wherever the wind blows me
But I always find my way back
I still don’t get it right sometimes
I just don’t get it as wrong
I still go a little bit crazy sometimes
Yeah, but now I don’t stay near as long

On the other hand, these sorts of statements are pretty much the whole song, with only the bridge expanding on the concept and looking at the narrator’s future plans. (Bentley elaborates on these plans in later tracks on The Mountain, but I wish he would have done a bit more here to put a bow on this particular single. It’s certainly not bad and I really like what’s here, but it starts to feel a bit formulaic the longer Bentley and Osborne hammer on this point.

Overall, however, I think I like “Burning Man” even better than “Woman, Amen,” and that track was already the sixth-best single I’d hear all year! The topic was tailor-made for an artist like Dierks Bentley, and the production and vocals do a great job making the whole thing believable and enjoyable. I don’t talk about albums much on this blog, but I’d Bentley making a strong case for The Mountain to be my favorite disc of the year.

Rating: 8/10. You’re gonna wanna hear this.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “Woman, Amen”

Me: Wow, Brothers Osborne did a nice job discussing an overdone topic.
Dierks Bentley: Oh really? Hold my beer.

Bentley’s last album Black was a perfectly fine disc, but despite containing two No. 1 hits and a No. 2, it seemed to lack that special something that made the disc truly memorable, and so it was forgotten even among my paltry “Top 3 Albums of 2016” list (come on Dierks, I only bought 4 albums that year!). With his experiment with a more-contemporary sound out of the way, Bentley made his way to Colorado to find inspiration for his next project The Mountain. While he claims the project is a fusion of Black and his bluegrass disc Up On The Ridge, the first single “Woman, Amen” has more of a Riser flair to it, and feels like a welcome return to form after Black.

Take the production from Bentley’s 2013 hit “I Hold On,” sand the rough edges off the guitars, and throw out the minor chords, and you’ve pretty much got the sound of “Woman, Amen.” This mimicry, however, is not a bad thing: The driving beat of the drums gives the song a ton of energy, the “whoa-oh” background choruses add a spacious feel to the atmosphere, and the brighter guitar tones fit the reverent, celebratory nature of the song well. There really isn’t much else to say here: Bentley has mastered the art of the uptempo, energetic country tracks, and this one is no exception.

Vocally, while I wouldn’t call this Bentley’s greatest performance (his voice sounds a bit rawer and rougher than on his previous material, and his flow feels a little awkward on the verses), it’s still an enjoyable listen, as he remains a master salesman who comes across as earnest and believable as the narrator. Part of this is because of his branding: Bentley is one of the few left in the genre who can credibly claim to be an “outlaw” (even after the ultra-slick Black), and paying tribute to the woman who rescued him and made him walk the straight and narrow through her undying affection is a classic outlaw trope (Waylon Jennings being the gold standard). “Woman, Amen” is the perfect song for a mid/late-career veteran with Bentley’s background, and he delivers enough charisma and personality to make the tune resonate with the listener.

Before I actually heard the song’s lyrics, I thought it would be a statement about the treatment of women in the vein of Keith Urban’s “Female” or Tim & Faith’s “Speak To A Girl.” In reality, the song is closer to Jerrod Niemann’s “God Made A Woman” or Russell Dickerson’s “Yours,” as the narrator proclaims amazement at all the things his partner gives him that he doesn’t feel he deserves, and feels that he should thanking God every night for bringing this woman into his life. However, while the writing is wholly unoriginal (the “cracks in my shattered heart” line was the only unique piece of the song) and it’s not really intended as a female enpowerment anthem, I actually find it to be more powerful than “”Female” or “Speak To A Girl” because it feels a lot more personal, as if it’s calling for each and every one of us to give a little more credit and respect to the women in our lives. Unlike Urban’s and Tim/Faith’s effort, nothing feels forced or awkward here: It’s a simple, straightforward statement that it expertly delivered by a capable artist and producer.

Overall, “Woman, Amen” is a darn good track from a darn good artist, and one that resonates with the listener long after it’s over. Both the production and the topic fall squarely within Dierks Bentley’s wheelhouse, and he delivers a solid, believable performance to drive the message home. If the rest of The Mountain meets this standard, then Bentley won’t be the only one shouting “Amen!”

Rating:  8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “What The Hell Did I Say”

Now this is closer to the Dierks Bentley we all know and love. Closer, but not quite all the way there.

I was lukewarm on Bentley’s last single “Black,” and radio’s reaction was only slightly more positive, forcing the singer to settle for a “soft” No. 1 (topped the Mediabase charts, but peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart and #4 on the Hot Country Singles chart). “What The Hell Did I Say” is Bentley’s fourth (and likely final) single off of his latest album (also called Black), and while it’s a better song than “Black,” (and also much more in his wheelhouse), it’s still a little behind the hard-hitting material he built his career on.

The production here is a bit more standard/traditional than we saw on “Black.” The “muted electronics tones” and “half-synthetic, half-African-drum beat” from the prior single are gone, replaced by a regular acoustic/electric guitar pairing and run-of-the-mill drum set. That’s not to say there aren’t some surprises here: The acoustic guitar gives off a sitar-esque vibe in between verses (similar to the guitar Luke Bryan used on “Kick The Dust Up”), and the verses themselves include some long, simmering electronic guitar stabs that add an extra layer of tension to the song. (If also offers a rollocking solo on the bridge that is much appreciated.) The vibe here is energetic yet unsettled, perfectly matching the uncertain, apprehensive mood of the writing. While the whole thing comes off a bit more polished and not quite as impactful as some of Bentley’s past material, it’s still a welcome return to form for the singer and his sound.

Bentley himself sounds paradoxically comfortable playing a role of the confused, on-edge narrator, and his delivery is a much better fit than it was on “Black.” The methodical flow and narrow range of the writing keep Bentley squarely within his wheelhouse, and his voice offers just the right amount of grit without losing its tone or descending into Tyler Farr levels of hoarseness. Bentley has always cultivated a rougher, almost outlaw persona with his material, and this song fits that image perfectly, making it an easy sell to his listeners. The “hell did I, hell did I, hell did I” portion of the chorus gets repetitive after a while, but it’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

Lyrically, the song discusses the narrator’s dilemma of being committed to a well-received speech that he doesn’t remember giving to a potential significant other. It’s not the most original idea (think Mel Tillis’s “What Did I Promise Her Last Night?” or even Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name”), but it does a nice job capturing the narrator’s anxiety as he tries to replay the events of the night before and determine exactly what words were exchanged. Some of the references are a bit obtuse (what exactly does it mean to “Louis Vitton” or “Rodeo Drive” someone?), but the rest are all too clear and familiar (basically, “did I say I’d marry her?”). Combined with Bentley’s delivery, the lyrics do a nice job conveying the emotions/anxieties of the narrator and making him a relatable, sympathetic figure.

Overall, “What The Hell Did I Say” is a well-executed track and an enjoyable listen, one that highlights Dierks Bentley’s strengths and casts off some of the ill-fitting production decisions that weighed down “Black.” As a potential bridge to Bentley’s next album, the song suggests that Bentley is looking beyond the Metropolitan influences of Black and moving back towards his classic sound for the future, and I for one am all for it.

Rating: 7/10. If you enjoy Bentley’s old-school brand of country, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Song Review: Cole Swindell feat. Dierks Bentley, “Flatliner”

If “You Should Be Here” and “Middle Of A Memory” signaled the rise of a new Cole Swindell, than “Flatliner” is a reminder that for better or worse, the old Swindell is still alive and well.

When I awarded Swindell my inaugural Album of the Year award, I casually mentioned that for all its surprising depth and maturity, a few traces of the party-boy persona that Swindell rode to fame still remained. One of those traces was the album opener “Flatliner,” which has just been selected as the album’s third single. Despite the presence of way better unreleased songs on the album (“Broke Down,” “Stay Downtown,” “No Can Left Behind”), Swindell and his team know that a large portion of his fanbase prefer songs like “Chillin’ It” and “Let Me See Ya Girl,” and they decided to throw those fans a bone with this track.

The production isn’t too bad here—in fact, I’d call it the best part of the song. The electric songs used to drive the melody sound surprisingly retro, as if they were pulled from an early-00s Montgomery Gentry song, and the song is backed by actual drums with no hint of synthetic beats. (Heck, I even think I heard a fiddle playing in between verses.) The tempo is cranked up beyond anything that’s currently on the radio, giving the song a boot-stomping vibe with a ton of energy that dwarfs even hard-hitting tracks like Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On.” That energy is the song’s main selling point, and it’s more than enough to get your toes tapping along to the beat.

Both Swindell and Bentley deliver solid vocal performances here—in particular, Bentley seems to be much more in his element on “Flatliner” than on his own single “Black.” The singers have great vocal chemistry here, and the quick discussion between the singers about whose songs would be better to win a women’s heart was a nice touch. While this track deals in the time-honored Bro-Country tradition of objectifying women and reducing them to eye candy, Swindell and Bentley do their best to save the song from itself and keep things light-hearted and fun rather than sleazy and creepy.

As for the lyrics…well, it’s a good thing high-energy songs like this one are more about the music than the words, because “Flatliner” sounds like it was written by a horny seventh-grader. Consider the following passages:

Dang, girl, I’m done
I ain’t never seen no one
Poppin’ it like a cold one
Droppin’ down like uh huh

Sippin’ on this seven-seven
Never been this close to heaven
Got her pretty turned up to eleven
Droppin’ ’em dead on the dance floor
Somebody better call a doctor
She’s a little heart stopper
I’m talkin’ breaker breaker one niner
She’s a flatliner

Not exactly flowery prose, huh?

Overall, “Flatliner” is an enjoyable song that rises above generic radio filler, but there were soooo many better single choices on You Should Be Here. To those who celebrated the death of Bro-Country, let this song be a warning: The stars of that era haven’t forgotten how they rose to power, so expect tracks like this one to pop up occasionally for years to come.

Rating: 6/10. It’s an acquired taste, so try it before you buy it.