Song Reviews: The Lightning Round

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

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

Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

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

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

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

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

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

Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”

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

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

Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat”

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

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

Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her”

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

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

Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair”

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

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

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

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

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

Song Review: Easton Corbin, “Turn Up”

Honestly, would it kill country music to come up with an original thought now and then?

For a guy without a major-label deal, Easton Corbin has been fairly busy over the last year or so, dropping random singles with varying degrees of quality (“Raising Humans” was good, “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country” much less so). He’s generally good enough to rise above whatever weird trend he’s hopped onto, but not this time: “Turn Up,” his latest release, is only slightly more purposeful that your standard Cobronavirus track, and just an uninteresting as it brethren. It might be a worthwhile play to court major label attention, but it doesn’t add it a whole lot to the airwaves or the genre.

Corbin’s tried to position himself on the traditional side of the genre since his release from Mercury, and that’s mostly the case with the production here (although the song opens with a drum machine, albeit a rougher-toned one that “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country”). The primary instrument here is a kinda-sorta rollicking electric guitar (it’s a bit quieter and less powerful than I expected), with a dobro and steel guitar adding some riffs and a decent solo for flavor. In truth, the whole mix doesn’t have the kick that I expected from a happy song like this: It’s got the bright tones, but the lack of volume and methodical tempo keep it from generating any energy or building momentum, and while it doesn’t fall into plodding territory, it doesn’t do much more than march along from start to finish. The lighthearted atmosphere is there, but only just barely, and otherwise it just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

Corbin is a talented vocalist, but even he can’t elevate a subject that’s been beaten to death this much for this long. It’s not the technically-strong performance I expect: Some of his “turn up” declarations (especially at the start of the chorus) feel more awkward than they should be (he isn’t able to put a lot of feeling behind the line), and his flow gets a bit choppy when he tries to string a few verse lines together. (The melody and harmony vocals seem to lack chemistry as well, and don’t seem to mesh that well.) It’s a lukewarm charismatic performance as well: There’s nothing distinguishable in the vocals that make this feel like an Easton Corbin Song, and he’s not able to share his feelings of love and affection with the audience. In other words, he just doesn’t give the listener a pay attention to yet another generic Cobronavirus love story, which is not a good thing when you don’t have a major label staff behind you to push your track.

So about that generic Cobronavirus love story: The song checks all the boxes you might expect from a Bro-Country throwback: Nighttime drives, Chevrolets, the “riverback dirt road,” the “country boy charm,” truck bed makeout sessions, Jack Daniels (bizarrely referred to as “that Lynchburg”), retro name-drops (at least it’s not George Strait or Alan Jackson this time), etc. The “turn up” hook feels more repetitive than clever (and doesn’t work as a title any better than “Yup” did), and while there’s not any explicit objectification here, that “gimme that green light look” line feels pretty sketchy to me. While I appreciate that fact that the narrator actually has a purpose for this behavior (unlike the carefree nihilism in many such tracks), declaring said purpose to basically be “get in the other person’s pants” might be worse than having no purpose at all. (Yes, there’s talk of love and “this fire we’ve been dancin’ around,” but they ring pretty hollow in the context of everything else in the song.) This is just another recycled Bro-Country track, and I’m no more interested in hearing it now than I was last decade.

“Turn Up” isn’t likely to reverse the downturn Easton Corbin finds his career on right now. The production is weak, the vocals are unconvincing, and the writing is the same useless drivel we’ve been dealing with since Bro-Country came around the first time. It’s not interesting, it’s not meaningful, and it’s not going to move any record execs to come calling with a contract offer. Corbin is stuck on the outside looking in right now, and unless he comes up with some better material, that’s where he’ll be for the foreseeable future.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Easton Corbin, “Raising Humans”

There’s a reason songs about dogs are a frequent country stereotype: When done right, they can be pretty darn good.

When last we saw Easton Corbin, he was on the rebound from his split with Mercury Nashville, releasing “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country” on an independent label as a kinda-sorta comeback single. The song was a small step back towards Corbin’s traditional roots, but its noticeable electronic elements (why the drum machine?) and the overly-trendy “I’m so country!” writing made it feel a bit too radio-friendly for its own good (and without any real promotion behind it, the radio ignored the track anyway). Now, Corbin is back with another surprise single, using his appearance on The Hallmark Channel’s “Love of Dogs” benefit concert to pitch “Raising Humans” to the masses. This, ladies and gentlemen, makes no concessions to the radio: It’s a long, slow story song with an acoustic foundation and a four-legged point of view, and while I doubt this is a formula for radio success, it is the formula for one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

The production here is a simple, no-frills neotraditional arrangement perfectly suited to the subject at hand. An acoustic guitar dominates the mix and is the primary melody carrier, with a dobro, steel guitar, and barely-there percussion line (which is dominated by hand-played drums and…a maraca?) judiciously sprinkled in for just the right amount of flavor. The key word for this mix is simplicity: The tempo is incredibly slow, the riffs are relaxed and drawn-out (even the dobro solo on the bridge is pretty mild), and the episodic minor chords and dim-but-not-dark instrument tones give the song a feel that is serious yet still positive and warm. Normally such a combination is a recipe for a plodding, zero-energy track, and the guitars do overstay their welcome a bit on the verses (the breaks between lines are way too long, and you’re pleading with the producer to just get to the next line already), but amazingly the song never seems to bog down or collapse under its own weight. The call for a lighter touch on the mix was definitely the right one, as it creates an atmosphere that exudes comfort and gratefulness, supporting the narrator as they look back on their time “raising humans.” It’s a sound that is incredibly easy on the ears, and leaves the listener with a smile when it’s over.

I’ve been banging the drum for Corbin for a good ten years now (for my money, he’s one of the most under-appreciated talents of the modern era), and “Raising Humans” is a key piece of evidence for the defense in this trial. Dog songs are nothing new in country music, but dogs are usually slotted in a key sidekick beside the narrator, not given the narrator’s role itself. How in the world do you make yourself believable as a dog? Well, you start with impressive technical skills like Corbin’s impressive tone, solid range, and smooth flow, and you back that up with the kind of earnest charisma that could sell parkas in the Sahara desert. (It also helps that we tend to imagine our love for our pets is reciprocated unconditionally, although cat owners know that the truth is more complicated.) The devotion and concern Corbin exhibits in his delivery feel completely natural and believable, and the audience just eats it up. I often cite Cole Swindell as one of the most flexible artists in the genre, but maybe we should be giving Corbin more credit in this category: This song requires some gymnastic-level acrobatics to get the emotional punches to land, and Corbin sticks the landing without breaking a sweat.

All that being said, the writing might be the best part of this whole package. Given the stereotype baggage a man’s-best-friend track like this carries around (doesn’t the dog die and the truck break down in every country song?), it wouldn’t take much for the story of a dog supporting their owner from adoption to death to veer into sappy, saccharine territory. The lyrics here, however, deftly walk the line between emotional and grounded, partially by employing a slight head-fake in the beginning by not revealing the dog’s identity until the end of the first verse and inviting the listener to ponder over the narrator’s (and the song’s) true form (is this about adoption? Who’s really helping who here?). The narrator’s calm, contented outlook also goes a long way here: They accept their fate from beginning to end, and even have a sense of humor about the whole thing (“He wouldn’t have been my first choice,” “I let him ride right next to me”). My main complaint (which seems odd for a song that’s already four-and-a-half minutes long) is that the jump from initial lost-love conversations to the dog’s death feels a bit jarring, like the song could have used another verse or two to flesh out the story further. Sure, the ending is pretty predictable once you realize who’s who in the song, but it manages to feel poignant without seeming sappy, and even for a guy like who hasn’t had a dog in at least fifteen years, it’s a touching ode that I had no trouble revisiting over and over for this review.

Quite simply, “Raising Humans” is a moving tribute to man’s best friend that is executed to perfection. Great production, solid writing, and some back-to-basics vocal work from Easton Corbin make this both an easy and a meaningful listen, the kind of song I wish I heard more of on the radio nowadays. In truth, this is the kind of song that could only exist in country music: Such a deliberate delivery of devotion, love, and sorrow would just feel out of place in any other genre. It’s not the best dog song I’ve ever heard (that would be Mo Pitney’s incredible “It’s Just A Dog”), and it’s not quite the best song I’ve heard all year, but it’s certainly in that conversation, and it makes me wonder just what kind of music we could make if Nashville weren’t so fixated on Benjamins and superficial trends.

Rating: 9/10. Could someone get this dude back on a major label already?

Song Review: Easton Corbin, “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country”

I get that “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country,” but would it kill somebody to be original once in a while?

I was one of about five people in the world that liked Easton Corbin’s last single “A Girl Like You,” and after a laborious, year-and-change climb up the country airplay charts, Mercury Records was so done with Corbin that they dropped him from their roster while the song was still in the Top Ten! After falling off the radar for nearly a year, Corbin has reemerged with a new record label (Tape Room Records, founded by notorious Nashville songwriter Ashley Gorley) and a new single “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country.” Unfortunately, Corbin remains in the same trend-chasing survival mode that he’s been in since 2014, as this song is just the latest in the slew of “I’m so country!” tracks we’ve been getting lately, plowing the same old generic ground that he and many others have been doing for years.

For a song that name-drops Alan Jackson and says to “keep it retro on the jukebox,” this song sounds a whole lot like everyone else’s guitar-and-drum-driven mixes. Sure, it’s got the rollicking electric guitar and neotraditional feel that Luke Combs and Riley Green have ridden to success recently, but it’s also pulls out a drum machine on the first verse (real drums eventually replace it, but it reappears on the final chorus) and features none of the classical country instruments you might expect (no fiddle, no steel guitar…heck, there’s not even a token banjo here). I feel like I should appreciate the arrangement (solid groove, great energy, a bright and positive vibe that projects confidence without feeling angry or defiant), but there’s a paint-by-numbers feel to this mix that I can’t shake: I’ve heard this sort of song before, so why should I listen to this particular one? The producer, sadly, doesn’t have a good answer, leaving the listener feeling a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing.

Thankfully, I’ve found that Corbin can do ‘generic’ better than most anyone else in the genre: His last album About To Get Real was a great example of Bro-Country done right, and he managed to tie together the pedal steel and prominent drum machine on “A Girl Like You” and make the whole thing feel coherent. He’s not quite as successful at making this song interesting, but he still does a few good things here, such as softening the rougher edges of the lyrics to make them more tolerable: Even when he’s asking “where did all the good ol’ boys go” and declaring that “somebody’s gotta be country,” instead of coming across less like an angry, backwards-looking rube ranting about the erosion of his culture, Corbin sounds like an earnest, easygoing guy who genuinely enjoys his rural lifestyle. That said, however, he isn’t able to do much to make the song any more interesting to listen to, and while he’s a believable narrator, he’s not convincing anyone to trade their Prius for an F-150 and drive to the nearest river to go fly fishing. While he might elevate his material to a tolerable level, that’s about as far as it goes.

Then again, maybe Corbin deserves more credit for keeping this track out of the gutter, because the more I listen to the lyrics, the more I think this could have gone wrong in all sorts of ways. The writing can be thought of as a cross between Garth Brooks’s “All Night Long” and Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know,” with the narrator observing the declining number of “country” folks around him and declaring that someone has keep the old ways alive (and it might as well be the narrator, because they enjoy it). Throw in some minor chords and an angrier artist, and this song could have easily been an Aldean-esque mess of bravado and belligerence with no redeeming qualities at all. As it is, however, it’s an uneventful run through the usual country checklist (trucks, tractors, parties, alcohol, map dots, fishing reels, and on and on…but at least they name-check Jackson instead of George Strait for a change), with the only really objectionable line referencing a “center-console ice-cold beer” (Note to Gorley, Dallas Davidson, and Rhett Akins: Drinking and driving is not okay). While I appreciate the fact that the narrator doesn’t feel the need to aggressively shove their country bonafides in the listener’s face, outside of taking up two parking spots with their truck (novel, but not exactly endearing), there’s nothing here you haven’t heard a million times before, and while it could have easily been a disaster, being “not bad” isn’t exactly high praise.

There’s a little to like about “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country,” but not a lot. Easton Corbin is his usual likable self and the production keeps things light and cheery, but in the end it’s like sprinkling sugar over day-old bread: It might be slightly tastier, but it’s no less stale. While I’m hoping Corbin continues exploring this avenue (albeit with some stronger material), I don’t see this track being the defibrillator that restarts the heart of his mainstream career.

Rating: 6/10. I guess it’s okay, but I was hoping for something a lot better.

Post-Thanksgiving Music Recommendations

My current policy on music reviews is that I only review country singles that are “new”—that is, they have either just been announced and/or released as single, or have recently debuted on the Mediabase charts. However, that means that anything that doesn’t fit this criteria (or fit this criteria two months ago, but not since the blog started) gets ignored, so I decided to highlight some of the best stuff.

Chris Young feat. Vince Gill, “Sober Saturday Night”: For an album that was criticized as sterile and generic when it came out, I’m Comin’ Over has done pretty well for itself, with its first two single becoming No. 1 hits. Single #3 is “Sober Saturday Night,” and honestly, it might be the best one yet. It’s a nice twist on the “drinking to forget” trope commonly found in country music, and Young’s emotive performance meshes perfectly with the melancholy tone of the music. My only complaint: Gill is criminally underused on this track. Can a song really “feature” an artist if they’re relegated to singing barely-noticeable harmony vocals? They could have at least let Gill throw in a cool guitar solo or something…

Easton Corbin, “Are You With Me”: This song has about as unique a history as you’ll ever find: Originally an album cut on Corbin’s 2012 disc All Over The Road, the song became a surprise worldwide smash due via a remix by Belgian DJ Lost Frequencies, moving Corbin’s team to include the original song on their 2014 album About To Get Real, and even release a slightly-edited version as a single earlier this year. Neither the single nor the remix made much of a splash of the US charts, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a great song featuring minimal-but-spot-on production and Corbin’s George-Strait-like delivery.

Chris Jansen, “Holdin’ Her”: Is this really the same guy who wrote “Truck Yeah” and took “Buy Me A Boat” to No. 1? In a sudden pivot towards more-traditional country, Jansen released an autobiographical ode to the special women in his life. The production is classic country, the delivery is solid, and the sentiment will bring a tear to your eye. This may be the best song on the radio right now.

Josh Turner, “Lay Low”: No, Josh will never be the next Randy Travis, but he’s still a darn good singer with some decent material in his catalog. “Lay Low” was supposed to be the leadoff single to his yet-to-be-released new album, but the song flopped on radio and Turner was subsequently put in mothballs for almost two years. It’s a crying shame, given the song’s stellar instrumentation and calm, relaxing mood. Turner has one of the best voices on country radio, and this song is him at his best.

Brett Young, “Sleep Without You”: I haven’t been impressed with the majority of new faces in the genre, but I’m cautiously optimistic about Brett Young after hearing “Sleep Without You.” The production is more contemporary than the other songs on this list, but it has a nice acoustic foundation and mixes together surprisingly well. Similarly, Young’s delivery is a notch below the other singers on this list, but he stays within his vocal range and does a good job of making the song sound believable. Finally, while there’s some underlying insecurity in the narrator’s insistence that he’s cool with his girl going out without him, it’s nice change of pace from the “girl as the shiny object in my truck” songs that permeated the Bro-Country era. The song is on track to top the country charts soon, and I’m genuinely curious to see how high Young’s ceiling is.

Bonus Rec: Levar Allen, “Take On The World”: Take a minute to appreciate what Allen’s done here: He’s remixed themes from Super Mario World into a solid backing track, written a clever Mario-themed rap to throw on top of his mix, delivered a stellar vocal performance with excellent tone and flow, and then threw in a custom guitar solo to top it off. This is some very impressive work, and it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.