Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (2021 Mid-Year Edition)

With a Mario Golf review coming Friday and the blog’s usual mid-year song lists scheduled for next week, today is the last day for songs to receive their scores and become eligible for next week’s lists. There have been several tracks that have been lurking just outside the Mediabase Top 50 for a while now, and while the stench of some of them made me put off their reviews for as long as possible, we’re now officially out of time, so it’s time to rip off the bandage and face our fears head-on.

These won’t be as in-depth as my regular reviews, but honestly, most of them don’t really merit a full review anyway. Without further ado, let’s dive into the queue and clear the waiting list…

Niko Moon, “NO SAD SONGS”

I just gave Elle King & Miranda Lambert a passable score for a party song, so why do I hate this track so much? The issue is that Moon is a victim of history:

  • The production is just a reheated Bro-Country mix, with nothing but the electric guitars and drum machine we all got tired of several years ago. The guitar gets some points for having some actual texture this time, but we’ve heard this drivel a million times before, and some extra tone on a single instrument isn’t enough to pull this arrangement out of the doldrums.
  • Moon shows exactly zero progress as an artist, and portrays the same careless Bro that he did a year ago, the same role that was played to death during the last decade. (Honestly, I think recording a sad song or two would do him good.)
  • Lyrically, the song is just “GOOD TIME, Part 2”: It’s yet another nihilistic Cobronavirus track that cuts down on the detail and the frequency of the stereotypical tropes in favor of name-dropping a bunch of random songs on the second verse. It’s not interesting, it’s not fun, and it doesn’t justify its existence in a world where we’ve already got “GOOD TIME” and a million other tracks like it.

Bro-Country didn’t deserve a second wind, “GOOD TIME” didn’t deserve a sequel, and if junk like this is all we’re going to get from Moon, he doesn’t deserve a spot on a major label.

Rating: 4/10. If Moon can go all-caps, so can I. NEXT!

Heath Sanders, “Old School’s In”

Apparently Sanders didn’t notice how badly Robert Counts got smacked down, because he’s bringing the same angry, closed-minded, exclusionary mindset to the table.

The pitfall of calling your song “old school” is that everyone has their own idea of what that actually means, and while this sound is supposed to be a callback to the sharp-edge Hank Jr. sound, but it’s still just a basic guitar-and-drum mix at its core, and for my money, if you say you’re old school and don’t bring a fiddle or steel guitar to the table, you’re a liar. Instead, “old school” refers to the stereotypical God, country, and Mama viewpoint of the narrator, with the message that the vague and scary “they” are trying to eradicate said lifestyle, but the narrator and other “real” country folks will never change their ways. Such insufferable nonsense conveniently leaves out the historical baggage that such an attitude encompasses, and instead tries to use Sanders’s overly (and unnecessarily) angry Chris Stapleton imitation to intimidate the listener into compliance. Contrary to what Sanders says, the world not “ever goin’ back to the way we know it” is not automatically a bad thing, and knee-jerk angry denouncements of such movements usually means someone’s got something to hide or an unfair privilege they want to keep.

Sanders is darn lucky that Brantley Gilbert and his crew rode up when they did, because that’s the only thing between him and the the title of “Worst Song Of The Year.”

Rating: 2/10. Yuck.

Toby Keith, “Old School”

Is Keith looking to capitalize on the attention garnered from “The Worst Country Song Of All Time”? If so, he should have picked a more interesting song than this to do it.

Unlike Sanders’s tire fire, “Old School” eschews the angry, confrontational approach in favor of simply extolling the virtues of traditional small-town life. The problem is that a) at its core, the song leans way too much on country and high school tropes and laundry-list verse construction, and and time Keith sounds worse here than on “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” (the weird verse cadence does not suit him at all, and makes him sound awkward and stilted). It may not push people away like “Old School’s In,” but it doesn’t do much to draw listeners in either—the slower tempo and nondescript production cause the song to quickly lose steam and plod along from start to finish, and the lack of detail in the writing makes its attempt at selling the rural lifestyle feel weak and unconvincing.

Making me sleepy is better than making me angry, but neither is a great outcome.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Nelly ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit”

As a general rule, you should steer clear of any song that refers to someone’s posterior as a “tail light.”

Nelly and FGL teamed up for a massive remix of “Cruise” back in 2013, but the genre landscape has changed a lot since then, and the trio can’t quite recapture their old magic this time around. For one thing, their production choices seem a bit off-base, with its choppy, sterile electronic guitar and run-of-the-mill drum machine failing to generate much energy (the banjo on the choruses helps, but not enough) and establishing a vibe that just isn’t much fun at all. The lyrics fail on two fronts by coming across as both pushy (“I know we just met, but, girl, let’s roll,” “Shawty, you gon’ love me and we gon’ have some fun,”) and objectifying (see the above “tail light” reference), making the narrator come across as “just a lil’ bit” creepy. (Also, that hook contradicts the song’s goal: Why should someone settle for “just a lil’ bit” of fun? Is having a lot of fun not an option?) The vocals are surprising lifeless, and while Nelly has the excuse of having to focus on getting through the rapid-fire sections of the track, Tyler Hubbard has no such excuse, putting no feeling or emotion behind his lines. (Brian Kelley pulls his usual disappearing act here, and nobody misses him.)

I expected this one to make a bigger impact on the charts when it dropped, but after listening to it a few times, I can see why it didn’t.

Rating: 3/10. Keep your distance from this one.

Gabby Barrett, “Footprints On The Moon”

Whose bright idea was it to make an empowerment song sound so…scary?

On the surface, this is a straightforward confidence-booster: People are going to find reasons to doubt you, but pursue your dreams anyway because “you can do anything” and “there’s footprints on the moon” (which is only referenced here and never expanded upon, making it feel more like a tacked-on line than a central hook). The issue is that this positive message clashes badly with production that suffers from a bad case of the Aldeans, which use darker instrument tones and regular minor chords to create a angsty, ominous atmosphere that amplifies the negative voices mentioned in the track instead of countering them. Barrett’s performance is much the same, following the production’s lead and sounding more like a warning than a reassurance.

I’m all for positive reinforcement tracks like this one, I just wish this one was better executed and actually sounded positive.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but ultimately there are better songs out there to give you a lift if you need one.

Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer”

So how do you show off your “country” street cred in a way that doesn’t push people away or make the veins in your neck bulge out? Well, this track is a good place to start.

The song starts by setting the proper context: The narrator has been done wrong by his significant other (they cheated, lied, “wrecked my Ford,” and burned all their bridges on their way out), and when they comes back to apologize and start over, Carmichael allows us all to bask in the schadenfreude by listing all the thing he’d rather do than take them back, especially “drink a hot beer.” All the usual generic tropes make an appearance here (beer, trucks, tractors, hunting, fishing, chewing tobacco, etc.), but instead of drawing lines in the sand, the song’s amusing script-flips (hot beer, unloaded guns, etc.) and clear villain invite the audience to join in on the fun, and Carmichael’s affable, charismatic delivery practically lets you see the smile on his face as he sings. (The production’s upbeat vibe, neotraditional flair, and prominent fiddle don’t hurt matters either.)

“I Do For You” didn’t go anywhere last year, but of all the songs trapped in Mediabase purgatory right now, this is the one I’d really like to see escape it.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen”

The best thing I can say about this is that it’s not quite as obnoxious as I expected. Unfortunately, it’s still obnoxious.

Chase Rice seemed to have a breakthrough with his (mediocre) #1 hit “Eyes On You,” but his career has been on a steep downhill slope since then. Not only was he unable to replicate his success with his awful 2019 follow-up “Lonely If You Are” (the song needed fourteen months just to peak at #12 on Billboard’s airplay chart), but his callous ignorance on the coronavirus pandemic has put him on the wrong side of the news cycle several times, such as with an ill-advised jam-packed concert in May and his recent inexplicable, inexcusable, and idiotic attempt to use a joke about having COVID-19 as a way to promote his latest single “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” Frankly, this dude’s brand is toxic right now (and deservedly so), and his only hope is to ride the coattails of the track’s featured group Florida Georgia Line back to the top of the charts. I expected this track to be an absolute train wreck when I saw the title and the FGL credits, so the fact that it turned out to be only a garden-variety bad song is actually a bit of a relief. Nevertheless, this is a generic, uninteresting grab-bag of Bro-Country clichés that simply fails to justify its existence.

The garbage title and FGL inclusion might scream “Bro-Country redux” at first glance, but the production is actually more of a Metropolitan mix, with a overly-slick finish and a surprising lack of energy. The core of the arrangement is a typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, leaning on an acoustic guitar and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track for the verses and swapping in some electric axes and real drums for the choruses (oh, and the token banjo makes a no-so-triumphant return). To their credit, the producer at least tries to incorporate some dobro notes and steel guitar riffs, but they’re used sparsely and seem to fade into the background as the song goes along, leaving us with the same old uninteresting mix we keep getting stuck with. Where hard-edged Bro-Country mixes at least brought some volume and punch to the table, this thing is lifeless and boring in comparison, and it does little to catch the listener’s ear and convince them to pay attention. It’s just one of those sounds that passes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

Rice remains one of the most nondescript voices in country music, and he contributes nothing of interest to this track. The song has no range demands, but the faster (but really not all that fast) portions of the chorus make Rice’s delivery feel a bit rushed at times (but even on the slower choruses, he’s doesn’t put any feeling into his lines). He’s a poor fit for the narrator’s role here, as he doesn’t give anyone the impression that he’s the kind of person to reflect on larger spiritual topics (in fact, he comes across as someone who doesn’t put much thought into anything at all). Florida Georgia Line doesn’t provide much more than name recognition here, but at least Tyler Hubbard has a distinct sound and a shred of vocal tone (and Brian Kelley is actually noticeable on the harmony vocals for a change). No one here seems prone to deep rumination, however, and none of the three do much to persuade listeners to pay attention.

The lyrics here amount to a typical Bro setup with a layer of superficial religion spread on top. The narrator is engaged in the novel activity of nighttime drinking around the bonfire, counting their predictably generic blessings (“a little piece of dirt,” “a country angel”) and claiming to be “talkin’ God” when there’s nothing religious here besides a little thankfulness and some random wondering about what heaven might be like. (There’s a bit of Cobronavirus nihilism here as well, as “when the world’s gone crazy, man, it all makes sense” to ignore it and drink yourself into a stupor.) There’s nothing here that you’ve haven’t heard a million times over the last few years, and it’s no more interesting now than it was then: There’s no real story, the level of detail is minimal, and there isn’t even enough said about the setting to make the song work on a “communing with nature” angle. It’s a party song with no party, a spiritual song with no spirit, and a throwaway track that will be forgotten the moment it falls off the charts.

“Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen” is a cookie-cutter snoozefest with zero creativity or inspiration, and is the sort of song that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor (and yet it still represents a slight upgrade the atrocious “Lonely If You Are”). The writing is hollow, the vocals are unconvincing, and the production only makes a token attempt to stand out from the crowd. It’s a blatant attempt by Chase Rice to leech off of Florida Georgia Line’s popularity in a desperate attempt to stay relevant, but any success it achieves will be in spite of its lead artist rather than because of it. This doesn’t even rise to the level of radio filler, and the sooner we kick both it and Rice out of the genre, the better.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live”

For a song called “Long Live,” this thing seems pretty darn lifeless to me.

Just when you thought Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard’s moment had passed, Bro-Country came roaring back to prominence as the Cobronavirus movement, and abominations like Florida Georgia Line’s last single “I Love My Country” wormed their way back onto country music’s heavy rotation lists. However, you can only revel in shallow escapism for so long before reality breaks through, and as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched on, the Bro redux seems to have lost much of its steam. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell FGL about this, as they’ve decided to eschew the rest of their recent 6-Pack EP and bring out “Long Live” as their latest single. On one level, this is a rehash of every Bro-Country song you’ve ever heard with zero added creativity or inspiration. On another level, however, this song is a metaphor for just how played out this trend is, because it lacks the one thing Bro-Country could always be counted on for (besides misogyny): Energy and good-time vibes.

If I had to sum up the production for this track in a word, it would be tired. Sure, all the original crew members show up for the reunion: The hard rock guitars, the deliberate cadence, the token banjo, the hard-hitting drum set and skittery drum machine, etc. So what’s missing? In short, there’s absolutely no punch to this mix: The instruments are quieter and no longer in your face (heck, the drum machine is barely noticeable), the tone is noticeably darker (thanks mostly to the regular minor chords), and the energy levels are practically negative. There’s no party vibe to this sound at allit just plods lifelessly along with a weary and bizarrely nostalgic feel, as if even it realizes that Bro-Country has jumped the shark. (Something that used to make people angry only generates pity and sadness now, much like the way other nations view America these days.) It’s a surprisingly limp effort that has listeners looking at their watches and waiting for the next song to come save them from being bored to death.

The vocals suffer from a similar problem: There’s just no feeling behind them. Lead singer Tyler Hubbard covers his technical bases (his range and flow are more than enough to handle the track’s minimal demands), but the energy and attitude you could usually count on from Florida Georgia Line is missing in action. (Amazingly, even Mr. Invisible himself takes a step back here: Brian Kelley’s harmonies make Hubbard sound even more tired and world-weary than he does alone.) Neither artist seems to be enjoying themselves on this track, and they make it feel like more of a lament than a celebration of the backwoods party life. However, I’ll give the pair some credit some credit for believability: This song feels like a tacit acknowledgement that nine months and 191,000 COVID-19 deaths into 2020, no one really feels like partying anymore (and even if they did, such gatherings are a huge no-no right now). That said, Hubbard and Kelley don’t do anything to make this song unique or interesting, and the audience winds up tuning out halfway through it.

And then *sigh* we get to the lyrics:

Yeah it’s a Friday night, we circled up
It’s going down ’round these pickup trucks
Yeah, it’s cold cans and Dixie cups
Just out here doing what we’ve always done

That last line isn’t just for showthis track is nothing more than a laundry list of Bro-Country’s greatest hits: Trucks, longneck bottles, dirt roads, classic artist name-drops, Friday-night all-night parties, and even “country girls, long legs in cut up jeans,” despite that sort of objectification falling out of style years ago. (Everything that isn’t called out by name is heavily implied: There are no bonfires or brand-name liquors mentioned, but you know they’re at the scene of the crime.) There’s absolutely no wit or cleverness to be found, and the hook is absolutely terrible: Sure, “long live ____” is a celebration of ____, but it’s also usually preceded by “____ is dead” and leaves open the possibility that these things are gone forever, which I don’t think was the writers’ intention here. These might be the most lazy, mindless, cut-and-paste lyrics I’ve heard all year, and whoever is responsible for this drivel needs to go retake their high school English classes.

“Long Live” is a bad, uninteresting song that only works as a eulogy for the trend it tries to represent. With reheated leftover production, uninspired vocals from Florida Georgia Line, and absolutely garbage writing, this is a poor example of a poorer subgenre, and hopefully it serves as the last page in the Bro-Country book we’ve been forced to read over the last decade. (Tellingly, this still constitutes an upgrade over the atrocious “I Love My Country.”) A wise man once said that “Time Marches On,” and Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley no longer appear to have the stamina to keep up. They’re stuck trying to sell us yesterday’s reality, and after everything the world’s been through this year, no one’s interested in buying it.

Turn out the lights, FGL. “The Party’s Over.”

Rating: 3/10. Next!

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “I Love My Country”

If Florida Georgia Line really loved their country, they wouldn’t have foisted this abomination on a locked-down public.

Florida Georgia Line may have been one of the founding members of the Bro country movement, but as the loud-and-proud trend gave way to the slick, softer sounds of the Metropolitan and Boyfriend movements (to say nothing of the push back towards traditional instrumentation), Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have struggled to find their footing in this shifting landscape. After reaching #3 or higher with fourteen of their first fifteen singles, “Talk You Out of It” only made it to #11, and “Blessings” ran out of steam at #23 before the plug was pulled. Something had to be done, and the decision was made: If the duo was going to get beat, they were going to beat throwing their best pitch, i.e. their classic Bro sound. Thus, we are left with “I Love My Country,” the presumed leadoff single for FGL’s upcoming fifth album, and it’s exactly as shallow and formulaic as you’d expect it to be. Sure, they’ve made some tweaks around the edges to their formula, but this is yet another Bro-Country revival track, and I’m no more interested in this trend than I was when it died the first time.

The production may take a different route than FGL’s previous Bro-Country singles, but they all end up at the same place in the end. The electric guitars are a bit more rollicking than rough and the primary drums are real this time, but the drum machines and token slow-rolling banjo are still here, and the general cadence of the mix is pretty much the same as “Cruise” and “This is How We Roll.” In the end, this is a wall of noise with the a party-hardy vibe just like the rest of the duo’s major hits, and despite the shallow, celebratory nature of the lyrics, it still manages to clash with them. (How can you claim to love “six strings and fiddles” and talk about “that pedal steel…straight sliding” when exactly none of those instruments are present or audible? The only reason I know there’s an acoustic guitar in here somewhere is because YouTube credits some guy with playing one in the video description.) In the end, this is the same garbage that FGL gave us back in the early 2010s, and to say I’m not feeling nostalgic for it would be an understatement.

For better or worse, Hubbard is firmly in his wheelhouse on this track, and he’s no more interesting or likeable than he was back in the day. He handles the rapid-fire lyrics well and his range and power aren’t really tested, but it’s the misplaced charisma that gets him into serious trouble here: He comes across as the same simple, fun-loving dudebro that he did on “Cruise,” and that’s not a good look for anyone right now (seriously, he comes across as the type of person who’d defy a shelter-in-place order to party on the beach in the middle of a pandemic). In addition, he’s not terribly believable as a narrator: He comes “rolling into town
Hanging out the window, like a blue tick hound” with guitars blazing behind him, and then tries to drop George Strait’s name and gush about fiddles? Toss in a little bit of low-key objectification with that “Alabama shake” line, and it’s clear that this douche has learned nothing from the past decade. This is so awful that Brian Kelley looks smart for pulling his usual disappearing act, and frankly, Hubbard would have been better off doing the same thing.

And then…honestly, do we really have to talk about the writing?

I love my country, I love my country
Six strings and fiddles, whiskey from Kentucky
We keep it funky, we like how it sounds
Monday to Sunday, yeah, I love my country
I’m loud and proud, rolling into town
Hanging out the window, like a blue tick hound
Ain’t sorry, ain’t nothing to be sorry about
I love my country and I love my country up loud

Actually guys, there’s a lot to be sorry about here: The laundry-list construction of the verses, the novel-but-bizarre details that are included  (what on earth made you think we were interested in hearing about your “styrofoam plate date night”?), the lazy “I’m so country!” hook, and above everything the incessant checking of every last box on the Bro-Country list: Drinking, driving, hunting, fishing, and loving every day, leering at the opposite sex, dropping superficial references to older singers and traditional instruments, and even a blue-tick hour reference for good measure. (If it took more than fifteen minutes to write this drivel, I’d be surprised.) The narrator feels like they’re trying to pick a fight by shouting into the void defiantly proclaiming their love of country music and their rural lifestyle, but it’s a fight that no one’s interested in having right now. We’ve all heard this song and dance a million times before, and we’ve got better things to do than listen to this pointless rambling.

“I Love My Country” is a bad song even during normal times, and an absolutely terrible song to drop in the middle of a global health crisis. No one’s interested in revisiting that “classic” Bro-Country sound, no one’s interested in writing this pointless and lackadaisical, and no one’s interested in listening to an act like Florida Georgia Line with this little credibility and believability on the subject. I get that FGL is trying to rekindle that old magic with their old formula for success, but the genre and the world have changed since 2012, and people have moved on from Bro-Country as both a sound and an idea. People want more from their music in 2020, and a loud guitar and a “country” checklist just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

If we weren’t all stuck in place right now, I’d tell Florida Georgia Line that if this is the best they can do, they need to get the heck out of Nashville and stay out.

Rating: 2/10. Absolute trash.

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Blessings”

Have the angels on the shoulders of Florida Georgia Line finally won out over the devils?

After being the standard bearers of Bro-Country for so long, Florida Georgia Line has been stuck in the middle of an identity crisis recently. Their last few singles have bounced between their usual Metro-Bro fare (“Smooth,” “Talk You Out Of It”) and simple love songs that mimic the styles of other artists (“God, Your Mama, And Me,” “Simple”). While Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were waffling, however, the radio made their preferences clear: The first two songs above didn’t crack the Top Ten on Billboard’s airplay chart, while the latter two both sneaked into the Top 5. It seems that the world has moved on from Bro bombast, and with “Blessings,” the third track from FGL’s Can’t Say I Ain’t Country album, suggests the pair has finally gotten the message. The song is a lightweight, wedding-ready love song, and while this ground has been plowed a million times before in the genre, this track at least has some feeling and earnestness behind it, and it’s a respectable rebound from “Talk You Out Of It.”

The difference in production is the first thing you’ll notice: It’s not the Mumford-esque nod to tradition that “Simple” was, but it’s also not the slick, synthetic sound of “Talk You Out Of It” either. The song opens with an organ and an acoustic guitar, mixes in some steel guitar and a real freaking drum set for a change, and that’s pretty much all you get (it doesn’t even bring in an electric guitar until the bridge solo!). There’s a softness to this mix that I’ve never really heard from an FGL track, and while the duo loses the distinctive sound that they’ve been known for (this is as contemporarily conventional as these two have ever sounded), I think the warmth and the mellow vibe of the arrangement here more than make up for it. (In fact, I’d say the sound adds credence to their declaration of commitment: They’re willing to change up their whole sound for the people they love!) It’s the kind of “d’awww…” sound you expect from a song like this, and having a group like FGL pull it off this well is no small feat.

As expected, Hubbard takes the leading role here, and I’m actually rather impressed by his performance this time around. Yes, there are still glimpses of his old Bro persona here (although this is mostly due to the writing), and no, the relaxed nature of the song means neither his range nor his flow are tested, but this song tests Hubbard’s charisma in a way that even the straight-shooting “Simple” didn’t do. The narrator is much more sentimental here, and the performer has to find the balance between showing enough emotion to be believed and not showing so much that it becomes sappy and saccharine. Amazingly, Hubbard actually finds that balance point, coming across as believable and emotional without laying it on so think that he invites suspicion. (Kelley is…well, present, although his harmony work is no more distinguishable than it ever was.) One wonders is the pair has been taking notes from Thomas Rhett, because FGL not only convinces the audience in their authenticity, they allow them to share in the happiness of the moment, and that’s pretty big for the people who brought you “Cruise” and “Sun Daze.”

There aren’t a lot of surprises hidden in the writing: The narrator is in love, they’ve been in love for a while, and said love has made them realize how fortunate they are (i.e., “it ain’t hard to count your blessings”). Everyone you expect to find is here: The ever-present religious imagery (angels, Amens, etc.), the “lucky man” on a “little house on a little land,” and so on. The song makes a point to explicitly point out the commitment level of the narrator (the ring, the “first year together,” the prediction of future children), which is probably needed given the reputation of the performers. Then again, just when you hear a line like “you always saw the blue skies past the rain clouds in my eyes” and think maybe FGL has turned over a new leaf, they go back to leaning on “girl” and drop a line like “we’re a lucky fam” that reminds you of who they are. It’s not a great piece of writing and it’s certainly not an original one, but it leaves enough hooks for the sound and singers to latch onto and elevate it with their own work.

“Blessings” is overall a pretty decent effort from Florida Georgia Line, one that I really wasn’t sure they were capable of pulling off. As paint-by-numbers as the lyrics are, the production is suitably sweet and the duo acquits themselves surprisingly well (well, at least Hubbard does; Kelley is just kind of there) and really make the audience believe they’re serious about what they’re saying. The Bro era that FGL ushered in forced a lot of other artists to conform or fall by the wayside, but now they’re the ones that have to do the conforming, and at least for one song, they’ve succeeded.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a spin and see how it sounds.

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Talk You Out Of It”

This song would be pretty sexy…if it wasn’t so irritating.

Florida Georgia Line embodied everything people loved and hated about the Bro-Country era, but when the duo released “Simple” as the leadoff single for their upcoming fourth album, it signaled a stark change from the bombastic guitar-and-drum-machine sound they had been known for. In country music, however, zebras don’t change their metaphorical stripes overnight, and the pair’s follow-up single “Talk You Out Of It” is a bit of a compromise between the Mumford & Sons vibe of “Simple” and FGL’s earlier work. To be honest, I’ve got mixed feelings about this one: While I really like the romantic sound and sexy feel of this song, I’m put off by the narrator’s pushy attitude and the double-standard embodied by the writing.

Let’s start with the positives first: I’m really impressed by the sensual vibe of the production here, especially in the wake of the many failed attempts at sexiness I’ve heard within the genre over the last few months. While the track ditches the raw acoustic vibe of “Simple” in favor of a more-manufactured sound closer to FGL’s past work, it doesn’t have the in-your-face, manufactured feel of FGL’s prior work either. Instead, the track seeks a happy medium between the two: The opening dobro is affected and the drum machine feels more conventional/artificial, but overall the instruments are restrained and relaxed, and they don’t have the excessive volume or complex riffs that might draw the listener’s attention away from the lyrics. I was also surprised at how warm the instruments tones felt (especially the steel guitar), and how they all came together to give the mix a decent groove and an understated sexiness that works hard to prop up the writing (even if the effort is ultimately futile). I’ve never been a fan of Joey Moi’s production (and I can’t actually find confirmation that this mix is his), but if this is his handiwork, he deserves some mad props for putting it together.

Now for the bad: It’s too bad the production tries to highlight the song’s writing, because I cannot stand this narrator’s attitude. On the surface, the track is an inverted version of John Conlee’s “Friday Night Blues” (which, for the record, is ten times the song “Talk You Out Of It” is): This time the woman is the one who is worn out from work, and the narrator is the one that wants the pair to go out on the town. The narrator successfully gets their way, and the woman dresses up for the date…only for the guy to say “Nah, you look too pretty, let’s get naked and have sex right now.” First of all, make up your damn mind, dude! Second, even if your partner eventually caves in to your demands, don’t yank their chain like that and expect them to cater to your every whim. (Every woman I know would have responded to that “talk you out of it” about-face by saying “I spent an hour getting dressed for that?!” and punching the guy in the face.) When contrasted with Conlee’s track, the scene becomes even more disturbing: The women bends over backwards to accommodate the dinner date here, but when she wants to go out in “Friday Night Blues,” she’s rebuffed and is left “dancing ’round with her broom.” This sort of patronizing attitude, coupled with the fact that the tired woman’s feelings are barely given the time of day, makes the narrator here feel unreasonable and unsympathetic, and ends up killing the mood the production worked so hard to establish. (For what it’s wroth, however, the writers at least tried to use a Luther Vandross reference, clumsy as it was, instead of a cliché Marvin Gaye one.)

With annoying lyrics like this, the song’s only chance for salvation is having a super-charismatic singer swoop in and elevate the track by softening the narrator’s edge and alleviating the listener’s unease with their sincerity and earnestness. Alas, Tyler Hubbard is not that singer, although a big part of that is his long history as a Bro-Country standard bearer. (In the hands of, say, Brett Young, this song might have turned out a lot differently.) Hubbard’s range and flow might be fine, and he certainly tries his best to sound lovestruck and sincere, but frankly, a guy who built his career on shallow, objectifying tracks like “Cruise,” “Sun Daze,” and “Smooth” just isn’t going to have the polish or debonair to pull off a song like this one. (Consider his attempts at complimenting the women, which are limited to “lookin’ like a grown man’s dream” in a “fine little dress” because physical beauty is apparently the only thing Hubbard notices.) As it is, Hubbard comes across as just another Bro trying to get into a woman’s pants (or dress, in this case), and it’s going to take a few more years of maturity and a lot more distance from the Bro-Country era before he can handle this kind of track. (As usual, Brian Kelley is so invisible here that you don’t even realize he’s here. Seriously, you might as well replace him with Brian Rolston.)

Despite it’s sensual sound, “Talk You Out Of It” just doesn’t talk me into believing it’s a good song. I’m getting really tired of hearing unconvincing male narrators trying to talk women into doing their bidding, and even after “Simple,” I’m getting tired of waiting for Florida Georgia Line to become an act I actually want to hear. With Dan + Shay emerging as a serious challenger for the ‘best male duo’ label (ugh, is that really the best this genre can do?), FGL needs to step up its game if it plans on sticking around Nashville much longer.

Rating: 4/10.  Do yourself a favor and check out John Conlee’s discography instead.

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Simple”

You know, I kinda dig High Valley’s new single.

…Wait, what do you mean this isn’t High Valley?

Florida Georgia Line has given me a lot of reasons to dislike them over the years, as their music has ranged from bland mediocrity (“God, Your Mama, And Me”) to off-putting messes (“Smooth”) to outright garbage (“Sun Daze”). With the possible exception of “May We All” (unlike a lot of critics, I thought “Dirt” was pretty dumb), I would argue that Florida Georgia Line had never released a quality single in their seven-year career.

Now, however, it appears that something has changed in the minds of Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, and the FGL brain trust. Maybe it was the lackluster reaction to “Smooth” (it peaked at a disappointing #14 on Billboard’s airplay chart), maybe it was the genre’s general shift away from Bro-Country, or maybe FGL just decided to follow Dustin Lynch’s lead and start cleaning up their act. Regardless, FGL has decided to take a page from the playbook of their Canadian counterparts (seriously, the lyric video even uses the same early-20th-century costume style) and release the rootsy “Simple” as their latest single. This time around, all of FGL’s usual bombast and misogyny were left on the cutting room floor where they belonged, and the result is easily their best-sounding single to date.

The production opens innocently enough with an acoustic guitar and some ominous whistling, but we’ve been here before, and the listener instinctively waits for the other shoe to drop and the obnoxious elements to jump in…except they never do. Instead, this mix feels like a carbon copy of “She’s With Me,” with perhaps even less of an electric influence. The drum machine is still here, of course, but it’s not the loud, in-your-face beat of FGL singles past, and is relegated to providing a foundation of bass and hand-claps. Likewise, instead of the swampy dobro from “Smooth” and the token banjo of most every FGL song, the instruments here have a clean, classic sound to them that give the mix an earthy, organic tone. (A mandolin is also occasionally tossed in for a bit of extra flavor.) Put it all together, and you’ve got a song with a spacious, upbeat feel, a catchy groove, and a ton of positive energy that complements the lyrics well. For as much as I’ve disliked the production of prior FGL singles, whoever put this together deserves some major props.

It’s hard to separate the vocal and lyrical components of “Simple,” because the effectiveness of the former is heavily dependent on the latter. For example, I’ve never taken Hubbard seriously as a singer of serious songs, mostly because I’ve never found him to be terribly convincing in that role. On this song, however, he gets a major assist from the straightforward structure of the lyrics: They keep things as simple as the title, with lines like “It’s five plus five, not rocket science” and “It’s like one, two three/Just as easy as can be” that fit Hubbard’s uber-Bro image perfectly and feel like exactly the sort of stuff he would say in such a situation. Similarly, Hubbard’s delivery feels surprisingly even-keel and lacks the sort of exuberance one would expect from a narrator in this situation, but again the lyrics frame the song more as a matter-of-fact conversation than a spirited declaration of love, making a delivery that would normally feel substandard instead come across as perfectly suitable. (The lyrics also deserve some credit for a strong second verse, as the narrator documents their transition from “I wonder what others think” to “What we think is the only thing that matters.”) I’m still not sold on Hubbard as a singer of substantial songs, but “Simple” sets him up for success better than any song since “May We All,” and it makes a huge difference. (Now if they could figure out what to do with Kelley…)

“Simple” is exactly what it claims to be: A straightforward, no-frills love song backed by fantastic production and a passable performance from its artists. As unoriginal as this back-to-basics approach might be, it may also be exactly what Florida Georgia Line needs to maintain relevance in the changing climate of country radio. As it is, it’s enough to pique my interest and see if the rest of their upcoming album lives up to this potential.

Rating: 7/10. I know, I can’t believe it either.

Song Review: Florida Georgia Line ft. Bebe Rexha Bebe Rexha ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Meant To Be”

Okay, I’m confused: If a singer is billed as the primary artist on a track, shouldn’t they have a bigger part than the featured artist?

Bebe Rexha is ostensibly a solo pop artist, but ever since her mainstream debut in 2014, her biggest successes have been collaborations with other artists (“Hey Mama” with David Guetta, Nicki Minaj, and Afrojack, “Me, Myself, and I” with G-Eazy). Now, however, she has decided to dip her toes into the country pool, teaming up with Florida Georgia Line for her latest single “Meant To Be.” It’s a bizarrely-constructed track that inexplicably gives FGL far more mic time than Rexha herself, and while it’s not the flaming pile of garbage you might expect from a pop artist that’s “gone country,” it’s still a long way from being any good.

The production is surprisingly sparse here, with a spacious piano handling the melody and a simple drum machine on percussion duty. (The only other instrument is something that sounds like a cross between an electric and steel guitar that adds a few notes during the chorus.) The mix starts out decent enough, as the producers heavily restrain the drums and let the piano establish a mellow, relaxed atmosphere that fits the tone of the writing well. The problem is that drums slowly grow in prominence and complexity as the song goes along (especially during the choruses), injecting unnecessary noise into the track and completely ruining the piano’s mood. Had the producers left the drums well enough alone, the song would feel more cohesive and consistent, but instead it feels confusing, and leaves me pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.

The vocal arrangement furthers the listener’s confusion by switching the roles of the participating artists. When I listen to a Bebe Rexha song, I expect Rexha to play a primary role in the song from the outset. What I don’t expect to hear is Tyler Hubbard of FGL opening the song and doing the lion’s share of the singing, with Rexha’s role limited to the second verse and some choral harmonies. (Then again, I suppose it could be worse for Rexha: She could have gotten Brian Kelley’s barely-audible job.) Both Hubbard and Rexha actually sound decent here—the track fits the singers’ ranges well, the slow tempo doesn’t strain their flow, and the pair even shows off some surprising vocal chemistry (although why Rexha’s harmony vocals are louder than Hubbard’s melody ones is beyond me). It’s a tolerable arrangement, but it’s also a misleading one.

The lyrics try to tell the tale of a man trying to convince a woman to live in the moment and stay with him for as long as the mood is right, but the writing is too lazy, repetitive, and superficial sounding to make his case. For one thing, the verses seem to be working at cross-purposes: The woman has been hurt in the past and seems to be looking for real love, and the guy’s just like “Who cares about love? Let’s just chill and see what happens,” as if he’s looking for an excuse to have cheap foreplay with no commitment. Once you get beyond the verses, the song devolves into saying “it’ll be” a zillion times, save for a “maybe we ____” bridge that is completely devoid of wit or substance. The whole thing comes off as sleazy rather than convincing, and feels like two-thirds of a song that gets stretched to cover an entire track. Did it really take four writers to put this drivel together?

Overall, “Meant To Be” is a mess of halfhearted writing, ill-fitting production, and backwards vocal credits. If Bebe Rexha really wants to cross over into country music, her team needs to a) find a better song, and b) actually let her take the lead on it. As it is, the only thing this song is “meant to be” is ignored.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Morgan Wallen ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Up Down”

“Up Down” is a fitting title for this song, because that what’s my eyelids do as I fight to stay awake while listening to it.

Back when I reviewed Morgan Wallen’s debut single “The Way I Talk,” I labeled him an “FGL knockoff” that needed to a) differentiate himself from other artists, and b) find more interesting material to sing about. Instead, Wallen went in basically the worst direction he could have: He brought Florida Georgia Line in as a featured artist (hammering home just how unoriginal Wallen’s sound is), and he chose “Up Down,” a generic Bro-Country track devoid of any reasons for a listener to pay attention, as his next single. The result is as boring and forgettable is you’d expect.

The production checks most of the usual Bro boxes: A methodical tempo, a swampy acoustic guitar on the verses, a hard-rocking electric guitar on the choruses, a Skynyrd-esque electric axe for flavor on the breaks, a token banjo plodding along in the background, and a prominent, hard-driving drum set keeping time. (The only surprise is that there don’t seem to be any drum machines or any other synthetic elements floating around here.) Basically, this thing sounds like every other Bro-Country song you’ve ever heard, from the party-hardy vibe to the rehashed instrumentation, and it does nothing to stand out from the crowd. Bro-Country went out of style a while ago, and all this song does is remind me why it happened.

In a world without Florida Georgia Line, Wallen might be able to pass himself off as a credible vocalist, as my description of him as “a decent singer with some decent range and decent flow” from my last review still stands. FGL does exist, however, and while it’s one thing for Wallen to sound similar to Tyler Hubbard, it’s another thing entirely for him to share the mic with Hubbard and demonstrate this fact. Seriously, the best way to tell whether Wallen or Hubbard is singing is to listen for Brian Kelley’s harmony on Hubbard’s lines. (Speaking of harmony, FGL’s low harmony on the choruses is completely overpowered by Wallen’s melody, to the point where it’s barely noticeable.) Worse still, the minute differences between Wallen and Hubbard all break in Hubbard’s favor, as Wallen sounds rougher and more washed-out in comparison (especially in his upper range). If you’re getting shown up by another artist on your own darn song, maybe they weren’t a great choice to include in the first place.

The writing, much like the production, is a collection of basic Bro tropes tossed into a blender: Drinking, driving, partying in unusual locations, leering at women, name-dropping other songs, etc. (That “Free Bird five minutes deep” really confused me for a while. I heard “Free Bird, Five Minutes…” and thought there was a Lorrie Morgan reference there.) The only good thing I can say about the lyrics is that the writers found some kinda-sorta interesting ways to tie in the “up down” phrase (fishing bobbers, sunburns, etc.)—otherwise, there’s nothing here you haven’t heard a hundred times before (aside from that “BFE” acronym drop, which I could have lived without.) It’s a lazy, uninspired piece that plows the same barren ground as everyone else.

Overall, “Up Down” is a forgettable track that missed its window of opportunity by at least five years. In a world where Bro-Country has come and gone and even Florida Georgia Line is struggling to stay relevant (after 13 consecutive Top 3 hits, “Smooth” hit a roadblock at #14), being an off-brand FGL soundalike like Morgan Wallen and leaning on boilerplate production and writing is not a recipe for success. There’s a reason the Bro-Country trend faded, and Wallen gives us no good reason to revisit it.

Rating: 4/10. You’ve already heard this song. Why listen to it again?

Song Review: Florida-Georgia Line, “Smooth”

Florida-Georgia Line has been a lot of things, but “boring” wasn’t one of them…until now.

Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have demonstrated a unique knack for ruffling people’s feathers, whether it be via the bombastic hip-hop of “Cruise,” the thinly-veiled sexual innuendo of “Sun Daze,” or even just the inclusion of the Backstreet Boys on their previous single “God, Your Mama, And Me.” However, for “Smooth,” the fourth single off of their Dig Your Roots album, the pair apparently decided to see what they would sound if they threw out all of their redeeming qualities and kept only the bad ones, and the result is this sleep-inducing plodder of a track.

The production here is more restrained that you’d expect from FGL, with only a dobro and amplified acoustic guitar carrying the melody and a basic, surprisingly-limp synthetic beat keeping time. Gone are the electric guitars turned up to 11 or the in-your-face percussion, and they leave behind an empty shell of a song that has absolutely no energy or groove. Instead of the relaxed romantic vibe the song wants to set, the mood ends up feeling languid, lethargic, and not even remotely sexy. On the plus side, though, the song can help you bridge the gap between Ambien refills.

Hubbard’s vocal performance here is serviceable as best. His brings his usual decent range and flow to the party, but his delivery is as lifeless as the production, and he comes across as his usual sleazy-sounding self. The stink of songs like “Sun Daze” still clings to Hubbard like stale cigarette smoke, and his creepy bro persona permeates this song so thoroughly that you’ll want to spray your radio with Febreze when the song is over. For his part, Kelley does his usual disappearing act, and no one would notice if he was replaced by a generic backup singer.

The writing is…well, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Florida-Georgia Line song:

Good lord almighty
Girl, you go down good
You ain’t even trying
‘Cause you wrote the book
There ain’t nobody
A do me like you
The way you move that body
Girl, you’re so smooth

The whole thing is a shallow, objectifying tune about how hot and sexy the narrator’s girl is. It also includes such winning phrases that compare a girl to a “cat daddy driving a caddy from cali” (what’s a cat daddy?) and “a Tennessee Walker, just a walking on the water” (because nothing’s sexier than comparing a girl to a breed of horse), and tops the whole thing off by randomly including the lines “Blackberry jam, finger-licking off your hand/Flying out the window” (which makes less sense in context than it does outside of it). It’s a good thing this song puts its listeners to sleep by the second verse, because this is probably the worst-written song I’ve heard all year.

Overall, “Smooth” is a frustrating song (even by Bro-Country standards) that offers its audience no compelling reason to listen to it. The production is bland, the vocals are meh, and the writing is absolutely terrible. It’s a major regression even from “God, Your Mama, And Me,” and one that makes me very concerned about what their eventual fourth album will sound like.

Rating: 3/10. Ugh.