Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (March 2022 Edition)

With spring in full swing and a major turnover imminent on the country charts, it’s time to see what songs are preparing to take over the airwaves this summer. Will they be good, or will they be bad? …The chances are that if I’ve decided to shove them into a single post, they’re probably going to end up somewhere in the middle, which brings us to our first song…

Zac Brown Band, “Out In The Middle”

Zac Brown and the crew get back to their sonic roots with this song, leaning on a swampy acoustic guitar and some punchy, bass-drum-heavy percussion to set the mood. They eventually mix in some electric guitars and the band’s trademark fiddle even gets a few licks in, but the resulting mood here feels overly dour and defensive. This song is a stereotypical “country” glorification track, bringing out the same old tired imagery we always get (tractors, two-lane roads, and booze-soaked Friday nights), and instead of feeling celebratory and proud, the vibe is defiant and forceful, as if they’re responding to an attack on their character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brown’s vocals, which are delivered with what can best be described as “controlled anger” as he methodically walks us through the various country tropes that make up life “out in the middle [of nowhere].” The edgy approach of both the sound and singer make the song more off-putting than appealing, and the hard truth is that the song is neither interesting nor memorable.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Gabby Barrett, “Pick Me Up”

Are we really still releasing singles from Goldmine? Technically “Pick Me Up” is the fourth single from an album that’s a few months shy of two years old, but given that “I Hope” came out in the middle of 2019 and dominated the radio for a good year, it feels like this disc has been out forever. Sadly, you can file “Pick Me Up” under “more of the same,” and nothing here stand out to warrant your attention. The sound is dominated by a token banjo and washed-out reverb effects that dilute the whole mix into a bland wall of noise (even the steel guitar doesn’t really stand out!). The writing has its moments (“Watch the full moon crash on some sunrise wheat” is a decent line), but the story takes us along the same path as every other country song: a nighttime pickup ride “down a back two-lane” somewhere near the ZBB out in the middle of nowhere. Barrett herself is a decent vocalist, but she can’t tell a compelling story when there isn’t one to tell, and her restrained, understated delivery just doesn’t do enough to convince people to pay attention. She and her team would be better off hanging this album on the wall and bringing out some fresh material, because after “Footprints On The Moon,” crashed and burned, Barrett needed a much better rebound track than this drivel.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzzzz…

Mitchell Tenpenny, “Truth About You”

Believe it or not, this song has actually got a lot going for it. The production brings in both a mandolin and steel guitar, and manages to mix in their brighter tones without detracting from the serious tone of the song, and the writing at least tries to shine a positive light on the narrator (they wish their partner the best and that they want the bad blood between them to end, but they also bring a receipt or two to show that they hold the moral high ground). However, there’s one big problem here, and his name is Mitchell Tenpenny: The man has absolutely no charisma or credibility, and doesn’t come across as the least bit believable as he tries to tell his side of the story. Instead, there’s a malicious, even whiny feel to his delivery, as if he’s relishing the chance to throw some barbs at his ex. I really would have liked to see this song in the hands of an artist that could sell it (say, Dillon Carmichael?), and after listening to Tenpenny run this track into the ground, I really don’t see why Riser House and Columbia keep trying to make him a thing in this genre.

Rating: 5/10. Next!

Jackson Dean, “Don’t Come Lookin'”

Zac Brown and the crew get back to their sonic roots with this song, leaning on a swampy acoustic guitar and some punchy, bass-drum-heavy percussion to set the mood…except this isn’t the ZBB, it’s Maryland native Jackson Dean, who signed with Big Machine back in 2020 but is only dropping a debut album and a debut single. In truth, the acoustic guitar feels more raw than swampy here, and while the vibe here is overly grim and serious (the dude really doesn’t sound like he’s having fun with this lifestyle), the track comes across as more of a personal creed than a defense of a way of life, and thus it doesn’t feel as preachy or angry as “Out In The Middle.” The buzzwords are all here, of course (it seems like the narrator’s lifestyle revolves around beer, trucks, and “a mind in the gutter”), and while it does a good job pushing the protagonist as a free-spirited rambler, it really doesn’t a whole lot to sell the lifestyle (or the story) to the audience. The biggest difference here in Dean himself: He embraces the rough-edged persona and has enough charm and charisma to feel believable as a Ward Davis soundalike. He’s the biggest reason to bother tuning in to the tale, and if nothing else, given how badly Nashville keeps botching the launch of new artists, this feels like the closest they’ve come to success in quite some time.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see what you think.

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: Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones”

Dolly Parton can get away with a sappy feel-good song. Gabby Barrett, not so much.

Barrett was a revelation back in 2019, and her attitude-filled debut “I Hope” not only rocketed up the country charts to top the Billboard airplay chart in April, it peaked at #16 on the Hot 100 and racked up over 10 million weekly streams on several occassions. It’s nearly impossible not to see a relative sophomore slump when your debut song explodes like that, and that’s what we see with Barrett’s follow-up single “The Good Ones.” The song isn’t bad, but it isn’t terribly interesting either: It’s a cheesy, generic ode to a partner with only a few flashes of wit to its credit, and it forces Barrett to try to elevate the track the same way Parton did with “When Life Is Good Again,” but without Parton’s presence and emotive charisma.

There’s not a lot to the production on this track: There’s the serious, overly-dark piano to signal the narrator’s devotion, a pair of electric guitars (one high-pitched, spacious, and only used for breaks, one deeper and used mostly for periodic notes in place of the percussion early and relegated to chord work later), and a drum machine that adds some thump to the mix and little else. (An acoustic guitar is here too, but it’s barely noticeable.) Despite the constant quarter notes offered by various instruments (the guitar starts the trend, the piano takes over later), the track doesn’t generate nearly as much energy as I expected (in truth, it doesn’t generate much at all), and the slower tempo and regular minor chords keep the song from feeling truly romantic or celebratory. (Kelsea Ballerini’s recent album cut “Bragger” took the same route, but at least the quicker tempo and mischievous vibe made that track more fun to listen to.) This is yet another country song that tries to use a darker sound to signal deeper feelings, and once again the trick really doesn’t work.

Barrett remains a talented performer with an effortless delivery, solid flow, and more than enough power and range to cover this track. From an emotional perspective, however, this song is a step back from “I Hope”: While she exuded so much anger and bitterness that the listener couldn’t help but get swept up in her story, she’s doesn’t quite reach that same level here. She certainly seems smitten with the object of her affection, but the listener doesn’t feel it the same way Barrett’s frustration came through on her last single, and thus they don’t feel as invested or interested in this love story (it’s just someone bragging about their significant other). By not pushing the emotional envelope further or having a Parton-like mic presence to draw in the audience, Barrett just isn’t able to sell the story, and the response to it is mostly a shrug and a sigh.

I’m really not impressed with the writing here, as the love story sticks too closely too fluffy and familiar territory to really resonate.  The opening verse is nothing more than a checklist of random comparisons paired with a confusing refusing to the Allegheny river (I’ve never heard a river described as “solid” before, which makes me think the reference was originally going to be the Allegheny mountains before the writers realized it wouldn’t fit the rhyming scheme). Despite a few flashes of brilliance (the “you’d say he hung the moon/I’d say he hung the galaxy” line is pretty good), the song is basically a mashup of every love cliché you’ve ever heard (“love me like he should,” “like wrote the book,” and so on), right down to the “one of the good ones” hook. It just feels like a song that was hastily constructed, something that really needed a few more drafts to more beyond the cookie-cutter phrases and become something more memorable.

“The Good Ones” is actually not one of the good ones on the radio, not with production that’s this awkward and writing that’s this slipshod. Gabby Barrett remains a decent performer, but she doesn’t bring the heat the way she did on “I Hope,” and without support from anything else the song just fizzles and fades into the background. I still think she has star (and even superstar) potential in the genre, but she’s going to need stronger material than this track to make it happen.

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

Song Review: Gabby Barrett, “I Hope”

I wouldn’t call this subtle, but I would call it solid.

Gabby Barrett is a Pennsylvania native and American Idol alum who parlayed her reality TV success into a independent single release of “I Hope,” which moved Warner Music enough to sign her to a deal this summer and re-release the song under their umbrella. With Nashville looking to rebuild their female talent pipeline after years of sending mostly men to the radio, signing Barrett seems like a smart play by taking advantage of existing development channels (although I’m not sure reality singing competitions really deserve that label) while they get their internal long-term processes in order, and while Barrett is pretty much a Carrie Underwood clone from her backstory to her sound, copying Underwood (a.k.a. one of the most/only successful women in country music over the last decade) is not a bad play, and “I Hope” is an attitude-laden, well-executed track that gives off some serious “Before He Cheats” vibes.

I’m not a huge fan of the way this song opens, with a pair of electric guitars crying for help as they’re drowning in a sea of audio effects, but the production quickly rights itself and turns into an angry, vengeful mix that is the best possible blend of Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More” and Jason Aldean’s “Rearview Town.” While the song is instrumentally closer to Ballerini’s tune (the heavy snap track, the not-quite-as-heavy guitar work, the less-busy overall arrangement), the darker tones create a raw, bleaker feel more in line with Aldean’s tune. Unlike the vocals, there’s some surface-level placidity with the sound (this is especially true on the verses, but even the chorus doesn’t hit with you wall of noise that you anticipate) but you can tell there’s a lot burning just underneath it. It does a nice job supporting and enhancing the writing, and goes a long way towards sharpening the track’s impact on the listener.

Vocally, Barrett pretty much is Carrie Underwood, much like Shay Mooney is basically the next Gary LeVox. Barrett may have a slightly more-nasal tone on the verses, but when she lets loose on the choruses, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two American Idol alums. Where the production hits a bit softer, however, Barrett brings a real edge to the song, perfectly capturing the spirit of a narrator that is wounded and lashing out at her ex. While the delivery doesn’t quite mesh with the lyrics (the writing kinda-sorta tries to hide where it’s going à la something like Jaron And The Long Road To Love’s “Pray For You,” but you know exactly where this thing is going a few lines into Barrett’s performance), there’s so much passion and charisma behind the vocals that you can’t help but pull for them and start wishing ill will on the ex yourself. Country music has taken itself way too seriously over the last couple of years (note how not happy Aldean always sounds on his supposed party tracks), but well-placed, justifiable anger can be a powerful force in music, and Barrett absolutely owns that look here.

The writing itself is the story of someone who’s been unceremoniously dumped by their partner, and is desperately hoping for the new person the cheater’s life to return the favor. The song makes some effort to hide its true meaning under a bunch of courteous platitudes, but even if we throw out the fact that the tone set by everything else here gives the game away, the good tidings are laid on so heavily that you just know the deke is coming. These are the same lovey-dovey moments you hear from every love song ever (although admittedly that’s part of the point here), and the song’s true power lies in the fact that it leaves more than enough for the production and performer to dig in and turn the track into something memorable. It’s a song with a slow, fairly obvious windup, but it manages to work because everything around it comes together to save it from itself.

“I Hope” isn’t going to win any Pulitzer prizes with its obvious setup, but it’s a great example a how a song can be elevated by everything around it. The production does a good job establishing a bad mood, and Gabby Barrett’s visceral performance behind the mic really breathes life into the song and makes the anger of a jilted lover come alive. Barrett seems like the sort of singer that Nashville should have been developing over the last decade, but given where the path of Barrett’s spiritual successor has led Underwood, this works too.

Rating: 7/10. It’s worth checking out.