Song Review: Jimmie Allen, “Down Home”

You know you missed the mark when the listener’s first thought in “…I think HARDY did it better.”

Remember when we were actually excited at the idea of a new Jimmie Allen release? “Best Shot” was a solid debut single and held the promise of better things to come, but instead Allen seems to be regressing with every passing single, culminating in the formulaic snoozefest that was his duet with Brad Paisley “Freedom Was A Highway,” which took over a year to reach the top of the charts. Given that lukewarm reception, Allen and his team wisely closed the book on the Bettie James era and moved on to a new album and some leadoff single buzz, dropping “Down Home” at the presumed teaser for Allen’s third album. Unfortunately, while the song is supposed to be a moving letter to a passed-on father about how life “does home” is going, the execution is botched so badly so it comes across as a generic “I’m so country!” singalong that’s devoid of any real emotion. Allen is capable of doing so much more, but he needs to start delivering on that early promise.

In truth, Allen isn’t the biggest problem with this track. That would be the lazy, cookie-cutter production that’s indistinguishable from your typical Friday-night dirt road drive. The mix is an off-the-shelf guitar-and-drum arrangement with little else added for flavor (the keyboards are left buried in the background, and there’s a synthetic beat used that doesn’t fit terribly well with the real drums). The biggest issue is the mood that’s set: The instrument tones are surprisingly bright and the atmosphere is positive bordering on celebratory, with only a few minor chords hinting at the narrator’s loss and their motivation for telling the story in the first place. Instead of amplifying the loss, the sound ends up minimizing it to the point that you don’t feel any emotion towards the dead father at all. Compared to songs like Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here” and even HARDY’s “Give Heaven Some Hell,” this song pushes the death to the side instead of helping listeners feel the emotion behind the relationship, blunting its impact and making it less distinct and more forgettable as a result. It’s an egregious dereliction of duty from the producer, and whoever was behind the sound board for this should be barred from the studio until they learn to competently complement a track.

Similarly, there’s not enough feeling in Allen’s vocals to convince the audience that he actually misses his father as much as he claims. It’s a passable performance technically, but the brisk pace of the lyrics might be working against him, forcing him to focus of getting the words out quickly enough instead of infusing them with the necessary emotion. His overall tone is so relentlessly positive that it makes him sound disingenuous whenever he rushes through any sort of “I miss you” line, to the point where you question how strong the relationship between father and son actually was. It’s the raw, unvarnished emotion and pain that draws people into a song like this, but the wounds here have seemingly healed to a degree that the loss doesn’t actually add anything to the song, and it gets pushed into the background behind the uninteresting scenes of the present day. I can understand trying to focus on the silver lining when something like this happens, but for my money trying to turn this into a happy song was a mistake. Had Allen leaned in to the melancholy a bit more, it might have actually resonated with the audience rather than becoming the background buzzword drivel that it is.

So let’s talk about that background buzzword drivel, shall we? Ostensibly, the song is a personal note from the narrator to their deceased father, declaring their confidence that their father is in a better place and that everything is fine “down home.” The lyrics absolutely scream “wasted potential to me, and the problem here is two-fold:

  • The track emphasizes the present far more than the past, dedicating the chorus real estate to life at home and leaving the father’s story to languish on the verses. We never get to hear the father’s story (heck, all we get to know about them is that they like fishing and Charley Pride), and it keeps us from sharing in the narrator’s feelings towards them.
  • Focusing on the present day isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the images we get are mostly the same sort of stuff we get from every song. The indelible images here are of boilerplate domestic scenes like buying homes and raising families (and don’t even get me started on that “in my F-150 on a backroad” line), and even those are throwaway one-liners that are sped through so quickly you barely even notice them. Had the writers taken the time to expand on some of these scenes (the part talking about the narrator’s daughter could have been really touching had we been able to linger on it), the song might have forged the emotional connection with the audience that it was aiming for. Instead, the moment passes by so quickly that you barely even notice it, and if it’s not hammered home by the chorus, it’s forgotten immediately.

There’s a decent song buried in here somewhere: Slow your roll, give the father’s story more screen time, and put more focus on the d’awww-inducing moments to connect with the audience. It still might not have been enough given how bad this production is, but it would have give the song a fighting chance.

“Down Home” aims for the feels, but winds up missing by a mile because it is far too sterile and upbeat to feel personal or meaningful. The production is beyond awful for the subject matter, the writing makes too many unforced errors trying to tell its story, and Jimmie Allen fails to leave his mark on the track and just seems to be along for the ride. I had high hopes for Allen after “Best Shot,” but unfortunately he’s fallen in line with the Nashville meta and is just another unimpressive country artist now. If he can’t do any better than this for his third album, he tenure in Music City could end sooner rather than later.

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

Song Review: Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway”

Alternative title: “Boredom Was A Song.”

it wasn’t that long ago that I was excited about Allen’s prospects in the genre, based on his great debut single “Best Shot” to #1. Unfortunately, nothing he’s released since then (the run-of-the-mill Metro-Bro “Make Me Want To,” the mediocre Noah Cyrus collab “This Is Us”) could live up to the expectations set by his first single (in fact, “This Is Us” flopped so hard it barely cracked the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart), and he’s become just another country artist struggling to hold his spot in Nashville. His new release off of his Bettie James EP “Freedom Was A Highway” tries to add some star power to the mix by pairing Allen with country superstar Brad Paisley, but the duo fails to elevate a track that is nothing more than a cookie-cutter nostalgia trip that simply fails to hold the listener’s attention.

The production is the first disappointment, as all we get from the sound is a slick, spacious leftover from the Metropolitan era of the late 2010s. At the core of the sound are the same old guitars and drums that everyone else is leaning on, and despite the presence of Paisley’s musical wizardy (outside of the bridge solo, you’d never know he was here) and percussion that seems to be mostly real, there’s a strong sense of bland sameness here, as if you’ve already heard the song a million times before (and the token banjo doesn’t help matters). The spacious audio effects give the track an arena-ready feel, and the sound has enough punch to build momentum to keep the track moving at a decent clip, but the chord structure (which has a few minor chords and an unexpected number of sharp ones) and the darker instrument tones put the song in an awkward place, one that isn’t fun enough to feel nostalgic yet too energetic to feel thoughtful or reflective. It seems like the producer wasn’t really sure how to frame this song and tried to split the difference, leaving us with a mix that fails to serve either purpose.

While Allen and Paisley showcase some solid vocal chemistry, neither one does a great job selling their material to the audience. There are no technical issues present (the song doesn’t really test either man’s range or flow, and both artists apply appropriate vocal power when needed), but as they’re telling the story (or at least the story approximation the lyrics give them, but we’ll get there), they aren’t able to convince the listener to view the scene using the same rose-colored glasses. It’s like listening to someone sing behind a glass panel: You get the sense that they feel attached to the memory, but you aren’t drawn into the memory yourself. (There’s also the issue of making a unnecessarily making the song a duet: Paisley may add some marketing clout, but he’s a decade removed from the peak of his Q rating, and while the guitar is a nice touch, nothing about the vocals would change if Allen had just song the entire song himself.) The whole thing is a “meh” performance overall, and simply isn’t able to elevate the track where it’s needed.

The lyrics here are a slightly-more-palatable version of Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It”: The narrator is looking back at their teenage lifestyle and wishes they could return to those days when “freedom was a highway.” The problem is that the story feels both paint-by-numbers and half-finished, giving us a the same collections of stereotypical-yet-scattered vignettes that everyone uses: Friday nights, girls next door, loud concerts, hometown worship, and above all lots and lots of cruising (and don’t forget the “barbwire on a fence post” line, which serves no discernible purpose). While this narrator’s version of the past is more appealing than Shelton’s prescriptive/restrictive one, its attempt to drum up that old nostalgic feeling in the audience is no more convincing, and by not providing much of a present-day contrast to compare it to, the narrator doesn’t engender much sympathy either. It’s yet another song that’s reliant on the listener to fill in the blanks and tie the writing back to their own experience, and if that doesn’t work, you’re not left with much of a song.

“Freedom Was A Highway” is an uninteresting, unengaging track that’s too heavily reliant on clichés to leave any sort of impression on the listener. Everything from the sound to the writing to the performances of both Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley just feels incredibly generic, and the song doesn’t do much to justify its existence as a result. I’m really tired of Nashville feeding us vague, hole-filled storylines like this and making us fill in the gapsinstead, give me vivid images and unique details that transport us into the scenes and really let us visualize them! Instead, we’re left with boring radio filler that isn’t likely to do much for the career of either artist, feeling nostalgic for the days when Allen’s career actually seemed to have promise.

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

Song Review: Jimmie Allen & Noah Cyrus, “This Is Us”

I don’t get it: If Jimmie Allen wanted to move on to new music, why did he give us something that sounds this old?

Despite a lengthy nine-month climb, Allen’s debut single “Best Shot” arrived at #1 with some solid momentum and had to be forcibly removed from the Top 10 before it went recurrent. That momentum, however, was summarily squashed by “Make Me Want To,” which took over thirteen months to make the same trek and seemed to flatline at several points along the way (and honestly wasn’t good enough to deserve a #1 spot anyway). It’s safe to say that everyone from Allen to Stoney Creek to country radio was ready to move on from Mercury Lane, and Allen has returned with a fresh new single that sounds like…a mashup of 2014 and 1984? “This Is Us,” a duet with Noah Cyrus (better known as Miley’s younger sister) and the presumed leadoff single for Allen’s sophomore project, is a lukewarm love song that tries to stitch together every genre trend of the past decade (with some 80s pop thrown in for good measure), and it doesn’t offer a compelling reason for the listener to pay any attention.

Whoever produced this thing hasn’t bothered to change their calendar for the past five years or so, because this mix is straight out of the Metro-Bro playbook: A somber piano (serious song alert!), a slick electric guitar, an in-your face drum machine that winds up being the defining sound of the song, and a deliberate choral cadence driven by a wall of generic guitar-and-drum noise and (gulp) a token banjo. (There’s a steel guitar and dobro here, but they’re buried deep in the arrangement and barely noticeable.) On top of this, everything from the instruments to the vocals are slathered in echoey effects that make the whole thing sound a power ballad from the 1980s. Unfortunately, whatever power this thing generates feels hollow and artificial, and the mix doesn’t provide the groundswell of energy needed to launch this track into the atmosphere (in truth, it barely generates any energy at all). Instead of feeling heartfelt and passionate, the emotion here is as forced and synthetic as the beat itself, and never stretches beyond the level of bland background noise.

Allen sounds a bit different here than on his previous singles: The added effects may make his voice project a bit more, but they seems to diminish his vocal presence and detract from his charisma. Where he felt vulnerable on “Best Shot” and slimy on “Make Me Want To,” on this track he feels stoic and matter-of-fact, delivering his lines without a whole lot of feeling behind them (especially on the chorus, where he basically forces Cyrus to bring enough passion to the table to cover both of them). The listener finds themselves stuck behind a virtual pane of glass, able to hear Allen’s lines but not really able to feel them, and they’re left mostly unmoved as a result. For her part, Cyrus does a passable Lauren Alaina impression (honestly, the whole song gives me strong “What Ifs” flashbacks), but there’s nothing terribly distinct or memorable about her voice, and I’m not a fan of the song’s penchant for trapping her deep in her lower range. Her performance is the better of the two artists by a hair, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to hear either of them on this track.

The writing is ripped straight from country music’s redemptive playbook: The narrator is a recovering dudebro who lived life from sundown to sunup, and is now realizing how foolish and empty their life was (and how much better it is now that they’ve found true love), and now feels the need to tell us all about is in the vaguest way possible. The narrator references relationships that failed and dumb things that they’ve dumb, but they never actually give us any specifics, giving the audience nothing to visualize and picture just how bad the narrator’s former life was (which also keeps them from relating to the speaker or sharing in their pain and joy). The “this is us” hook is not only weak, but it seems out of place on a track that spends most of its time looking back on the failures on the past and almost no time looking forward to the future. (Thankfully, while there’s nothing here that really screams “duet,” the verses can at least be split without creating much awkwardness.) Without any true emotional pull or forward vision, the song just kind of sits there, hoping that the listener can fill in the cavernous gaps in its lyrics to give it some actual meaning.

“This Is Us” is the latest in a string of mediocre I’ve had the misfortune of hearing recently, and while I’d still take it over “Make Me Want To,” it never rises above the threshold of bland elevator music for me. The production is dated, the writing is vague, Jimmie Allen and Noah Cyrus are uninspiring, and no one convinces me that there’s actually love in the air. It’s nothing more than radio filler, and as much as I enjoyed “Best Shot,” I would have been less enthused had I known it was literally Allen’s best shot and things would be all downhill from there.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Jimmie Allen, “Make Me Want To”

If Jimmie Allen’s last single was “Best Shot,” he should’ve called this one “Worst Shot.”

“Best Shot” was one of the biggest surprise hits of 2018, featuring a warm, restrained vibe, solid writing, and a heaping helping of charisma and vulnerability from Allen himself. By distinguishing himself so well from the rest of the pack, the song resonated so much with country listeners that it had to be dragged kicking and screaming off the Mediabase charts before it even fell out of the Top Ten! Naturally, no one wants to mess with a winning formula, so Allen and his team are following up their success with “Make Me Want To,” and…wait, what on earth is this? The song is a generic Metro-Bro retread (you know, the sort of meatheaded masterpiece we all got sick of four years ago) that is basically the polar opposite of “Best Shot.” It’s a major step backwards for Allen, and one that puts his newfound success in jeopardy.

Things feel different right from the start, as the song opens with a slick electric guitar poured on the top of some acoustic strumming and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track. (Heck, it even stole some background shouts from Sam Hunt!) Despite the eventual addition of some real drums and a keyboard (and a guitar solo with some decent energy), the mix just feels generic and indistinguishable, blending in with the crowd more than standing out. The instruments and faster tempo give the song a bright, upbeat feel, but it seems to be stuck in this weird space where it’s not playful enough to be fun and not serious enough to be romantic, and thus doesn’t feel like it matches the lyrics all that well. I wouldn’t call it an inherently bad mix, but the producer just doesn’t do enough with the pieces they have to catch the listener’s attention. Instead, the reaction is “Oh, another one of these songs,” and the audience tunes it out before the first chorus is over.

Allen is still Allen, thankfully, because I shudder to think where this would have ended up in the hands of a less-capable artist. His range and flow and both pretty good here, and despite the lyrical deficiencies here that send the song straight into the ditch (more on that later), Allen’s earnest delivery and charismatic personality at least keeps the song from careening off the road entirely. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot here for Allen to work with: The narrator is the same simple-minded dudebro from every Bro-Country song ever that we’ve all grown to hate, and while Allen keeps him from coming across like an absolute sleazeball, he can’t do anything to make him a sympathetic or likable character. This sort of obnoxious character is beneath Allen, and while I’d rather hear him try to cover this song than, say, Morgan Evans, I’d much prefer that his team find him some stronger material that’s actually worth his time.

The writing is what really irritates me about this song. Our “heroic” protagonist casts their eyes on a woman, declares that they just have to have her, and spends the rest of the song forcing themselves into her evening plans. Instead of the vulnerable, self-aware narrator of “Best Shot,” we’re stuck with this cocky meathead who just assumes people will follow his lead because he’s just that awesome. This sort of pushy, presumptuous attitude has always been a non-starter for me (When he says “Yeah, it might be too soon to say I love you,” my response is “Gee, you think?”), and leaves me rooting for the guy to fall flat on his face instead of succeed. Seriously, how hard is it to, I don’t know, actually consider the other person’s thoughts on the matter? What if “sneaking on out to your car/stealing kisses out there in the dark” isn’t what they’re keen on doing? On top of all this, nearly every classic Bro trope from objectifying comments to nighttime makeout sessions is present (although explicit drinking references are never made, they’re heavily implied given the setting), making the song both unseemly and unoriginal. It feels like a song that was written during the height of the Bro-Country era that someone blew the dust off of for Mercury Lane and thought “This’ll be fine.” It’s not.

“Make Me Want To” doesn’t offend me as much as the worst representatives of the Bro-Country era, but it still offends me a lot. It’s a song that’s a) been done before, b) wasn’t worth doing the first time, and c) is an absolutely disastrous choice to follow-up “Best Shot.” The production is uninteresting, the writing is horrendous, and while Jimmie Allen can move the needle slightly back towards respectability, it’s not enough to salvage this junk. Allen is better than this, and he and his team need to find more material like “Best Shot” that lets him show it.

Rating: 4/10. The first song this year to “Make Me Want To” vomit.

Song Review: Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot”

Most artists don’t take their “Best Shot” when introducing themselves to mainstream radio. Jimmie Allen does so both figuratively and literally.

Allen is a Delaware native who has been kicking around Nashville for over a decade, but he finally broke through in 2017, signing a record deal last summer and releasing his debut EP back in October. After scoring a Top Ten on Spotify’s “United States Viral 50” chart with “Blue Jean Baby,” Allen has now released “Best Shot” as his official debut single on country radio. While the song may not be the most novel song you’ll ever hear, it’s a sharply-executed track that does a good job showcasing  Allen’s talents as both a singer and songwriter.

Production-wise, “Best Shot” does a nice job walking the tightrope between traditional and contemporary country, blending modern elements into its acoustic foundation to create an understated, R&B-flavored mix with some solid groove to it. The track opens with an acoustic guitar driving the melody and what sounds like a single maraca keeping time, but slowly expands to include an electric, a piano, and a simple drum machine, all of which are toned way down to create a relaxed, almost-sexy atmosphere that doesn’t get in the way of the writing. It’s very reminiscent of Thomas Rhett’s “Unforgettable,” but it trades some of Rhett’s tempo and energy for a bit more groove and sensuality, and makes good use of minor chords to underline the depth and seriousness of the narrator’s feelings. It’s a effective strategy that makes for an easy listen while also leaving a favorable impression on the listener.

Vocally, Allen reminds be a bit of Devin Dawson, but with a bit more presence and a much smoother delivery. While the song is actually a bit too low for Allen’s voice (his delivery gets a bit raspy at points during the verses, and he sounds much more comfortable and powerful on the higher-ranged chorus) and the slower tempo doesn’t really test his flow, he brings a ton of emotion and earnestness to the table, allowing him to own the narrator’s role and make the song feel incredibly personal. I’ve harped on a few singers recently about not being able to elevate blasé material, but Allen does a nice job taking a clichéd topic and making it feel fresh and interesting.

Of course, the material here is much better than blasé—in fact, it’s my favorite part of the song. On the surface, it’s basically a carbon copy of Russell Dickerson’s “Yours”: The singer reflects on how rough his life is, but declares that he is a better person since his partner came into his life, and that he will give their relationship his “best shot.” However, while Dickerson distinguished his song through its vivid imagery, Allen stands out by playing up his vulnerability. Lot of country singers express disbelief that they wind up with such incredible partners, but Allen goes a step further by laying out his flaws and insecurities for the world to see, and how his self-image has improved since the start of the relationship (when he says “you saw a spark…that no one else could find,” “no one else” likely includes himself). The hook implies that even though his doubt lingers and that he thinks his partner deserves more respect and affeciton that he can give, he’s been inspired to try and give them all that he can. It’s a sympathetic, relatable viewpoint, and when coupled with the sincerity of Allen’s delivery, it’s a recipe for a track that hits the listener square in the feels.

Overall, “Best Shot” does exactly what it needs to do: It introduces Jimmie Allen to the audience, demonstrates his ability as a vocalist and lyricist, and makes a credible case for why he belongs on the radio. For all the complaining I’ve done about artists that I want booted out of the genre, Allen is an artist that I’d like to stick around a while.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.