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

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

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

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

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Jon Pardi, “Your Heart Or Mine”

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

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

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

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

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzz…

Elle King & Dierks Bentley, “Worth A Shot”

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

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

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Last Night Lonely”

Can this be the “last night” I have to deal with Jon Pardi? Please?

On paper, Pardi seems like an artist that I would approve of, mostly because he at least tries to bring some classic instrumentation to the table to shake up the generic Nashville formula. Instead, I find him to be an trend-hopping performer with a subpar voice and some seriously obnoxious material, such as his latest single “Tequila Little Time” or his collaboration with Lauren Alaina “Getting Over Him.” His star seems to be slowly dimming on radio, with his last two solo singles spending nearly a year on the chart just to barely crack the top five, which meant that everything was on the table when he and his team closed the book on Heartache Medication and went looking for a new leadoff single. What they found was “Last Night Lonely,” and unfortunately it’s an attempt to blend in with the rest of the current background noise while providing only a token nod towards what made him distinct in the first place. It’s a forgettable effort that I’m not even remotely interested in revisiting once this review is posted.

Through the ups and downs of Pardi’s past output, you could at least give him credit for being ‘the fiddle and steel guy,’ using classical instrumentation to help him stand out in Nashville’s endless sea of faceless young white male artists. The fiddle and steel guitar are still here, but they’re bit players here, stuck behind a generic-sounding guitar-and-drum setup (to the point that the guitars play over the fiddle on the intro and post-chorus riffs, and the two instruments simply bleed together). Outside of the first half of the bridge intro, the classic country instruments are barely noticeable and add nothing to the sound, and no one would have noticed if they were left out of the recording session entirely. Speaking of the session, there’s also something weird going on with the sound: I use the term “spacious” a lot to talk about how songs seem to fill a room with their sound, but this song comes across as…narrow? Cramped? The instrument tones don’t carry and linger the way you might expect them too, as if it were recorded in a room with terrible acoustics on a cheap sound system. It comes across as hard and cold instead of giving off the soft, warm radiance you’d like a love song to have, and the darker instruments tones and regular minor chords make the song feel ominous and creepy instead of heartfelt and inviting. It’s about as bad a mix as I’ve ever heard Pardi drop, and I’m very curious to see who gets the producing credits on this next project, because it sounds like there’s been a change behind the board (and not one for the better).

I’m already on record calling Pardi “one of the worst vocalists in country music,” so I won’t belabor that point much more here. His performance here is best described as “technically proficient,” but he runs into the same problem that he did on “Tequila Little Time”: “His overall performance is completely devoid of charm and charisma,” which means that instead of coming across as a knight in shining armor here to end a fair maiden’s days of lonely solitude, he sounds like some sketchy dudebro trying to talk his way into somebody’s pants. (It actually calls to mind some of Dustin Lynch‘s recent work, and that’s never an association you want to people to make.) You never get the sense that he has any actual feelings to the other person; instead, his tone is unabashedly mercenary as he reaches for the lottery ticket argument to make his case (“hey, you never know!”). It’s a complete turn-off for the audience (and probably for whoever he’s talking to as well), and as a result they don’t stick around to see whether the ticket was a winner.

The writing here goes all in on the hook: The narrator tries to sell themselves to a prospective partner by declaring that this could be the last time they drink alone, dance with strangers, and ultimately be their “last night lonely.” It’s a drawn-out pickup line that harkens back to the worst of the Metro-Bro and Boyfriend eras, but the bigger issue is that by doing nothing but hammering home what is a mediocre hook at best, neither we nor the narrator’s target actually learn anything about the speaker, or whether or not they even have actual feelings for the person (notice that the term “love” is never spoken here). Here’s an idea: Instead of talking about the last time for everything, how about giving us a taste of all the “first time” benefits that someone might get (you know, like affection and reliability and a lower tax rate)? This one-sided case for all these “last times” feels wishy-washy and unconvincing (all those “could be” qualifiers might as well be giant asterisks), and the lines get a little scattershot by the end (they mostly stick to bar stuff, so the “back home to Mama” and “small town drama” lines feel a little out of place). It’s a song that decided to push a one-liner to its logical extreme without putting much thought into how (in)effective of an argument it might be, and we’re left with a song that feels more hollow and disingenuous than it should.

“Last Night Lonely” feels like a leftover track from the Metro-Bro or Boyfriend country eras, and thus a transparent attempt to reclaim some semblance of Jon Pardi’s prior success by blending into the background and hoping no one notices as it inches up the chart. I wouldn’t bet on it, just like I wouldn’t bet on this narrator: Pardi’s performance lacks feeling and emotion, the production does its best to back him with the blandest sound ever, and the one-note gets old before we even finish the second verse. If you’re looking for a song and a singer to sweep you off your feet with a romantic ballad, there are much better options out there than this drivel, and if Pardi’s not careful, his “last time” on the radio could be sooner than he thinks.

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

Song Review: Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him”

At long last, we have an answer to the question, “What would happen if you took ‘Mr. Lonely’ and sucked all the fun out of it?”

I’m afraid it’s time to bestow the dreaded “one-hit wonder” label upon Lauren Alaina. Outside of her not-quite-a-breakout hit “Road Less Traveled” back in 2016, she hasn’t been able to crack even the Top 25 as a headline artist (although she has been featured on a pair of #1s, 2017’s “What Ifs” and 2020’s “One Beer”). After watching “One Beer” and releasing a pair of EPs in 2020, Alaina has returned to the radio with “Getting Over Him,” a duet with fellow country artist Jon Pardi, and…honestly, if this is what we get after going a year without singles, I would’ve rather waited a little longer. It’s a track that feels forced, ominous, and surprisingly dour for what’s ostensibly a party track, and it fails to convince the audience that Alaina’s return from a semi-hiatus is a good thing.

My first problem with the song is the production, which emphasizes the negativity of the breakup rather than the carefree vibes of the rebound party that the lyrics focus on. The song opens with a dark, swampy electric guitar and a programmed drum loop that come across as incredibly cold and bitter, and that latent anger is never exorcised from the track, even as more instruments are tossed in (a token banjo, real drums, and eventually Pardi’s trademark fiddle). While the song doesn’t fall into plodding territory, the methodical tempo and dark, hard-edged guitars make it feel like the song is struggling to move forward, as if you can actually hear its gears grinding. This labored, frustrated vibe completes saps the fun out of the track, clashing badly with the lyrics by making the whole night out feel like a forced exercise. It makes the whole thing endeavor feel like a business arrangement rather than a good time, and it’s surprisingly hard to listen to, which is not what you want from what amounts to a comeback track.

Similarly, neither Alaina nor Pardi come across as terribly believable or sympathetic on this track. Alaina’s performance, while fine from a technical perspective, feels like it was sung through clenched teeth, giving the impression that her character is still steaming over being cheated on and isn’t having any fun at all, despite her claim that ” it was a damn good time.” For his part, Pardi comes across as an unrepentant, unsympathetic dudebro looking for an easy sexcapade, smugly relishing his role in the affair while exhibiting exactly none of the charm of Mark Wystrach’s “Mr. Lonely.” Instead of a wild night out, the image these two create is that of a irritated ex reluctantly executing a calculated revenge plan with a horny meathead just happy to be along for the ride, a look that flatters neither party involved. The pair has some decent vocal chemistry, but neither Alaina nor Pardi show off much charisma here, and by the end of the song everyone from the artists to the audience is just happy that it’s over.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a rebound hookup: A betrayed ex calls in a good-time specialist to help forgetting their breakup, and a wild night ensues. On one hand, the first narrator lays out their reasoning clearly and understandably (given the circumstances, you’re inclined to give the debauchery a pass), and the chorus tries it darnedest to convey that a good time was had (as opposed to what both the sound and the vocals convey). On the other hand, however, the second narrator’s perspective is full of needless bravado and really isn’t that interesting (they took the call, said yes, and leave us with the cringey “demin-on-demin” line), and the wild action is not only cliché and cookie-cutter (burning matches, lack of strings, etc.), but there’s very little action outside of the “dive-bar kissing” line. It’s the sort of song that really didn’t need to be a duet, and could have broadened its focus instead (for example, a lot of tracks like to show us the aftermath of the night; that would have been a better play here). Instead, we get a mediocre tale that tries to tell both sides of the story, but ends up not telling either that well.

“Getting Over Him” is a song that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to accomplish. There was some potential here and the lyrics desperately want to be fun, but the production wants to be moody instead, and the vocals try to split the difference and wind up being neither fun nor believable. It’s a mediocre rebound track that barely qualifies as radio filler, which means it’s nowhere near the comeback single Lauren Alaina needs to reestablish her radio presence (and I don’t see it doing much for Jon Pardi’s career either). Alaina needs to find some stronger material fast, or her mainstream career could be the next thing that’s over.

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

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time”

Sorry Jon Pardi, but these days we’ve got no time tequil.

Pardi hasn’t seen his success crumble the way, say, Midland has as country music once again pivoted away from traditional sounds, but I’m definitely getting the sense that his star is starting to dim. His singles may still be reaching the chart’s upper echelon, but it takes them a while to get there (his last two singles “Heartache Medication” and “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” spent nine months apiece on the chart), and “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” couldn’t even reach #1 on Mediabase (it was blocked by Chris Lane, of all people). Looking to recapture some of their momentum, Pardi and UMG Nashville have brought out “Tequila Little Time” as the third single from Pardi’s Heartache Medication album. The song, sadly, is nothing but sleazy Bro-Country with fiddle and horns, using a subpar pun on the hook to convince us that the song is interesting and clever when in reality it’s neither.

I have mixed feelings about the production on this track. On one hand, there’s some actual instrument diversity here, with a horn section and accordion joining Pardi’s usual fiddle and the customary guitar-and-drum foundation everyone leans on. However, these added instruments really don’t get that much time to shine:

  • The horns are limited to the bridge and a few stabs (and they feel a bit out of place trying to inject some fun into a song that otherwise maintains a strict serious posture).
  • The fiddle gets even less airtime than the horns (and they’re drowned out when the horns play).
  • While the accordion is a constant presence (and probably does the most to set the vibe of the song), it’s always left in the background.

Compared to “Heartache Medication,” this mix also has a surprisingly slick feel to it—the guitars have no texture, the drums have no punch, and the atmosphere feels relaxed but artificial (it has neither the barroom feel of “Heartache Medication” nor the island flavor of a song like Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita”). In short, I kind of like what the producer tried to do, but in the end they didn’t actually do it.

I consider Pardi one of the worst vocalists in country music (I can’t stand his overly-nasal tone), and he does nothing to change my opinion here. While his technical performance is much better this time compared to “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” (his flow is smoother and he actually stays on key here), his overall performance is completely devoid of charm and charisma, exposing his attempt to console the other person as a shallow attempt to pick up someone on the rebound. Unlike the production, Pardi’s delivery comes across as ham-handed and self-serving rather than smooth and suave, and he doesn’t give the listener the impression that he cares about the other person’s sob story at all. While the writing does this track no favors (more on that below), a stronger singer could have at least sounded like they cared about the other person beyond a possible hookup and earned some likeability; Pardi instead comes across as just another awkward meathead, and the audience is left unimpressed.

So what’s wrong with the writing? In a word, everything: This is just another retelling of the classic Bro-Country tale of a narrator trying to pick up someone at a bar with the usual alcoholic inducements. The only thing that even attempts to inject some wit or cleverness into the story is the “tequila little time” hook, which is nothing more than a cringey dad pun. Not only is there no detail here, the narrator actively discourages us from diving into the backstory, glossing over it by saying “we don’t have to talk about the past” (so apparently the narrator is actually Mark McGwire?). In fact, there’s a strong sense of Cobronavirus nihilism here, as the narrator pushes the other person to drink, dance, and generally forget about everything else. Despite this, there’s very little fun to be had in this track (most of the lyrics focus on the drinking itself), making this read like a party track minus the party. So if it’s not original, not interesting, not fun, and generally has nothing to say…what are we doing here again?

“Tequila Little Time” is a lazy, halfhearted attempt to take a song that doesn’t even measure up by Cobronavirus standards and wrap it in a thin veneer of classic country music. The production has good intentions but poor execution, the writing is just Bro-Country with a terrible pun, and Jon Pardi’s lack of tone and charm ends up repulsing listeners rather than drawing them in. Pardi is starting to look like a man without a kingdom in the genre as it bounces between trends, and if he doesn’t start finding some better material to release soon, he’s at risk of being exiled.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy”

I’m starting to think of Jon Pardi the same way I think of Joe Biden: Can’t we find anyone else to be the standard bearer for the party?

The movement back towards more traditional sounds in country music already feels like it’s fizzled out, but Pardi is one of the few out of the movement who’s found even semi-consistant success on mainstream radio, with his recent release “Heartache Medication” becoming his third #1 single. He’s returned to the radio with “Ain’t Always The Cowboy,” the second single from his Heartache Medication album, and…look, I’d really like to like this guy, but nothing he does here works for me: The production feels flat despite its neotraditional flair, the lyrics are unmoving despite their decent construction, and Pardi remains one of the most obnoxious vocalists on the radio today. As much as I love fiddle and steel guitar, I just can’t buy what this guy is selling.

Based on the pieces of this arrangement, you would think the production would at least be halway decent here: Prominent fiddle from the start, a foundation of acoustic guitars and real drums, and plenty of steel guitar riffs to satisfy the classic country fans. The sum of these parts, however, is more of a hole than a whole, and instead of giving off a warm or emotional feeling, the vibe feels distant and stoic instead. Part of it is the inclusion of hard-edged electric guitars on the chorus, which just serve as a wall of noise than muddies the water and spoils the mood (the electric guitar bridge solo doesn’t help matters any), and part of it is the bright, springy fiddle tone that doesn’t really reflect the somber tone of the lyrics. Whatever the reasons, however, the result is a mix that sounds more sterile and generic than it should, one that squanders the chance to use its instrumentation to stand out from the crowd (despite its prominence, the fiddle feels more like a bit player here than it did on “Heartache Medication”). It’s ultimately a thing that just kind of exists, which really doesn’t entice anyone to tune in and pay attention.

Pardi is tolerable as a vocalist when he’s on his game (think “She Ain’t In It” or even “Heartache Medication”), but when he’s off it as badly as he is here, I’d almost rather listen to Kip Moore‘s cheese grater of a voice. I can’t find a single thing I like about Pardi’s performance: His voice is flat and toneless (and even off-key at points⁠—that chorus opener “ain’t always the cahhhhhh-boy” makes me wince every time I hear it), his flow is choppy and rushed at points, and whatever vocal power he brings to bear is sapped by the utter lack of emotion in his delivery that gives me the distinct feeling that he really doesn’t care about what’s going down, despite the insistence of the writing. (Then again, perhaps it’s hard to transmit your pain to the audience when they’re plugging their ears and begging him to stop singing already like I was.) This performance is completely devoid of charm or charisma, one that makes me root against the narrator more than sympathize with him, and it certainly doesn’t interest me in the story being told.

It’s too bad too, because the lyrics here are halfway decent on paper. The narrator is noting that unlike Hollywood or George Strait would have you believe, “it ain’t always the cowboy that rides away.” This isn’t exactly news in the genre (it reminds me a little bit of Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” minus the actual emotion from the narrator), but the hook’s twist on a classic line is nicely done, and there are a couple decent lines on the aftermath (“I’ve never seen over from this side, never heard lonely get this quiet”). The problem, however, is that the narrator’s mostly-nonchalant response to the breakup and hyper-focus on the novelty of the stereotypical leaver being left makes the listener question what the big deal about the whole mess is. If this guy is basically shrugging and say “huh, that’s a new one,” why should we react any differently? Besides the role reversal, there’s nothing new to see here, and there are certainly more-interesting options where the singer is not actively working to torpedo the track.

At its core, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” is a mass of wasted potential: A neotraditional mix that can’t differentiate itself from its competition, writing that approaches a breakup more like an anthropological study that an emotional experience, and most of all, a singer in Jon Pardi that can’t get out of his own way and depresses the song instead of elevating it. It’s a noticeable step back even from “Heartache Medication,” and leaves me less than enthused about Pardi becoming the face/voice of the movement back towards classical sounds. If you’re looking for some to champion the old-school sound, the best choice “ain’t always the cowboy.”

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix”

Dear Thomas Rhett: Last time I checked, “fix” and “temporarily paper over” weren’t the same thing.

Does anyone remember when Rhett was committing blasphemy back in 2015 by brazenly mixing pop and R&B elements into his music? Fast forward four years, and Rhett has essentially conquered country music, ushering in both the R&B and Boyfriend country trends and suddenly becoming one of the more predictable artists in the genre. While I still consider him one of the better artists around, his single choices are starting to feel a little stale, as they continuously rehash his love life (“Look What God Gave Her”) and family history (“Remember You Young”). For his third single, Rhett finally tries to do something different by pairing up with Jon Pardi and releasing “Beer Can’t Fix” as the third single from his Center Point Road album…except now he’s just copying Pardi, Chris JansonLuke Combs, and most every other current country singer by pitching beer as a cure-all pill for life’s woes. Frankly, it’s a take that I’m getting really sick off, and while this track is catchier than the others, it’s a hard song to truly enjoy.

The foundation of the production here is about what you’d expect from a Thomas Rhett single: A restrained acoustic guitar that barely lifts a finger to carry the melody, slick electric guitar riffs, and percussion that runs the gamut from hand-played drums to a conventional drum set to Grady Smith’s favorite clap track. There are, however, a few off-the-wall elements to note: A prominent bass that does most of the melody-carrying work, a horn section that adds some flavor on the latter choruses, and even a whistling solo that outshines the electric guitar jamming over the same period (although neither guitar nor whistle feels overly inspired). The result is an upbeat, groove-laden, slightly tropical mix that rivals anything Kenny Chesney has put out in the last decade, and one that does a nice job drawing the listener into its carefree atmosphere. It’s the sort of energetic, toe-tapping arrangement that aims to move you physically instead of emotionally, and it mostly succeeds in this regard, even if it can’t mask the odor of the writing completely.

Vocally, Rhett is his usual charismatic self on this track, and thanks to the one thing the lyrics get right, he feels more sympathetic and believable than on a song like “Vacation.” I’ve pulled my hair out over a bunch of songs that set their performer up for failure, but this is the rare track that actually sets its artist up for success:

  • Its technical demands (in terms of range, flow, and power) are relatively flow, allowing Rhett to stay firmly planted in his comfort zone.
  • Much like the old “there’s no I in team” saw, the song puts the focus on the listener by discussing “their” problems (generically vague as they are) instead of the singer’s. The narrator is merely a guide to a good time in the wake of a disaster, and Rhett has more than enough experience and earnestness to project credibility in the role.

For his part, Pardi matches Rhett’s relaxed, reasuring persona note for note, and the pair demonstrates a surprising amount of vocal chemistry despite sharing very few harmony vocals. I’m still not a huge fan of Pardi’s voice, but I seem to be building up a tolerance to it over time, and he sounds decent enough to make the song work. In short, the vocals are not the problem here.

The problem here is the snake oil the writing is trying to peddle, as the narrator spends the song listing all the possible problems a person might have and offering beer as the solution to all of them, declaring that “there ain’t nothin’ that a beer can’t fix.” Alcohol doesn’t “fix” anything: Not only is it a temporary respite from problems that will be patiently waiting for you when you sober up, it can often make things worse rather than better. (How many bad decisions have started with the phrase “We were drinking and…”?) There are some disturbing parallels to Janson’s “Fix A Drink” here, from the simplistic view that nothing matters when you’re buzzed to the lack of any real action plan to address the discussed grievances, and while the issues discussed here are “smaller” and more personal than the worldwide issues Janson referenced, it doesn’t make the narrator’s flippant attitude any easier to stomach. (It also doesn’t help that there are some awkward moments where the writers try to cram too many syllables into a line, such as with Pardi’s “championship ring” verse.) I declared that for “Fix A Drink,” “the shallow ignorance of the song’s premise is a bit too large to paper over,” and despite the decent production and vocals, the same mostly applies here.

I’ll give Thomas Rhett a little credit here: He excels at the likeable, lighthearted narrator, and his producer gave him a mix with some decent groove and bounce for “Beer Can’t Fix.” Unfortunately, the poor advice and  alcohol dependency contained within the track makes its impact about as temporary as a single Budweiser, and no amount of alcohol can fix what’s broken here. Rhett remains a capable performer, but let’s not forget how quickly Thanos made an end run around Rhett and the rest of Nashville to claim the country music crown. If Rhett doesn’t step up his game soon, he’ll be on the outside looking in sooner than you think.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but I’m afraid “Beer Can’t Fix” this one.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication”

Country music has needed to take its medicine for a while, but it’s going to need a much stronger dose than this.

As the winds of the genre start to blow in a more-traditional direction, you would think the change would favor an artist like Jon Pardi, who’s been trying to shoehorn a classical country sound into the Metro-Bro era for several years now. Thus far, however, things haven’t played out quite the way he or I expected: After “She Ain’t In It” petered out at #21 on Billboard’s airplay chart, “Night Shift” laboriously slogging on the airwaves for ten months just to peak at #5 (and given how weak that song looked at the end, it was probably lucky to get that far). Now, however, Pardi’s team has decided to start with a clean slate, kicking California Sunrise to the curb (better late than never, I guess) and releasing “Heartache Medication” as the leadoff single for a yet-to-be-announced new album. While you won’t be surprised by its unapologetically-traditional flavor, you will be surprised by how flat and underwhelming the track is, demonstrating that it takes more than a springy fiddle to make a good country song.

The production stakes out a neotraditional position right from the start, opening with a bright, bubbly fiddle that harkens back to some of Alabama’s classic material from the 80s. The rest of the arrangement follow suit: An acoustic guitar carries the melody on the verses, a steel guitar adds some seasoning a chips in with a decent bridge solo, an electric guitar (with some actual texture for a change) adds some background seasoning (some cleaner axes pop up for the back half of the solo), and real drums provide the foundation from start to finish. The whole thing is enough to set a traditionalist’s heart aflutter…except that the producer doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot with these pieces. The problem is that everything around the instruments doesn’t fit together at all: The tempo is too fast to be contemplative but too slow to be fun, the brighter instrumentation seems a bit out of touch with the melancholy lyrics, and the instruments themselves are missing that extra something to keep them from feeling like they just kind of exist here. I get the distinct feeling that the producer did not grasp the actual purpose of the track and just threw something like this together that would kinda-sorta work with anything, and the result is a mix that lacks any real feeling or energy, and just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving much of an impression.

Pardi’s performance is similarly confusing, as I have no idea how he feels about this heartache he’s singing about. Technically, while his voice bottoms out a bit on the opening line, he’s got more than enough range and flow to handle the moderate demands of the track (although his nasal tone still annoys me to some extent). It the emotional side of his delivery that leaves me scratching my head: For a guy who’s taking “heartache medication” to get over a lost love, he sure doesn’t sound like someone who needs it. Instead, he’s reveling in his booze-fueled bender like an athlete who’s had one too many cortisone shots, leaving the listener to question whether he’s really all that broken up over the whole thing. Sure, it’s definitely the alcohol talking here, but there’s no hint of self-awareness that this is a temporary high, and no mention of the ramifications when that high wears off (part of this is the writing’s fault, which we’ll get to shortly). It’s basically a party track with a fiddle, and I had my fill of those two years ago.

The lyrics are probably the weakest part of this song, for a couple of reasons:

  • While you can’t expect much originality from a trope as classic as crying into your beer, the writing feels exceptionally cookie-cutter here: It’s a narrator at a bar drinking and dancing to forget their troubles. Even in 2019, this song feels more tired than interesting.
  • The “heartache medication” hook feels completely detached from the rest of the song. Instead of using medical images and terms to tie to whole thing together à la Clint Black’s “Heartaches,” the song goes right back to the stock barroom imagery and leaves the hook imagery. (Heck, even the overused “love as a drug” idea would have made more sense here.)
  • As I pointed out earlier, for a song about escaping the pain of a breakup, there’s no mention of the size or scope of the pain involved. Much like Seaforth’s “Love That” overemphasized the good parts of the relationship and neglected the bad ones, “Heartache Medication” focuses exclusively on what the alcohol allows the narrator to do and barely mentions the person or romance he’s trying to get over, and completely neglects the fact that nothing will have actually changed once the buzz wears off. (On the plus side, at least the narrator’s not hitting on people like a sleazeball here.)

While I get that the narrator is only able to function like this thanks to their “medication,” the lack of a “before” leaves the listener questioning whether the drugs, of the song, are necessary.

In truth, “Heartache Medication” feels like a cheap attempt to toss a fiddle on top of an unremarkable and declare “Look! This is real country right here!” Although I appreciate the effort, classical instrumentation is not a cure-all pill for a subpar song (see: Carlton Anderson’s “Drop Everything”), and while it’s worth a listen or two for the novelty, there’s not enough here to keep me coming back. The instrumentation feels uninspired, the writing feels half-baked, and Jon Pardi just doesn’t have the chops to make this interesting on any level. It’s not a bad song, but unless you’re in desperate need of a fiddle fix, there are better ways to spend your time.

Rating: 6/10. Try it out if you want, but prepare to be disappointed.

Song Review: Jon Pardi: “Night Shift”

I’m starting to think Aaron Watson might have ruined all future country sex jams for me.

I’m a little confused by what Jon Pardi and Capitol Nashville are doing here.  California Sunrise was released over two years ago, and while the album had a good run and produced three No. 1 singles, the mediocre showing of single #4 “She Ain’t In It” (it missed the Top 20 despite being my favorite of his singles thus far) indicate that the public have moved on and was ready for some fresh new music. Instead, Pardi and co. have released a rare fifth single from the album “Night Shift,” and while it’s a perfectly tolerable track, it runs up against the same wall that Blake Shelton’s “Turnin’ Me On” did: It’s completely shown up by Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” and after hearing it, Pardi’s attempted sex jam does absolutely nothing for me.

On the surface, the production here is very similar to “Run Wild Horses”: They have similar guitar-driven melodies, the same traditional components (Pardi throws a steel guitar in with the fiddle for good measure), the same hard-hitting percussion, and similar dark tones. The problem is that while the two songs feature many of the same components, Pardi’s track just seems to has less of everything across the board. The guitars here are slicker and have less bite than Watson’s, the energy level is lower and makes the song feel a bit too slow, and the major-chord-dominated progression detracts from the desired sexy atmosphere, making whatever passion is present feel methodical and controlled instead of raw and unstable. (Even the extended outro, which finally turns the electric guitar loose, pales in comparison to the minute-plus jam that closes “Run Wild Horses.”) The result is a mix that just doesn’t have the power or emotion it needs to hook the listener, and after hearing Watson thrown down the gauntlet with authority two months ago, this song just makes me yawn and shrug.

Unlike Shelton, at least Pardi steps up and puts some feeling into his performance, especially on the choruses. Unfortunately, Pardi is the same annoyingly-nasal vocalist that he’s always been, and while he seems to have a bit more tone to his voice this time around, his flow is too stiff for the subject material, making the song feel downright awkward at points instead of sultry (although this is partially the writing’s fault as well). He shows off enough charisma to convince the listener that he’s passionate about the other person, but not enough to be able to share that passion with the listener, leaving them feeling more “Oh,” than “Oh my…”. It’s a passable performance overall, but when looked at through the lens of “Run Wild Horses,” it just doesn’t measure up.

Lyrically, the song takes the classic comparison between work (a job the narrator does not like) and love (a job the narrator does) and tries to package it as a steamy sex jam. It’s an interesting twist on an old topic (Clay Walker went for a fun vibe on “If I Could Make A Living,” while Ronnie Milsap didn’t push the sexy angle this much on “Daydreams About Night Things”), but it’s done in the most boring, uninteresting way possible (the second verse is just a list of vague and/or overused concepts), and the “night shift” hook isn’t cleverly used at all (in fact, outside of the “racking up the overtime” line, it’s barely connected to the song’s theme). The early focus on the narrator’s real job tries to tie the work/love metaphor together, but it ends up detracting from the song’s emotion by taking its focus away from the passionate portions. The lyrics, in a word, feel clumsy, and paired with Pardi’s awkward delivery and the lukewarm production, it’s not the sort of song I’m interested in hearing twice.

“Night Shift” is yet another sex jam without much sexiness to it, and it wilts in the face of serious competition. While Jon Pardi and his team use the same recipe that made “Run Wild Horses” so successful, they fail to get the ingredient levels right and wind up with a track that doesn’t make the listener feel much of anything. If nothing else, it shows that the sun has set on California Sunrise, and Pardi’s crew should focus on their next steps instead of leaning on their past ones.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve got better songs to listen to instead.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “She Ain’t In It”

Ah, so this is the Jon Pardi everybody’s been talking about.

In the battle between traditional and modern country music, Pardi has been playing the awkward role of peacemaker, as his past singles (“Dirt On My Boots,” “Heartache On The Dance Floor,” etc.) have both incorporated long-forgotten classic instruments (he’s about the only act to consistently work a fiddle into his songs) and embraced the electronic elements that are currently popular (prominent drum machines are also a theme in his work). For the fourth (and likely final) single off of his California Sunrise album, however, Pardi has gone all in on a neotraditional sound with “She Ain’t In It,” and the result is probably my favorite Pardi single yet.

The production here is not only traditional, but surprisingly acoustic as well: The percussion is handled exclusively by a drum set, and the electric guitar stays mostly in the background, with a brief turn in the spotlight on the bridge solo. Melody duties are generally covered by an acoustic guitar and an organ, but a steel guitar and fiddle are tossed in at nearly every opportunity, and one of these two is usually the loudest, most noticeable instrument in the mix. As a result, the song trades some of the groove and intensity of Pardi’s past work for something slower and more reflective, which suits the song’s tone perfectly and gives the listener ample space to comtemplate the writing. Unlike some songs I’ve reviewed recently (*cough* “I’d Be Jealous Too” *cough*), the frequent minor chords used here actually complement the song instead of working at cross purposes with it. Let’s hope Dustin Lynch is taking notes…

To be honest, I’m not terribly impressed with Pardi as a vocalist. His range and flow are tolerable (not neither is really tested here), and he certainly has enough charisma to adequately fill the narrator’s role, but his voice has no tone at all and just sounds flat and nasally. While I wouldn’t say he detracts from the song at all, he definitely keeps it from reaching its full potential (in the hands of a stronger singer like Chris Young or Easton Corbin, this would really be something special). Thankfully, Pardi brings just enough earnestness to the table to sell the song, connect with his listeners, as pass along his heartbreak.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a man preparing to rejoin society and go out for a good time in the wake of a breakup, knowing full well that he’s still hung up on his ex and that things will end in disaster if they show up (think of it as a prequel to Walker McGuire’s “‘Til Tomorrow”). There’s nothing terribly groundbreaking here (although the writers get credit for the numbers of things they manage to rhyme with “in it”), but it checks all of the emotional boxes that a post-breakup song should, and forms a good foundation for a charismatic performer to command his listeners’ attention and sympathy. (Given my reservations about Pardi as a singer, I would argue that the lyrics do more to sell the song than he does.) At best, this is a relatable song that may draw a tear or two from those who’ve lived through this sort of thing; at worse, it’s an inoffensive cry-in-your-beer track bolstered by enjoyable production.

Overall, “She Ain’t In It” is a good song that features great production, solid writing, and a passable delivery. While I’m still not the huge Pardi fan that others in the country blogosphere are, I’ll certainly tolerate having him around if it means hearing more songs like this.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Heartache On The Dance Floor”

After two days of having this song on repeat, I still can’t decide whether Jon Pardi’s new single is truly a “Heartache On The Dance Floor” or just an earache on the radio.

Pardi’s 2014 debut album Write You A Song was largely ignored by country radio, with none of its singles reaching the top 10 on Billboard’s airplay chart (although one did peak at #11). A 2015 EP of album rejects, however, earned Pardi some favorable buzz as a keeper of the traditional country flame, and the singles released from his second album California Sunrise thus far have all hit the top of the charts (and his last single “Dirt On My Boots” made itself at home there for a while). “Heartache On The Dance Floor” is Pardi’s third single from California Sunrise, and while it’s just as catchy as his prior offerings, it’s also a fair bit creepier too.

The production here is the standard mix used by the current crop of contemporary traditionalists (Brett Young, Easton Corbin, etc.), with a synthetic beat forming the foundation and loads of traditional instrumentation (steel guitar, 90s-era electric guitars, and eventually some real drums) piled on top to handle the melody. What makes Pardi’s sound stand out is the prominence (heck, just the mere presence) of the fiddle, whose return from Bro-Country exile has been a lot slower than other instruments. The song tries to walk a tightrope between being a fun and a sad song, with its uptempo pace and bright tones countered by its constant use of minor chords on the verses and chorus. This balancing act is surprisingly successful, and gives a song a nice groove while also causing the listener to stop and reflect on the lyrics.

Unfortunately, the lyrics are where “Heartache On The Dance Floor” starts to go wrong. The narrator here is a random guy who stumbles in a random bar, spies a random hot girl breaking it down on the dance floor, and…spends the rest of the song awkwardly stalking her from afar? For someone claiming that he’s “gotta know her name” and “gotta see her again,” he never takes the opportunity to, you know, actually talk to her or something, and just comes off as whiny, self-unaware, and utterly unsympathetic. On top of this, the writing itself is not particular clever or witty, and the oft-repeated “where you at tonight” that closes the chorus gets really annoying by the end of the song. Frankly, the production would have been better off trying to distract you from these lyrics rather than making you think about them.

While some singers might have been able to salvage this track with a strong vocal performance, Pardi just doesn’t have the chops to pull this off. While I hear a little bit of Darius Rucker in Pardi’s delivery, Pardi’s voice is more nasally and lacks Rucker’s tone and texture. His range, flow, and vocal charisma are all passable, but the last of these attributes just means that the narrator comes through in all his leering, frustrating glory. In the end, Pardi’s mediocre performance is more of a reason to avoid this song than a reason to hear it.

When you add up the strong production, weak writing, and middling vocals, “Heartache On The Dance Floor” ends up leaving the listener feeling ambivalent about the song when it’s over. It’s a definite step backwards from “Dirt On My Boots,” and one that makes me question whether Jon Pardi will be able to maintain his current radio momentum. There’s more to a country song than well-blended production, and Pardi needs to bring more to the table if he wants to make a song like this work in the future.

Rating 5/10. You’re free to ignore this one.