Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2021 Edition, Side A)

With time winding down and work ramping up, we here at the Korner are in a mad scramble to cover all the major (and a few not-so-major) releases in time for them to be eligible for the year-end lists. It seems like there’s been a lot more late-year activity in 2021 than in years past, so I want to make sure everything gets a fair shake before the big lists and awards drop next week.

Will these be good? Will they be bad? There’s only one way to find out, so without further ado, let’s get started!

Morgan Evans, “Love Is Real”

Love may be real, but I wish it wasn’t so generic. On one hand, there’s a lot to like about this song: The faster tempo, lively acoustic guitar, and generally upbeat vibe makes this the rare modern love song that actually sounds like a love song, and Evans uses an off-brand Keith Urban impression to deliver a performance that’s equal parts fun and charming. That said, the writing leaves a lot to be desired: The Mad Libs laundry-list approach is the dominant force here (the first verse, with its bench seats and blue jeans, is especially hard to stomach), aimless lovestruck driving has been done to death as a story concept, and there’s a noticeable focus on the other person’s physical appearance (something that country music had been trying to avoid in the wake of the sleazy Metro-Bro era) that makes the song feel a bit shallower than it should. (Also, the phrase “the rust runs out these wheels” feels too clever by half and should have been left out.) That said, it’s not a bad song as far as these tracks go, and Evans and the producer do their part to make this an enjoyable (if not all that satisfying) listen.

Rating: 6/10. If you absolutely have to listen to a cookie-cutter love song, this isn’t a terrible choice.

Justin Moore, “With A Woman You Love”

So we get yet another run-of-the-mill love song…and I don’t really mind this one either? The production gives its guitars and drums more a purpose by going for more of a classic-rock feel, and the textured, hard-hitting sound provides plenty of energy to help the drive the song forward. Moore is a decent fit for the “reformed bro” persona of the narrator, and the longer-term focus of the track makes it feel much less ephemeral than Evans’s track. Once again, I’m still not a huge fan of the writing here—it feels a bit too stock to warrant the energy the production throws behind it, and lines like “with a woman you love, you’ll get home at a decent hour” come across as weak and uncompelling (they don’t do a great job selling the “find someone you really love!” message). While I’d put this on the same level as Evans’s song, both tracks feel like they’re being carried by their sound and whatever charisma the artist can muster. I’ll take it, but I’d like to see a bit more effort on the songwriting front to make things more interesting.

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

Lee Brice, “Soul”

Okay, I think I’ve had my fill of these things now. Brice gives us yet another song singing the praises on their partner, but this is the worst of the bunch so far. With a base line stolen from The Police and Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, the song feels a bit too slick and cold to generate the romantic warmth of either Evans’s or Moore’s song (and the regular minor chords don’t help matters any). The writing feels more than a bit disingenuous here: You can’t call someone “Mozart in the sheets” and say that “your body makes me weak,” and then try to claim that it’s their soul that you find attractive. (Additionally, the song feels short and half-written, and gets really repetitive at the end.) Brice tries to bring some soul to his performance, but it’s an inconsistent performance at best that winds up feeling more creepy than romantic (seriously, the way he says “kiss you from your head to your toeses,” which is a dumb line to begin with, just makes my skin crawl). In the end, this is another failed sex-jam attempt from a genre that should really know better by now, and it’s outclassed by even the far-from-perfect tracks we’ve already discussed.

Rating: 5/10. Feel free to skip this one.

Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days”

Wade is a Virginia native who released her major-label debut album Reckless earlier this year, and my initial impression from the sound and vocal stylings of her debut single reminds me a lot of Miranda Lambert, but I don’t think Wade quite measures up to her predecessor on this track. For one thing, her voice sounds very muddled and she struggles to enunciate with her delivery, making it really hard to tell what she’s saying at times (especially compared to Lambert’s sharper vocal tone). Both artists lean on attitude and a wild streak in their songs, but I don’t like the way the narrator applies said wildness here, as she spends the entire song trying to goad the other person into being someone that they’re obviously trying to distance themselves from now (and based on the little glimpses we get, leaving it in the past is probably for the best). Additionally, beyond some drinking and smoking we don’t get any glimpse at what anyone’s “wilder days” look like—the onus is on the listener to fill in the gaps, and if you can’t do it, the song just falls flat. The darker guitar tones and deliberate tempo and straight from the Lambert playbook, and they do the best job among all the pieces in imitating her style, but otherwise this is a bland story that just doesn’t hold the listener’s attention. It comes across as a bootleg version of an artist who doesn’t really need to be replaced yet (although I would have said otherwise a few years ago), and why settle for an imitation when you can hear the real thing?

Rating: 5/10. Go check out Lambert’s “wilder days” instead.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. then Runaway June ought to be pretty flattered right now.

Justin Moore seems to have found a place in the post-Bro era of country music, but his status is closer to ‘tolerated’ than ‘appreciated.’ Sure, he can still make it to the top of the charts as he did with his latest single “Why We Drink,” but it takes him forever to pull it off (“Why We Drink” took eleven months, and “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” took thirteen), forcing him to burn through albums without getting a whole lot out of them. Late Nights And Longnecks is only a little over a year old, but Moore and Valory Music Group are moving on from the disc after a mere two singles, dropping a brand new track “We Didn’t Have Much” instead. The song is a prime example of both quality and plagiarism: This is a total rip-off of Runaway June’s “We Were Rich,” and while it’s still a decent nostalgia track that fits in with the looking-back theme the genre is rolling with right now, it falls short of its contemporary in a few notable ways.

Like “We Were Rich,” the production hits all the right notes to create a brisk, lighthearted track that stays mostly on the sunny side of the topic. The melody is primarily driven by an acoustic and some light-touch percussion, with some judicious electric guitar notes and steel guitar rides tossed in on the chorus and bridge solo for flavor. (In particular, using a deep-throated electric axe with some actual texture was a nice touch.) Instead of hitting the listener with a wall of noise, the arrangement is surprisingly restrained and quiet, giving each instrument plenty of room to shine, and the quicker tempo and light tones keep the song moving and the mood light (even despite the periodic minor chords). While the song itself isn’t as forward-thinking or regret-free as “We Were Rich,” the mix does a nice job of keeping the track from getting bogged down by bittersweet nostalgia, helping to keep the focus on remembering the good times instead of longing to return to a long-lost, rose-tinted past. I called Runaway June’s production “the perfect sound for the subject matter” with “more-traditional leanings [that] help it stand out from the rest of the mainstream crowd,” and I’d say the same description fits this mix as well.

I chided Moore for sounding “insecure” and unbelievable on “Why We Drink,” but he dials back the bravado and forcefulness this time around, which made for a much more enjoyable listening experience. There are no range or flow issues present, and Moore’s constant framing of himself as a down-home good-ol’ boy makes him a logical fit for a rural remembrance track like this, but it’s the lighter touch of his delivery and the ratcheting down of the intensity (much like the production’s understated approach) that really makes the difference. The narrator isn’t making a point so much as telling a story here, so pulling back on the reins and giving the writing some room helps make the narrator more sympathetic and believable. Moore’s tone isn’t quite as bright as that of the sound, but he stays on the sunny side enough to keep the track from becoming a whiny nostalgia trip. In other words, Moore does enough right to keep the song pointed in the right direction and not take away from its momentum.

If there’s a place where this track really falls short in comparison to “We Were Rich,” it’s in the writing, which rips off its predeccessor so badly it even copies the hook (“we didn’t have much” vs. “we were rich”). The issues I have are as follows:

  • Both “We Were Rich” and “We Didn’t Have Much” can feel like laundry lists at times as they cycle through all the details of their respective narrator’s upbringing, but “We Were Rich” at least tries (and mostly succeeds) at weaving them into a consistent narrative and linking the details together. Here, the details are just as vivid (my favorite is the opening “Tonka trucks and G.I. Joes” line), but they’re not as tightly connected and the juxtaposition is a bit more striking. In other words, unlike “We Were Rich,” this song feels like a laundry list more often than it doesn’t.
  • The details themselves aren’t quite as unique either, drawing more from the typical country tropes (church clothes and offering plates, “Sunday chicken and a NASCAR race,” etc.). There’s no equivalent to the KOA flashlight-tag moment from “We Were Rich,” and as a result the scenes feel more generic and dated, as if they were drawn from the distant past rather than the recent past (which really doesn’t fit, given that Moore isn’t even 40 yet).
  • The obligatory line about how it “sure’d be nice to get back to that place,” but there’s no acknowledgement about the other side of that tradeoff: The narrator says that he left “chasing a girl, chasing a dime,” but never discusses if he found what he was looking for. There are legitimate reasons for leaving your hometown, and hearing about the results of those adventure, even if they weren’t ultimately successful, would make the song a bit more interesting and give it more of a message. Instead, the thesis boils down to “wasn’t it great back in the day?” which isn’t all that interesting.

In other words, the writers had the right inspirationthey just failed to build on it.

Despite my issues with the writing, however, I still think “We Didn’t Have Much” is a solid track (especially compared to the boring Blandemic stuff that’s been flooding the airwaves recently). Justin Moore and the producer do enough right to make this a reasonable (albeit still inferior) facsimile of Runaway June’s “We Were Rich,” and the result is a track that distinguishes itself from (and rises above) many of its peers. Moore can be a frustrating artist with his inconsistency, but he’s certainly capable of delivering a solid single like this one (although given how slowly “We Were Rich” has been climbing the chart, I don’t see Moore breaking his own slothful streak with this). At this point, given everything that’s gone on this year, I’ll take anything good that I can get.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “Why We Drink”

Personally, I drink because country radio still lets junk like this onto the airwaves.

On the surface, Justin Moore’s recent discography looks impressive enough: He scored two #1 songs with his Kinda Don’t Care album, and scored another one with the leadoff single from Late Nights And Longnecks “The Ones Who Didn’t Make It Back Home.” Dig a little deeper, however, and his foundation looks a bit shaky: His song take forever to peak (at least 40+ weeks for everything since “You Look Like I Need A Drink”), and they generate zero buzz compared to the current titans of the genre. It’s the kind of precarious position that pushes artists to trend-hop and pander (see Moore’s last single), and it’s part of the reason we’re getting “Why We Drink” as the second single off Late Nights And Longnecks. It’s a mixture of neotraditional production, obnoxiously simple writing, and Moore’s continued need to show off his “country” credentials. In short, it’s a mess.

Let’s begin with the positives: 1990s-era neotraditional production is all the rage right now, and Moore’s producer does a great job capturing that sound. The electric guitar features has a classic tone and a lot of rollick, the steel guitar is plentiful and flavorful, and the hard-hitting drum set drives the song forward. The result is a mix with energy to burn, a solid groove, and a sunny atmosphere that fits the celebratory vibe of the lyrics. (An acoustic guitar is here as well, but it’s mostly lost in the shuffle behind the more-prominent instruments). It’s not the most technically-demanding song in the world (the riffs aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and Moore never stops talking so there’s no solo), but it’s catchy as all heck and it’s hard not to tap your foot along to the beat. Of all the trendy classical-sounding songs around today, this might be the trendiest and most-classical sounding of the bunch, and it’s a pity nothing else here can clear the bar the producer sets.

I’m a sucker for a sound like this, so why does this song make me throw up in my mouth every time I hear it? Quite simply, the writing is absolute garbage: The narrator has nothing to say except “We drink when we want, where we want, for whatever reason we want.” First of all, the attitude strikes me as awfully selfish and nihilistic: There’s no concern or care for what such behavior might lead to and who it could impact—it’s just boozing for the sake of boozing. Second of all, the lyrics attempt to be clever by covering all sides of each possible scenario (“‘Cause the sun’s up, ’cause it’s sundown,” “‘Cause we’re grown up, ’cause we’re still kids,” etc.), but they end up being predictable, unoriginal, repetitive, and frankly they’re lazy. (If you have this many reasons for drinking, you really don’t have any reason at all.) There’s no story, there’s no detail, and there’s no reason for people to be this wasted all the time. (There’s also no reason to randomly name-drop “the red, white and blue boys and girls overseas”—what do they have to do with anything?) For all its reasons, however, there’s a big glaring hole in the middle of this song: The saddest reason for drinking they mention is “’cause our team lost.” Drinking to forget or self-medicate is the biggest reason most of the great drinking songs exist (think “Tear In My Beer,” “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Wine Me Up,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” “Whiskey Lullaby,” and on and on and on… heck, even Moore’s own “Kinda Don’t Care” was a dark tune in it’s own right). But acknowledging such history would completely ruin the shallow party vibe the lyrics are trying to create, so they just sweep it under the rug and let the good times roll. These lyrics have absolutely no redeeming qualities, and the people responsible for writing them deserve to have their pens revoked.

That brings us to Moore himself, and honestly, if anyone in country music needs a Cloak of Charisma, it’s him. For all the pandering, “I’m country!” tracks he’s thrown at us (“Smalltown USA,” “Backwoods,” “Bait A Hook,” etc.), instead of coming across as everyman, he comes across as insecure, as if he thinks he has to prove that he belongs in Nashville. His technical skills are just fine, his tone is both decent and distinct, and he does his darnedest to sell himself in the narrator’s role, and yet there’s still an element of “he doth protest too much, methinks” here, and Moore’s believability suffers as a result. He’s also neither sympathetic nor interesting as a character: He’s just some fool with a drinking problem, and  doesn’t seem like they would be all that fun to hang out with. I’m not sure what the cure for Moore’s ills is, but staying away from songs like this would be a good first step.

I know the country music has been saturated in alcohol for decades, but “Why We Drink” takes the concept to its logical extreme when never actually answering the questions it poses. The narrator here has no reason to drink; they just do it, and try to hide their addiction behind neotraditional production and an insistent artist in Justin Moore. For all its surface-level sunniness, however, this is a pretty sad song: The tale of a man who drinks not because wants to, but because he has to.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…this song just isn’t cheesy enough.

After a decade on the radio, Justin Moore is being forced to confront the mortality of his mainstream career. His last two singles have labored through long, 40+ week chart stays, and while “Somebody Else Will” eventually reached #1, last year’s “Kinda Don’t Care” ended up stalling at a disappointing #17. In response, Moore’s team has closed the book on the Kinda Don’t Care era, and are now pushing “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” as the leadoff single for his presumed fifth album. The song is your typical “praise the fallen soldiers” song, but while I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, the track doesn’t actually make me feel any sentiment. It’s a tepid tune that never decides if it’s supposed to be happy or sad, and it just doesn’t draw out enough emotion to truly get its point across.

The production here is the same standard guitar-and-drum mix you’ve heard a hundred times before. The electric axes lack the texture and bite they had on “Kinda Don’t Care,” the steel guitar is relegated to the background, and the drum set is unremarkable at best. The biggest surprise is the producer’s decision to take the song in a positive direction: There are a few minor chords tossed in to highlight the sadness of the event, but the instrument tones are bright and the atmosphere feels almost celebratory, as if the mix is trying to invoke memories of the good times before the fallen character’s passing. It’s an understandable approach, but it doesn’t mesh very well with the lyrics, which focus on the present and how the community reacts after the death. As a result, the listener is left feeling not much at all when the song is over, as neither the sadness nor the nostalgia are strong enough to make an impression.

Likewise, Moore’s performance feels a bit lukewarm for the subject matter, especially when compared to previous singles like “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” Neither his range nor his flow are really tested here, so the song is completely reliant on Moore’s charisma to sell the story and make the audience pay attention. Unfortunately, he’s only half-successful: He’s believable in the narrator’s role, but he comes across as stoic and distant, and it’s this lack of emotional investment that comes through the most in his delivery. By not choosing a side between the brighter sound and darker writing, Moore adds more confusion than clarity to the song, and the listener is left wondering if they should care about the story at all.

While the writing is fairly solid here, it lacks the emotional fire to cut through the mixed messages sent by the rest of the track. Stories about fallen soldiers are nothing new in the genre (Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” and Trace Adkins’s “Arlington” spring to mind), but they usually try to make their mark by tugging at the listener’s heartstrings, often crossing the line into sappiness in the process. This song, in contrast, drifts a bit too far in the opposite direction: While it’s imagery is primarily sad (and, outside of the “green bean casserole” reference, incredibly generic), there’s also a strange matter-of-factness to the writing, as if this was originally intended as a newspaper obituary. Personally, I would have doubled down on the cheesiness and really aimed for the listener’s feels—grieving family members, more scenes from the soldier’s life, etc. (Come on, at least include a sad piano or a military snare drum in the mix!) Even if they had gone over the top, they would have at least made the listener feel something. As it is, it’s a sob story with no sobs, one that feels too clinical and sanitary to be heartbreaking.

“The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” isn’t a bad song, and I concede that someone who has actually lost a loved one to war might get more mileage out of this song than I did. To make an impact and prop up Justin Moore’s sagging career, however, the song needs to touch the hearts of “swing listeners” like yours truly, and the conflicting approaches of the sound, singer, and songwriting make it impossible for the track to do its job and hook its intended audience. When “not cheesy enough” is a legitimate critique of your song, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but don’t expect any miracles here.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “Kinda Don’t Care”

It took him almost a decade to do it, but Justin Moore has finally released a single with some legitimate “outlaw” cred.

Moore’s last single “Somebody Else Will” was the first song I reviewed here on the blog, and that’s about all it will be remembered for, as it took an obscene forty-four weeks for it to finally top the Billboard airplay chart. “Kinda Don’t Care,” the title track of Moore’s latest album, has now been announced as the LP’s third single, and it probably should have been the second one (or even the first one!), as it’s easily the best song I’ve heard from him since “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” back in 2011. Not only does the song mesh well with the current trend towards traditional sounds in the genre, but it plays to Moore’s strengths as an artist while feeling far more real and authentic than “Backwoods,” “Small Town USA,” and the rest of the pandering garbage he’s released in the past.

Sonically, the production here feels like it was ripped straight from the 1970s, as it eschews both modern trappings and neo-traditional nostalgia in favor of no-nonsense, rough-edged guitars and a hard-hitting drum set. The mix starts off restrained on the first verse with an acoustic guitar carrying the melody, but the drums and steel guitar jump in on the first verse to kick the energy level up a notch, and an old-school electric guitar adds some sizzle and punch the the second verse and the bridge solo. (Actually, the extended outro featuring the steel and electric guitar might be my favorite part of the song.) The tempo is a bit slower than expected, but the excellent instrumentation ensures that it never feels plodding or lacking in energy, and the serious atmosphere the track sets does a nice job of capturing the singer’s feelings of repression.

Moore’s vocal performance is solid on a technical level, as the song tests his range without straining it and keeps his flow at a nice, methodical pace. What sets this song apart, however, is that here Moore finally shows instead of tells, and lets his natural charisma and earnestness shine through instead of feeling the need to reference his “country” credentials. Moore has always had a knack for singing songs like this, but in the past he would be forever dropping brand names and rural clichés that made him sound insecure and a bit inauthentic. Here, he just lets his delivery do the talking, and he captures the spirit of the narrator perfectly by sounding worn out and ticked off, like he really “kinda don’t care.” While he’s proclaimed himself an “outlaw” many times in the past, this is the first time he’s actually felt like one.

Lyrically, the song is about a narrator who is cracking under the pressure and responsibility of leading a good, healthy lifestyle (while also suffering from some sort of heartbreak), and is just begging for a outlet where he can indulge in his preferred vices. It’s an interesting take on a subject that usually goes the opposite way in country music (i.e., the narrator is caught in a death spiral of vices and needs family/religion/a significant other to save them), and an approach I haven’t heard someone take in quite a while. (The most recent I can remember is “Time Off For Bad Behavior,” an album cut from a band in desperate need of a new name). It’s a tension everyone deals with to some degree (as Randy Travis once put it, “what feels good and what feels right”), and while I can’t help but feel like Waylon, Willie, and the other outlaws of the 70s would have found a more clever way to talk about this subject, there are still some fairly novel images here (watching weight and getting more sleep aren’t often talked about in country songs), and nothing here comes off as sleazy or offensive (even the desired hookup with “a pretty little thing” at least acknowledges that the woman feels the same as he does and “don’t want no strings”). Overall, the topic is relatable enough to make a strong connection with listeners, and the writing is just decent enough to let Moore and the production do their thing.

In short, “Kinda Don’t Care” is a great song, with a perfect blend of retro production, solid writing, and a perfect delivery on the part of Justin Moore. I’ve been rough on some of Moore’s songs in the past, but I’ve got to give credit where is due: He absolutely nailed this one.

Rating: 8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “Somebody Else Will”

Fresh off of the success of his No. 1 hit “You Look Like I Need A Drink,” Justin Moore has announced that “Somebody Else Will” will be the next single from his album Kinda Don’t Care.

I’ve been on the fence with regard to Moore’s music thus far. Although he has the ability to produce great singles (the best being “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”), most of his output involves empty bravado and forgettable clichés about life in the sticks. “Drink” seemed to fall on the better side of this spectrum, combining his usual rock-inspired sound with sort-of-witty songwriting that touched on more traditional country subject matter. “Somebody Else Will,” however, appears to be Moore’s attempt at blending said rock-inspired sound with the synthetic “Metro-Politan” trends that have permeated country music over the last year or two, and the results leave me…well, back on the fence.

Foundationally, the song has a lot of things going for it. While the production does not resemble traditional country music in any way—lots of drum machines, no fiddles or pedal steel—the tune is catchy and the beat has a decent groove to it. (It will, however, be a bit jarring for those familiar with Moore’s previous work, in the same way that “Burnin’ It Down” was a stark departure from Jason Aldean’s past singles.) Moore’s delivery and flow are generally solid, although his voice wavers when he tries to use his upper range with any sort of volume, and he has enough charisma to make the song feel authentic and believable.

Lyrically, the song is nothing special: A guy sees a girl he likes, and he immediately breaks out his pick-up lines on her because if he doesn’t, “somebody else will.” It’s nothing we haven’t heard a hundred times before—in fact, Thomas Rhett did a much better job covering the exact same topic on “Get Me Some Of That” several years ago.

So what sets Rhett’s song apart from Moore’s? In a word, tone. On “Somebody Else Will,” Moore falls into the same trap that Aldean is forever stuck in: Taking a subject that should be more upbeat and lighthearted, and treating it way too seriously. Moore sings this song like this woman is his verylastchanceever to find happiness, and he needs to go and talk to her rightthisverymoment before someone else steals her away forever. The minor chords and loud guitars that pop up on the chorus only add to the song’s sense of urgency. (One can easily imagine the woman in the song being put off by how strong the man comes on, leaving him to sing Cole Swindell’s “Middle Of A Memory” after she leaves.) Rhett, in contrast, spends his song celebrating (and admittedly objectifying) the object of his affection, and the song reflects the good time that both characters are supposed to be having.

Altogether, this isn’t a bad song, but it could have been better, and there were definitely stronger single choices available on Kinda Don’t Care (the title track, for a start). If you’re okay with Nashville’s Metropolitan movement, however, you’ll probably still enjoy it.

Rating: 6/10. Try it before you buy it.