Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (September 2022 Edition: Parker McCollum, Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, Corey Kent, Matt Stell, Ryan Griffin)

And here I thought Labor Day was supposed to celebrate work by not working…

I mentioned back in July that “everyone and their cousin’s ex’s pet is trying to peddle their wares to radio,” and two months later very little has changed, especially as radio ramps up for their summer-to-fall transition. With a bunch of A-listers making their second-half moves, it doesn’t feel like a great time to be pushing a new single with an artist with a low Q score, but Nashville keeps shoveling out soundalike songs just the same, and my review list keeps growing as a result. In order to keep up with the more important stuff, it’s time for another rapid-fire round of reviews for songs that just aren’t worth the usual deep dive. Without further ado, that’s more than enough waffling—let’s dive right into things.

Parker McCollum, “Handle On You”

As much as I don’t like Parker McCollum, I’ll give him and his team a little credit on this one: The production does a decent job capturing that retro 90s/2000s feel, and there are a couple decent lines included in the writing (“I tell myself that I should quit but I don’t listen to drunks” is the highlight). Still, at the end of the day this is just another cry-in-your-beer track in a genre’s that’s already oversaturated with them, and it just doesn’t go far enough to rise above its competition. The mix has a guitar-and-drum foundation and doesn’t go beyond the usual steel guitar riffs and brief keyboard appearances to make it stand out, and the instrument tones are a bit too bright and have a bit too much energy for the writing (the narrator’s supposed to be in pain, but it sure doesn’t sure like it). McCollum cleans up his act and doesn’t come across as poorly as he did on “To Be Loved By You,” but I still wouldn’t call him a charismatic artist and his performance doesn’t make the song any more compelling to listen to. The story barely qualifies as one, as the narrator is just trying to drink themselves into a stupor after a failed relationship, and both the hook and the Merle Haggard references feel more than a little forced (especially the hook; I see what they were trying to do, but using “handle” as a alcohol measurement seems too esoteric for most listeners to pick up on). It’s a “meh” song, but it’s one of the better “meh” songs, and after Michael Ray followed up a similar song “Whiskey And Rain” with “Holy Water,” I wouldn’t mind seeing McCollum follow a similar path.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, “Beer With My Friends”

Oh joy, another booze-soaked party song that sounds the exact same as the last hundred of these things we’ve heard. I am really tired of junk like this, so if you’re going to drop one on me, you’d better change up your formula to keep me interested. Unfortunately, they followed the usual recipe to a T here: A guitar-and drum mix headlined by some rough-edged electric axes driving the sound forward, the standard “work hard, drink hard” story that we’ve all heard a million times before, and a pair of acts (on a song that has no right being a duet) that not only show no sign of the stress and anxiety they claim they’re facing, but also seem to cancel each other out (when Old Dominion jumps in on the chorus, Chesney’s voice practically disappears). An angle like this on a song like this can work (think Justin Moore’s “Kinda Don’t Care”), but you’ve got to do something to catch the audience’s ear and make them connect with you song. Moore did it with a throwback sound and by injecting some actual world-weariness into his performance, but Chesney & company turn in a soundalike, cookie-cutter (and out-of-season) party anthem that doesn’t justify its existence next to the hundreds of such songs we’ve gotten lately. You’ve heard this before, and there’s no reason to hear it again.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Corey Kent, “Wild As Her”

Okay, now I think Nashville is just trolling me. After hearing two lost-love songs featuring no trace of heartbreak, we get to the debut single of Kent (an Oklahoma native and former Voice contestant)…and it’s a dark, foreboding track full of minor chords and brooding hard-rock guitars. It’s a mix that might finally suit a lost-love song (even if it’s a little over-the-top)…except that the song is supposed to be celebrating an informal partnership between the narrator and a woman who’s “looking for somebody as wild as her.” Huh? The ominous tone might make sense if there was some actual danger in the relationship, but the pair isn’t doing anything risky (they’re just cruising down the road together like every other couple in a country song), and the narrator projects so much confidence that the not-actually-a-relationship will last that you don’t get the sense it will fail. As for Kent, he’s an off-brand Morgan Wallen vocally, and he delivers this song with an Aldean-esque intensity that feels way overdone and sucks all of the drama out of the story. I think the story has some real potential (characters that can’t be tied down are nothing new, but coming to a arrangement that only kinda-sorta ties them down is different), but I kind of wish it had dived into the other person’s motivations: What is it about commitment that concerns them? Have they been in bad relationships in the past? Instead, the writing barely scratches the surface, focusing on the less-interesting present and finding ways to work in some meta buzzwords to satisfy someone’s streaming algorithm. It’s just not something I’m interested in revisiting, and can be chalked up as another failed attempt by Music City to break in a new artist.

Rating: 5/10. Honestly, Tyler Joe Miller did it (slightly) better.

Matt Stell, “Man Made”

This song sits in the same awkward position as Cody Johnson’s “Human” for me: It seems like a song I should like, and yet I’m really not impressed by it. I think the issue starts with the writing: The narrator is trying to honor women by declaring that they are the real reason men ever accomplished anything (“If a man made anything, it’s ’cause a woman made that man”). It’s a topic that’s been done before, but the lyrics this time around don’t do a great job delivering the message: The opening verse is just a laundry list that got weaker every time I listened to it (many of these were invented at a time when anyone who wasn’t a white male never got a chance to make anything), and the line about man inventing the wheel to “drive a girl around and get stuck in some field” came across as both dumb and sleazy. The song just felt surprisingly reductionist to me, as if it were implying that women were only good for inspiration/moral support while pushing aside the real contributions they had made (for example, do we put “footprints on the moon” without the Black women who got John Glenn into orbit seven years earlier?) Stell remains a nondescript artist to me, and he didn’t have the charm or charisma to push me to focus on the positive side of his message. I’ll give the producer some credit for creating a lighter, reflective mix that invited listeners to ruminate on the writing (even if this is yet another guitar-and-drum mix whose only accenting instrument is the pedal steel). This one didn’t leave a huge impression on me in the end, and I doubt I’ll remember that it exists in another month or so.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Ryan Griffin, “Salt, Lime, & Tequila”

Another nihilistic drinking song? Gag me with a spoon. Griffin is a Florida native who’s already on his second record label and is currently working for Jay DeMarcus, and the closest comparison I can think of for his voice is Hunter Hayes, but this performance is utterly replacable (stick any other creation from Nashville’s young male assembly line behind the mic, and nothing changes). The producer deserves a little credit for giving the song a tropical vibe with the bright acoustic guitar, but the drum machine can feel a little awkward at times, and outside of a steel guitar floating around in the background, that’s basically all you get here. However, it’s the atrociously generic writing that really gets my goat: There is nothing to this song beyond “life sucks, so just drink yourself silly.” We’ve gotten this song a hundred thousand times over the last few years (sometimes multiple times from the same artist—I’m looking at you, Thomas Rhett), and there’s nothing even even remotely interesting or novel that would make you pick this song over any of its competitors, and the “grain of salt, lime, and tequila” hook is nowhere near as clever as the writers thought it was. I put this L more on Music City than Griffin: Could Nashville put the freaking bottle down for a moment and not use getting drunk as a solution to everything? Is the only way to get a new artist some airplay these days making them blend into the background? It seems counterproductive and silly to me, because making an artist’s first impression this unimpressionable only seems like a good way to not earn them a second chance.

Rating: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Everyone She Knows”

Unfortunately for Kenny Chesney, there’s a big difference between telling a story and telling it well.

I think it’s time for Chesney to get back into the studio and find some new material, because the Here And Now era really needs to end. Out of four singles from the album, he’s scored a five three separate times (and the less said about “Tip Of My Tongue,” the better), and as I was re-reading my review of “Knowing You,” I struck me that it could serve as the opening paragraph for this review as well. Everything I said about Chesney taking McGraw’s “auditory Xanax” title and how his singles are “lifeless” and “inoffensive” and how they’re nothing but “background noise”…all of this continues to hold true for Chesney’s fifth single from the disc, “Everyone She Knows.” There’s a weak attempt to at least try to tell a story, but it’s told in such a bland and lethargic manner that no one actually cares about it by the end. Kenny Chesney has gone from a beach bum to a boring blatherer, and the only reason he’s still around is that in the current wasteland that is Nashville, there’s no one in the wings to replace him.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The production is nothing but the same old guitar-and-drum mix that the genre has been shoveling out for the last few years. The acoustic guitar at least gives the song a hint of texture, but mostly we’re stuck with rock guitars and a beat that sounds more programmed than live, and the only reason the guitars don’t run together and form a wall of noise is because there’s literally nothing else here for them to run together with. The mix’s slower, deliberate tempo and darker instruments tones drain any semblance of life from the atmosphere, and the hints of foreboding introduced by the regular minor chords don’t fit very well with the subject matter (a lot of negative things are discussed, but the protagonist is happy with their lot in life in the end). It’s the sort of dull, plodding mix that can be used an Ambien substitute in a pinch, and it does nothing to draw in listeners or accentuate the story being told.

Let’s do a little more copypasta from my “Knowing You” review: “The song poses no challenges from a technical perspective (limited range, slower flow), but it does require a narrator that can inject some life into a song.” It was true then, and it’s true now: Chesney isn’t tested vocally in any dimension, but he doesn’t put any feeling or emotion behind the track: The protagonist’s defiance of “adulting” is a thing that they do, and Chesney doesn’t give us any indication that he actually cares about it. (Which is kind of ironic, given that being a free spirit and hanging on in a young man’s game is exactly what the 53-year-old Chesney has been doing for the last decade…) After this song and Dustin Lynch’s “Party Mode,” I’m starting to think there’s a real danger in these slightly-negative songs: The artist restrains themselves to avoid being too doom-and-gloom (perhaps because doom-and-gloom doesn’t sell, even when the song actually calls for it), but they end up overcorrecting and sounding like a dispassionate news anchor discussing the latest crime wave. Chesney’s been around too long and dropped too many solid songs to not know how to sell a story (“The Good Stuff” and “There Does My Life,” for example), but tired, soulless performances are starting to become the rule rather than the exception for him, and even the best-written tracks need a little heart from the singer to make it work. Chesney is either unable to unwilling to give the song what it needs, and as a result it falls flat on arrival and the audience has tuned out by the second verse.

Chesney and the producer’s abdication of their duties is a real shame here, because the writing is actually a step up from the usual drivel that’s been dumped on us. The leading lady finds herself out of step with “everyone she knows” as they start achieving traditional life milestones (marriage, kids, houses, etc.), but in the end she decides that she’s content with her free-wheeling lifestyle. It’s at trying to achieve some actual story progression, but the song spends so much discussing the downsides of both camps (the protagonist can’t find love and is struggling to keep up with the trending scene, but her peers seem to be getting pressured into making these decisions and seemingly end up in bad relationships—that “even though their husbands don’t come home” line feels pretty ominous) that it’s hard to believe that anyone here is actually content with their lot in life. The decision to make the narrator an uninvolved third party doesn’t feel like a great one either: Not only does it encourage the artist to remain disengaged from the story, but we don’t get to share in the depths of any characters’ feelings, and the listener’s doesn’t really connect with them as a result. I feel like there’s a kernel of a good story, but the execution is mediocre at best, and it’s never compelling enough to convince the audience to stick and pay attention.

“Everyone She Knows” had potential, but it winds up being part of the problem in Nashville instead of the solution. The sound is bland and boring, Kenny Chesney is uninvested and uninterested, and the writing doesn’t do enough to overcome the other issues and appeal to its audience. It’s just another song from an artist who’s been in a serious slump over the last few years, and in a few months no one will remember that it even existed. I advocated for Miranda Lambert to take a break when she was going through a similar rough patch a few years, and that’s my advice for Chesney too: Find a tropical island, sit out on the sand, and try to recharge your batteries and recapture that old magic. Otherwise, he should forget about getting back in the studio and start looking for a rocking chair.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzzzz….

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown”

The best way to sing a hometown song is to not focus on the hometown.

Kelsea Ballerini found herself in a tough spot after “Homecoming Queen?” only reached #17 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart, “The Other Girl” failed to launch at all, and the release of kelsea was disrupted by a global pandemic. Luckily, she had an ace up her sleeve in the form of “Hole In The Bottle,” a song that seems to strike a chord with the country music community even as it had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (and there’s no shame in finishing second to Thanos), and helped get the re-release of her album ballerini off the ground and out into the world. Now, she’s back with fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney to discuss their shared place of origin in “Half Of My Hometown,” and while I generally don’t like songs like this, I feel a bit more positive about this one because it focuses on the people more than the place, and generally seems more clear-eyed and honest about the mixed emotions the location makes her feel.

Speaking of mixed emotions, that’s what I feel when I listen to the production: It generates a suitably wistful atmosphere to support the subject matter, but it also blends it a bit too much with the rest of the radio and is begging for a bit more instrument diversity. Yes, there’s a mandolin that helps open the track and gets some extended airtime on the second verse, and there’s a token banjo that’s barely noticeable as it slow-rolls in the background, but the primary melody drivers are the usual suspects: An acoustic guitar and a drum machine for the verses, and some electric guitars and real drums that jump in for the chorus. It feels like a “necessary but not sufficient”sort of mix: It supports the writing by reflecting the qualified devotion to the area and giving the song a balanced and neutral feel, but it could have done so much more to make the song stand out—an extra instrument here, a different riff there, etc. (I’m also a bit conflicted about how well the electronic beat blends with the acoustic instruments; the pairing seems a bit awkward, even despite how restrained the beat is.) I suppose that what we get is okay overall and you can’t say it doesn’t do its job, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I would call Ballerini’s performance as quietly impressive, given the surprising degree of difficulty presented by the song’s tone. Its limited range and relaxed flow present no challenge, but the artist has to strike a careful balance with their delivery: The have to exhibit impartiality with their message without coming across as disinterested or bored. In this regard, Ballerini does a nice judge projecting feeling without judgement, painting a picture with their words and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. You get the sense that she appreciates her hometown and the people in it regardless of their feelings or behaviors, although I wasn’t convinced to reflect and be more appreciative of my own hometown as a result (it’s an evil place, don’t ever go there). I know Chesney also hails from Knoxville and is therefore a logical choice to help out with this song (even if it’s just for harmony vocals), but I honestly don’t think it was a good choice: His voice is distinct but doesn’t add a ton to the song, and he and Ballerini don’t sound good together at all (and given how little volume Chesney’s vocals get, the producers seem to agree). Despite that, however, I think the vocals are a net positive on balance, and reflect how far Ballerini has come from the pop-princess image Black River was pushing a few years ago.

Talking about someone’s hometown is old hat is country music (especially when an artist is trying to flex their credentials), but generally the songs devolve into checklist tracks featuring beer, mama, and old athletic achievements. Instead, this song takes a different approach by focusing more on the people the narrator grew up with, and how their behavior has diverged over time: Some stayed and reveled in their history, while others left to chase a better future. The song tries not to play favorites and deliver both sides of the argument, and does a nice job focusing on some aspects of leaving home that don’t get a lot of airtime (how opinions differ on the narrator leaving, the contrast between “miniskirts” and “dressed for church,” and so on). There are definitely some subpar moments here (the initial contrast between drinking and making out doesn’t really go anywhere, and the math doesn’t add up on the hook—”part of me will always be half of my hometown” feels like a awfully small percentage of hometown), but the descriptions are generally vivid and lively (the crowd singing the fight song at the end was particularly well done). I’m not a hometown homer, but I heard enough on this track to appreciate where the listener was coming from.

I wouldn’t call “Half Of My Hometown” a great song, but it’s a solid effort from Kelsea Ballerini that is radio-friendly enough to build on her momentum from “Hole In The Bottle.” While I think the track had a lot more potential in its sound and could have used another iteration or two on the lyrics, Ballerini does a nice job on the vocals (Kenny Chesney less so, but his role is effectively minimal anyway) and helps elevate the track above the soundalike songs I’ve been reviewing lately. It’s the kind of hometown ode that I can actually get behind, and given how stale the radio has felt lately, I’ll take any good news that I can I get.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a few spins to see what you think.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You”

“Is it just me, or has Kenny Chesney completely run out of things to say?”  Kyle, Feb. 20 2024

“I’ll take this as a yes.”  Kyle today

Mark Grondin used to call Tim McGraw’s material “auditory Xanax,” but Chesney has been giving McGraw a run for his money with his last few singles. Being able to hang around a young man’s town like Nashville is no small feat for AARP-card carrier like Chesney, but he’s been reduced to throwing out lifeless, inoffensive singles like “Happy Does” and and “Here And Now” as a result, a description that unfortunately fits his latest release “Knowing You,” the fourth single from his Here And Now album. It’s the sort of background noise that could be snuck onto a playlist without anyone noticing, putting the listener to sleep before they even know it’s there.

I’d like to know what what growing through the producer’s head on this mix, because it feels like they plagiarized the typical guitar-and-drum arrangement from someone else and then challenged themselves to do as little as possible with it. The track opens with some acoustic guitar strumming, brings in the electric guitars and drums set on board in time for the chorus, hides a keyboard in the background, and sprinkles in just enough steel guitar to get the streaming services to call it “country.” The result is the blandest nothingburger you could imagine: The guitars have no texture or bite (and the riffs are so simple a terrible player like me could copy them), the drums have no punch, and the slower tempo make the song plod listlessly from start to finish. The resulting atmosphere generates nothing beyond the the classic Chesney chill, and it’s so relaxed that it doesn’t support the writing at all: We’re supposed to believe this relationship was a wild, exciting ride when the mix is this placid? In other words, this feels like a lazy effort from behind the board, making me wonder if Chesney needs to shake things up and work with some different producers to reshape his sound.

Chesney’s carefree beach-bum brand has served him well over the course of his career, but on this track he comes across as too chill for his own good. The song poses no challenges from a technical perspective (limited range, slower flow), but it does require a narrator that can inject some life into a song, and give the audience a sense of the crazy relationship that was. Instead, Chesney’s narrator barely has a pulse, discussing their wild past with such relaxed detachment that it makes you wonder if he cares about it at all (and if he doesn’t, why is he bothering us with the story?). Instead of reflecting the extreme exhilaration of the relationship, the feel of his delivery is best described as vaguely positive, and it never deviates from this position for the entire song. Without that passion, the performance is as exciting as listening to someone describe a trip to the grocery store, and the listener tunes it out before Chesney can reach the second chorus. With a career this long, Chesney should be better than this, which makes me wonder how much longer said career will continue.

If you’ve been around the blog long, you know how much I just adore tracks where some random dude reflects on a long-lost relationship from a million years ago (*gag*), but unlike Keith Urban’s “We Were,” Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers,” or Tucker Beathard’s “You Would Think,” this narrator does manage to avoid the typical whiny, self-pitying feel that characterizes these walks down memory lane. The problem, however, is that the tracks replaces this attitude with…well, nothing: No feeling, no detail (he calls “knowing you” “a carnival ride” and “a free fall from a hundred thousand feet,” but he never tells us why or how), and no reflectionit’s just a thing that happened that time at the place. While no blame for the breakup is explicitly assigned, the narrator hints very heavily that the other person was too wild and free to ever settle down, with no introspection on their own role (your attitude now suggests that you weren’t that heavily invested in the relationship either; did you ever wonder if that might have been part of the problem?). In short, the story has all the charm and feeling of an Ambien pill, and it puts you to sleep just as quickly.

“Knowing You” is nothing but a collection of sounds and words that barely meets the minimum necessary criteria to be called a song. The most biting critique I can level against it is that this review took forever to write because I kept stopping to listen to better and more interesting songs, and the best thing I can say about it is that it won’t annoy you because it’ll lull you to sleep long before you reach that point. From its milquetoast sound to its incomplete writing to Kenny Chesney’s lifeless vocals, this song is a total waste of everyone’s time, and unless Chesney can step up his game quickly, he won’t be wasting our time for much longer.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth knowing.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does”

There’s a fine line between optimism and delusion these days, and this song is on the wrong side of it.

Kenny Chesney has been stuck in a weird place for a few years now, caught between mediocre message songs (“Noise,” “Get Along,” the unreleased “Rich And Miserable”), and forgettable ignore-the-message songs (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Here And Now”). (The less said about “The Tip Of My Tongue,” the better.) Now, in the midst of a global pandemic when the messages couldn’t be more important, Chesney has decided to take a stand…and go back to the second category with “Happy Does,” a tone-deaf Cobronavirus spinoff that’s so poorly constructed that it borders on parody. While there’s some truth to the idea that we can look on the bright side and find a sliver of happiness, given the weight of the events of 2020, this just isn’t the time or place for willful ignorance, and thus the song feels as awkward and out-of-touch as “One Margarita” or “No I In Beer.”

To its credit, the production is not the problem here, as it does a good job capturing the usual breezy island vibe that Chesney has hung his hat on for the last two decades. It opens with a bright acoustic guitar and some light-touch percussion that gives the song some bounce and optimism, creating in a happy, tropical vibe similar to the one Luke Bryan generated with “One Margarita.” This mix improves on Bryan’s song, however, by keeping the volume dialed back and maintaining its lighter feel throughout the entire song. While some electric guitars and heavier drums do jump in on the choruses (Grady Smith’s favorite clap track is here too), they’re applied selectively to avoid weighing the song down. The result, however, is a bit of a mixed bag: On one hand, it supports the writing well by encouraging the listener to relax and not take things so seriously, but on the other hand its light and fluffy texture actively encourages the listener to put their brain and autopilot and ignore what the narrator is saying. Of course, nothing of substance is said here anyway, so we’re left with some empty sonic calories that go down easy and are quickly forgotten.

So…a  song encouraging folks to chillax with a vaguely tropical vibe? This has been Chesney’s wheelhouse since the beginning of time, and he’s got his act down pat: Minimal technical demands and a song that suits his voice, a relaxed delivery, and a familiar easygoing narrator role that fits him like an old pair of shoes. By now, the audience knows what to expect from a song like this, and Chesney delivers just as he has throughout his career. The issue, however, is that reality adds an unexpected degree of difficulty: We’re living through some of the most challenging times we’ve seen in decades (if not centuries), and there are so many things that we’re understandably worried about that not even a man with Chesney’s charisma can put us at ease. Doing the same thing he’s always done just isn’t going to cut it at a time like this, and for as many times as he’s released a song like this, I don’t think I’ve even found it as un-reassuring as I do now.

And then we get to the lyrics, which are a mess for a number of reasons:

  • The narrator spends a lot of time talking about hard-luck cases that have “got a hundred reasons not to” be happy, but somehow are anyway because “happy is as happy does,” and frankly, I don’t buy a word of it. “Sunaco Charlie” is exactly the sort of underpaid schmoe stuck working at a high-risk job (gas stations are essential businesses, after all) that should be extremely worried about his future (and that’s without considering his record of failed marriages), and the idea that the dude is just breezing along singing a happy tune is so unbelievable that it makes the track come across like a Weird Al parody. The singer on the bridge, who gets no introduction besides a “she” pronoun, isn’t fleshed out enough to make the audience understand her struggles (these days she’s probably stuck eating ramen noodles and performing for free on YouTube) or convince them to care about her in the first place.
  • While this isn’t your typical Cobronavirus track (there’s no party vibe to speak of), it features the same sort of nihilistic, escapist approach to life, encouraging people to dance in the rain, jump in a lake, and “drink a beer just because.” The problem is that when you dry off or sober up, all the problems you set aside are still going to be there, and you’re eventually going to have to confront them. Finding joy in the little things is fine, but you’ll never solve a problem that you don’t step up and tackle, and I’d prefer to hear a song call folks to be more proactive in taking on life’s obstacles instead of just whistling past the graveyard.
  • The narrator doesn’t establish their credibility beyond that of the person behind the microphone. Personalizing the song (“this is what happened to me, and this is why I’m still happy”) would have gone a long way towards creating a connection between the character and the audience, but as it is we’re left with a disembodied voice that never establishes any authority on the subject. Sure, having Chesney delivering your message helps, but his charisma isn’t enough here, and the lyrics don’t have anything in reserve to help him out.

In short, this thing needed a few more drafts and a complete overhaul of the message’s framing and delivery, and even that might not be enough.

“Happy Does” is a forgettable track trying to associate itself with the feel-good vibe of the Cobronavirus trend without taking on all of its baggage, but it doesn’t fit the moment any better and comes across as delusional and unconvincing as a result. Kenny Chesney and the production are okay at best, and get dragged down by shallow, poorly-executed writing that get less believable with every listen. I get that songs may be written and recorded long before they are released, but record labels have full control over when/if songs are released, and this is a track that should have been saved for a post-pandemic world (whenever that happens). In 2020, it’s a meaningless summer track that doesn’t give you any reason to pay attention.

Rating: 5/10. “Happy is as happy does,” but happy should have done better than this.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Here And Now”

Is it just me, or has Kenny Chesney completely run out of things to say?

At nearly 52 years old, Chesney is living on borrowed time in the young man’s town that is Nashville, and over the last half-decade he’s become increasingly aware of his mainstream mortality. He’s begun releasing tracks like “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Noise,” and “Get Along,” all of which kinda-sorta have something to say from an elder-statesman point-of-view, but they never really get beyond generic platitudes and vague, preachy proclamations. After his recent tire fire of a sex jam “Tip Of My Tongue” ran out of steam at #8, he’s gone back to his “saying a lot without really saying anything” ways with his latest single “Here And Now,” a predictable ode to the present tense. The song brings absolutely nothing new to the conversation, and teeters precariously on the edge between looking-forward optimism and screw-tomorrow nihilism.

Let’s start with the good news: The production is about the only thing worth noting on this track because of its relentless energy and positivity. The Petty-esque opening rock-tinged guitar riffs generate a ton of energy and give the song a real sense of motion (although the drums here lack the punch of “Runnin’ Down A Dream”), and although the chorus seems to slow things down with its every-third-note cadence, it’s a nice sonic cue to stop and smell the roses while they’re there. Unfortunately, there’s very little in the rest of the rest of the song to warrant such a stance (no one’s running down any dreams here), and there’s nothing more in the mix to help distract the listener form this fact. Still, the mix drags the song forward anyway, giving it a feeling of momentum and cheer that it really doesn’t justify. If nothing else, it makes the song a fun distraction for a few minutes, even if you won’t remember it once it’s over.

I’m feeling mixed about Chesney’s performance here, because he seems to be caught between expressing optimism about the future and telling people to forget about the future and live it up now because the future’s not guaranteed. Now on the backside of 50, Chesney may have the experience to claim that he’s done all the things described in the verses, but it also puts hims squarely in the ‘live it up now’ camp: There is no future in mainstream country music for Chesney, so he’d better have his fun while he still can. There’s a real positivity to his delivery and his technical skills seems to be as strong as ever (honestly, this is more vocal power than we’ve gotten from him in a while), but his narrator gives me the distinct impression that he’s done working towards the future, and instead plans on sitting around watching the world burn à la Chris Janson in “Fix A Drink.” The producer can drive the song all they want, but despite Chesney’s charisma, his narrator doesn’t feel like they’re up for the ride. It’s a bit disappointing, although he’s admittedly severely hamstrung by…

The lyrics! Frankly, the writing is surprisingly bad: The narrator claims that “here and now” is the best place to be, but…

  • The laundry list of things they’ve done and seen in the past (island hopping, romances in exotic locales, etc.) make it hard to believe that the narrator actually belives staying put where they are now in the best place to be.
  • The message has been around for as long as people have been, and this song not only adds nothing to the conversation, its reliance on groan-inducing catchphrases (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt and hat,” “why you think we call the present the present?”) make it feel even staler and more outdated than it is.
  • Despite chiding people for waiting for their ships to come in, the narrator demonstrates no more proactivity then the waiters they put down. At least the waiters exhibit hope for the future; this dude just sounds like they want to sit around and drink the rest of their life away (despite the fact that there’s only one alcohol reference in the entire song).

All this leads to a narrator that has given up on the future and is in party-hardy mode until the bull throws them off, making them come off as lazy and unsympathetic to the audience.

“Here And Now” is only good for squandering your own here and now: It’s a forgettable, uninspired track whose upbeat, driving production is countered by the sloth and disinterest of the writers, and Kenny Chesney just isn’t the guy who can pull a song like this back from the brink anymore. It may have the happy sound and party vibe to make it a short-term summertime hit, but more than anything it makes me think that the low-fuel light has come on for Chesney’s mainstream career. In some sense, it’s the same song that he’s been pitching for the last five years, and if this is all he has to say anymore, maybe it’s time he went back to those islands and ruminated on some new ideas.

Rating: 5/10. There are better ways to spend your time.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Tip Of My Tongue”


On some level, it’s hard to blame Kenny Chesney for what his career has devolved into: He’s been able to resist the slow radio phaseout that has afflicted many of his contemporaries by leaning on lightweight, milquetoast feel-good material like “All The Pretty Girls,” “Get Along,” and his monotone David Lee Murphy collab “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” and when he released a track with some actual weight and substance behind it (“Better Boat”), the label prematurely pulled the plug on it at #25 on Billboard’s airplay chart. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about being a leader and a model at this stage Now, he’s back on the “safe” side of country music with the trend-chasing track “Tip Of My Tongue,” and frankly, I haven’t cringed this much while listening to a song in a long, long time. It’s not romantic, it’s not sexy, it’s not fun, it’s not clever, and it’s not a good song.

The production has some potential, but the instruments are used in the most bland and sterile way possible. The song opens with a bright, slick electric guitar and some sort of amped-up string instrument (it’s likely just an acoustic guitar, but it reminds me a lot of a dulcimer), with a deep, darker guitar floating around in the background masquerading as a bass. The percussion (which naturally has both real and synthetic elements, though heavily weighted towards the former) is pushed back to the end of the first verse, and the whole thing swells up to provide a spacious feel on the chorus. Questionable arrangement choices aside (why are the drums so prominent in the mix, and why are they the only thing you hear during the second verse?), the producer doesn’t really do anything with the pieces they have: The musicians just lifelessly play the same riffs over and over (even the “solo” is just Chesney howling like a wolf over the same blasted beat), and the song has absolutely zero energy as a result. The worst part, however, is how the mix completely fails to set the proper atmosphere for the song: Nothing about this thing feels even remotely sensual (in fact, it doesn’t make the listener doesn’t feel anything at all), and if you tried to make love to this track, you’d most likely fall asleep before anything happened. I’m begging you Nashville, please please please stop foisting failed sex jams like this drivel upon the public.

I wouldn’t say that Chesney mailed in this performance, but I wouldn’t say he brought his “A” game to the studio either. It’s not a range-tester or tongue-twister by any means, but even though you get the sense that Chesney is trying to make this feel emotional and sexy, you certainly don’t feel any of that yourself. Instead, Chesney’s performance feels awkward and weak, as if he’s struggling to convey his emotions despite the unmistakable tone of the lyrics. Despite the charisma and earnestness that has carried Chesney through a two-decade-plus career, not only is he simply isn’t believable in the narrator’s role here, he gets dragged down into the mud by the writing. (Given that this sort of song has never really been a part of Chesney’s repertoire, I’m confused as to why he or anyone at Warner Music thought this would be a suitable song for him.) It’s reminiscent of Dierks Bentley’s “Black,” although while Bentley was able to kinda-sorta pull this trick off, Chesney just can’t seal the deal. It’s a mediocre performance for an artist who can ill afford one.

The lyrics are what irk me the most about this song. The narrator tries to use a “tip of my tongue” metaphor to describe the depth of their emotions for their partner, and honestly, it was a really bad choice. The phrase is a fairly limited one, and the ways that it’s used here are just…ugh. That “salt and sugar” line makes my skin crawl every time I hear it, and the “everything about you’s on the tip of my tongue” comes way too late to make the wordplay work (it’s literally the last line in the song, and it ignores the fact that he’s had no trouble spewing out everything he’s been thinking for the last three minutes). And don’t get me started about the way the “dimples in the small of your back” are “speaking to” the narrator, which is supposed to make the audience swoon but instead makes them question the narrator’s mental fitness. This song is more “Ew” than “Ooh,” and it utterly fails to set any sort of mood at all. In fact, the only thing it motivates the listener to do is change the station.

Country music would do well to revisit the definition of insanity, because despite the fact that Nashville can’t put out a sex jam to save its life, its denizens keep cranking out these creepy, slimy tracks ad infinitum. “Tip Of My Tongue” is a textbook example of how far these things can go off the rails: The production is bland and boring, Kenny Chesney is unconvincing and sketchy, and the writing is just…no. The result is a track that never should have seen the light of day, and brings shame and disgrace to everyone associated with it.

Stop it, Nashville. You’re embarrassing yourself.

Rating: 3/10. Yuck.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat”

Darn you Chesney, you know I can’t resist acoustic ballads with perspective.

I haven’t been terribly impressed with Kenny Chesney’s output lately, as he seems to be content with releasing “it’s-all-good, can’t-we-stop-fighting” tracks that have very little weight or feeling behind them (“Get Along,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” with David Lee Murphy). For the second single from his latest album Songs For The Saints, however, Chesney finally decided to drop the broad brush strokes and get a little more personal, and the result is “Better Boat,” a breakup-recovery tune featuring harmonies from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. It’s a no-frills, no-nonsense song that offers an honest assessment of the narrator’s life after love, and it connects with the listener in a way few songs have done lately.

Apparently Chesney and Buddy Cannon heard Cole Swindell’s “Break Up In The End” and thought “nah, still too busy,” because the production here is beyond sparse, consisting of nothing more than a pair of acoustic guitars. Forget the classic fiddle-and-steel pairing; the producers even left out the bass and percussion! (There might be something else floating in the background, like a piano or violin, but if they’re there, there’s barely audible and might as well have been left out.) You wouldn’t think there would be much to the mix with so few levers for the producers to pull, but the guitar work is really impressive here, using its bright tone to establish a calm, optimistic atmosphere while mixing in a few minor chords to acknowledge some lingering pain from the separation. This happy/sad mixture does a great job complementing the lyrics and letting them serve as the song’s focal point, and generates just enough energy to keep the song from feeling boring or plodding. Less was definitely more here, and Chesney and Cannon deserve a lot of credit for their stripped-back approach.

As good as the guitar work is, it doesn’t offer much of a safety net if the artists involved can’t carry their share of the load and connect with the audience. However, you don’t last as long as Chesney has in country music without some charisma and honesty in your delivery, and his chops are on full display on “Better Boat.” There’s no range-testing or tongue-busting here—this track is all about emotion, and whether or not the singer can pass along their feelings to their listeners. While a number of artists have failed in this regard lately (Mike Eli, Shay Mooney, Jon Pardi), Chesney smashes through the barrier and drives his point home without breaking a sweat. (For Smith’s part, she adds some nice harmony vocals that blend well with Chesney’s and enhance the reflective tone of the track.) He’s been inconsistent in this regard lately (his recent social commentaries never quite hit the mark, and “Bar At The End Of The World” just felt mailed-in), so this song is a much-needed declaration that Chesney still has a fastball he can go to in a pinch.

The writing here is basically and assessment of the narrator’s state of mind after a traumatic loss of their love (exactly what causes the split is left open to interpretation). The feel here, in a word, is honest: There’s no grandstanding, complaining, or even that much sadness to be found here. Instead, the narrator acknowledges that while the transition to a quiet life of solitude has been tough, he’s developed some effective coping mechanisms and is learning to accept the things he can’t change (hence the hook: “Learning how to build a better boat” to ride the waves of life). By identifying and calling out the narrator’s remaining problems, the song feels more transparent and doesn’t appear to be hiding anything, making lines like “I’m okay with staying home” actually feel truthful (because no one in country music ever seems to be happy staying home). It’s a solid piece of penmanship, and in the hands of a capable veteran like Chesney, the audience buys into the tale 100%.

“Better Boat” seemed to have a lot of hype going into this review, and for the most part it lives up to its billing. The production is sparse but effective, the writing feels thoughtful and honest, and it’s the best performance I’ve heard from Kenny Chesney in quite some time. At a time when newer, younger artists (and whatever Garth Brooks is at this point) are beginning to push the old stalwarts off of the radio (anyone heard from Brad Paisley or Tim McGraw lately?), Chesney makes a strong statement that he’s not ready for retirement just yet.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Get Along”

Personally, I’d “Get Along” a lot better if Kenny Chesney would give up trying to make a statement in increasingly uninteresting ways.

Over the last few years, Chesney has occasionally felt the need to make some sort of semi-socially-conscious statement about the world around him, and inevitably, the resulting track is disappointing and forgettable. There was the hamfisted, generic “Noise,” the synthetic, predictable laundry list “Rich And Miserable,” the lifeless David Lee Murphy collab “Everything’s Gonna Ba Alright,” and now we’ve got “Get Along,” a confusing, uninspiring track that implores us to go out and live our lives, but only succeeds in putting us to sleep.

To its credit, the song’s production is a sizable step up from Chesney’s prior motivational tunes. The electric guitars and synthetic percussion are still here, but their role is much smaller here, as the spotlight is turned over to a bright acoustic guitar and a much-more-than-token banjo (it even shares top billing with an electric guitar during the solo!). Similarly, the minor chords and dark-toned instruments are tossed in favor of an upbeat, optimistic atmosphere that looks to the future instead of bemoaning the present. While the weak writing shirks its duties and leaves the listener unsure of what to think (more on that later), the mix does a nice job stepping in and setting a clear tone, signaling to the listener that the song should leave them happy, even if they aren’t sure why. Unfortunately, the mix doesn’t quite deliver the energy to back up these feelings, and whatever sugar rush it gives its audience is short-lived.

I’ve been a little nervous about Chesney since his mailed-in performance on “Bar At The End Of The World,” but he puts in enough effort here to at least sound earnest, if not convincing. The song places few strains on his range or flow, so Chesney’s charisma has to carry the day, and…well, his delivery might have been enough to pull it off if the song had been a bit more coherent. He sounds genuinely curious when posing questions to the phone sex billboard, and seems genuinely tickled by his “getting rained on with an old man” anecdote. That said, his claim that we should all just “get along” feels a bit hollow, and he doesn’t bring the evidence or the energy to really sell the audience on the idea.

And then there’s the writing, which is less of a kumbaya, “let’s all get along” song and more of an escapist, “ignore the noise” song (think Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink,” but with a lot less alcohol). Frankly, this thing is scattered all over the place: The narrator tells his wet-old-man story, ponders the background of a 900-number woman, and oh yeah, you should go out and life your life, you know? The verses seem to have no connection to the chorus whatsoever (the phone sex story stands out for its lack of a punch line), and the chorus’s proposed laundry bucket list is boilerplate and boring (Drink! Paint! Sing! And don’t forget to call home!) It’s like listening to my grandfather take fifteen minutes to tell a story because he keeps getting sidetracked and telling other stories, except my grandfather doesn’t put people to sleep nearly as quickly.

“Get Along” is yet another attempt by Kenny Chesney to prove that he has something to say, and winds up as yet another piece of evidence that he actually doesn’t. It’s a small step up from his last few sermons thanks to the production, but it’s a large step backwards from “All The Pretty Girls” thanks to its bizarre lyrics. Given the choice, I’d rather sit around and worry about the world’s problems than listen to this incoherent snoozefest.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a decent replacement for Zzzquil, I suppose.

Song Review: David Lee Murphy & Kenny Chesney, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”

There’s a fine line between a chill song and a lifeless one, and unfortunately for David Lee Murphy, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is the latter.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Murphy’s career existed at all: He peaked briefly in the mid-90s with tracks like “Dust On The Bottle” and “Party Crowd,” racked up five Top Ten Billboard hits over his nondescript career, and hadn’t released a single to radio since 2004. Suddenly, however, Murphy has a new album (No Zip Code) slated to release this year, with “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a duet with album co-producer Kenny Chesney, serving as the leadoff single. In theory the song is meant to reassure and reinspire its audience in the face of tough times, but in practice the track is a plodding, monotonic mess that depresses the listener more than anything else.

The production is incredibly basic and bare-bones, with most of the song featuring a lazy one-note riff repeated over a drum machine. An organ jumps in on the chorus to add some background atmosphere, and an electric guitar provides a (boring) solo, but they’re not featured enough to add much to the song. The combination of a slower tempo with the dimly-toned guitar and drums sets a way-too-dark tone for the song, making it sound more like a funeral march than a relaxing beachside tune. Basically, the mix sets the exact opposite tone that it should, and makes what should be a hopeful, optimistic song feel dreary and boring.

Vocally, Murphy sounds about the same as he did when I last encountered him on “Loco” over a decade ago, but he’s hampered by two issues: The song constrains his range and traps him in his lower register for most of the song, and the echoey effects added to his lines make him sound even raspier than usual. As a result, his delivery comes across as monotonic and lifeless instead of relaxed and optimistic. For Chesney’s part, he sounds the same as he usually does, and while his performance lacks energy, he at least sounds invested in the track, unlike on “Bar At The End Of The World”). (However, the song is most definitely not written as a duet, which begs the question why Chesney was added in the first place…besides the obvious financial and radio implications, of course.) The pair appears to have some decent vocal chemistry, but the harmony vocals are so low in the mix that you barely hear them. Overall, the pair offers a tolerable-but-forgettable performance that is immediately washed out of your ears by the next song.

There isn’t a whole lot to the writing here, as the song just talks about the narrator being uplifted by a sign in a bar saying “everything’s gonna be alright.” It’s not a particularly deep or compelling tale, and doesn’t really offer any reason to feel optimistic outside of blind faith (basically, the message is “everything will be fine, because…it just will.”) Throw in the usual barroom and drinking tropes, and this song falls into the same category as Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink”: A shallow escapist song that encourages peoples to ignore the problems around them instead of addressing them. It’s not overly offensive, but it’s not memorable either, and with the lyrics and production setting opposite moods, it’s not a terribly pleasant listen.

Overall, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is a misnomer: If you mix shallow writing and tone-deaf production, everything’s actually gonna suck. “Loco” put a nice bow on David Lee Murphy’s career, and he would have been better off not chasing radio relevance with this half-baked track.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.