Song Review: Lady Antebellum, “Champagne Night”

I’m fine with artists pulling the plug on singles when they think they have something better. It’s just that they never actually have something better.

Three months ago today, I declared that Lady Antebellum’s latest single “What I’m Leaving For” was “another step in the right direction” and “a well-constructed mix of sound and source material that makes for a easy, enjoyable listen.” A mere three months later, however, the group has decided to change course, dropping “What I’m Leaving For” in favor of “Champagne Night,” a collaboration with songwriter Madeline Merlo that was the big winner of the season 2 opener of NBC’s Songland back in April. The move is eerily reminiscent of Riley Green’s swap from “In Love By Now” to “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” last year, a move that didn’t really pan out in the end (“Grandpas” topped out at #12 and Green ended up losing all his momentum anyway). I was against Green’s decision then, and I’m against Lady A’s decision now: “Champagne Night” is clearly the inferior song of the two, a generic “lowlife living the high life” party song (honestly, it reminds me a lot of Thomas Rhett’s “Vacation”) that continues the genre’s frustrating trend of carefree celebration in the face of serious times.

The production is a standard guitar-and-drum mix on the surface, but there are some disturbing callbacks to the Bro-Country era here when you start digging. The mix cranks up the volume early, opening with a wall of noise courtesy of a pair of electric guitars and an in-your-face drum set, and then oscillates between leaning on a single, slicker guitar for the verses and bringing the heat again with the full arrangement for the choruses. However, the percussion is surprisingly synthetic when you get past the initial wall of noise: Grady Smith’s favorite clap track help kick things off in the beginning, and is joined by a drum machine buried deep in the mix during the choruses. The token banjo also returns as well, although it’s at least joined by mandolin that adds some noticeable brightness to the sound. Finally, while the atmosphere is suitably celebratory for the writing and the bright tones bring at least a little energy with them, the deliberate cadence of the song gives me flashbacks to Bro-Country stalwarts like “Cruise” and “This Is How We Roll,” which isn’t great company to keep. This mix falls in the same category as Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” and Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer”: Kind of fun, very paint-by-numbers, and not all that interesting in the end.

If it isn’t clear by now, I am absolutely sick and tired of these soundalike party songs, but if anyone could pull this stick out of the mud and convince me to have a good time, it would be top-tier vocalists like Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a hard “No’: While Scott and Kelley are still the solid technical performers they’ve always been (although I’m not a huge fan of their flow over the rapid-fire sections of this song—they seem more comfortable and less choppy on the slower, smoother sections), they joy they exhibit during the course of the song seems mostly self-contained, and just kind of bounces off the audience without leaving any impact. The harmony and vocal chemistry is fine, but I’m just not feeling this song the way I did with “Bartender” back in the day (although the writing deserves its fair share of the blame here). This was probably going to be a hard sell to me anyways, but given the caliber of singers involved, I expected a better result than this.

And then we get to the writing, and let’s be honest, you already know what’s coming here: The narrators are looking to have a good old time (translation: get drunk off their, er, posteriors), with the only twist that they’re not going to do it all fancy-like, and will have fun “drinkin’ beer on a champagne night.” Contrasting high-roller and low-budget lifestyles is a common theme in country music historically (and it’s usually done in far more interesting ways than this, e.g. Charlie Pride’s “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”), and this track brings nothing new to the table: It simply eschews velvet ropes and expensive drinks in favor of casual wear and plastic cups. (I mentioned “One Margarita” before, but thematically this track is closer to Bryan’s “Kick The Dust Up” with its critique of urban glitz and glamour.) In truth, the song feels more like a declaration (“this is what we do, darn it!”) than an invitation, making the frequent use of “we” ring a bit hollow. It’s just another “we do things different ’round here” kind of track, to which the listener’s response is a shrug and a brief “Good for you, I guess.” Even worse, this feels likes an argument that’s not worth having because their doesn’t seem to be any fun to be had at all here: There’s no barroom or bonfire atmosphere (at least Bryan gave us an idea of what the scene looked like), no activities to partake in besides getting sloshed, and no friends (or even interesting characters) to speak of to share the experience. There’s nothing here but alcohol (heck, there’s not even a reason to drink it), and if that’s all your selling, I’ll pass.

“Champagne Night” is just another nihilistic party song that fails to justify its own existence, and it kills me think they’re dumping “What I’m Leaving For,” a song with actual thought and feeling behind it, for this cookie-cutter schlock. The production is derivative, the writing is subpar and uninviting (if this is the best material that Songland can give us, they might as well just cancel the show entirely), and Lady Antebellum can’t deliver this worn-out pitch any better than Bryan or Paisley could. It’s discouragingly telling that even in the midst of a global crisis that has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, country music can’t be bothered to sober up and pay attention. Instead, we’re encouraged to numb the pain by drinking ourselves into a stupor just like we’ve been doing for the last decade, and simply bide our time until we die.

I, for one, have no intention of going out like that.

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

Song Review: Lady Antebellum, “What I’m Leaving For”

Welp, so much for that deep dive idea I had…

I dug into the rise and fall of Little Big Town last year, and I was fully prepared to start crafting a similar epitaph for their crosstown rivals Lady Antebellum, especially as the warning signs started popping up over the last few years (the hiatus, the slow chart descent, the label switch, the copycats, etc.). Since joining Big Machine and dropping their recent Ocean album, however, the trend lines have been surprisingly positive: “What If I Never Get Over You” became the group’s first #1 since 2014 (and got a lukewarm reaction from yours truly, which is better than a lot of artists can claim these days), and they seem to be taking another step in the right direction with their new single “What I’m Leaving For,” a solid “I’m Already There” clone that exudes comfort and contentment on nearly every level. It’s the sort of song that makes you realize that despite all the group’s issues over the last half-decade, Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave “The Other Guy” Haywood aren’t ready to leave just yet.

The production here leans a bit closer to the traditional side of the genre than “What If I Never Get Over You,” opening with some simple acoustic guitar picking and a soft, restrained percussion line (it’s hard to tell if the drums are real or not, but the producer gets a little credit for passing on the standard, obviously-synthetic beat than often accompanies these kinds of tracks). The song continues adding to the arrangement as it goes along (some steel guitar, some clearly-real drums, some spacious electric guitars, and even a freaking mandolin on the second verse), slowly and deliberately building volume and momentum that reaches a crescendo on the bridge. All the while, the mix establishes a warm, comfortable atmosphere that emphasizes the narrator’s understanding of how their life is arranged, noting that the bad (life on the road) is necessary to maintain the good (life at home). (In truth, the vibe might be a little too contented, as the narrator really doesn’t feel conflicted at all about the situation despite the lyrics’ claim.) After some of the clashes between sound and subject matter I’ve dealt with recently (Tyler Farr’s “Only Truck In Town,” HARDY’s “One Beer”), it’s nice to hear a mix that fits its writing this seamlessly, and the result is a relaxing track that’s easy on the ears.

Similarly, Scott and Kelley feel like they’re really in their element on this track, giving off the same relaxed, satisfied vibe of the production. We already know that these two are accomplished, capable vocalists who can rare back and belt when they have to, but instead of pounding their message home with power and passion, this time the pair projects a calm confidence, relying on their smooth flow and effortless delivery to mesh seamlessly with the sound around them. At this point in the band’s lifespan, Scott and Kelley now have the experience and seniority to go along with their copious charisma and vocal chemistry, making them an ideal fit for the narrator’s role (the song isn’t really written as a duet, but the duo makes it work anyway). Haywood’s role is the same as always (cover the guitar and mandolin parts, throw in some indistinguishable harmony work, and generally do whatever it takes to keep the band intact), but all in all this is a solid piece of work from the trio, and Scott and Kelley’s performances are really what make the song believable and meaningful.

The writing is a noticeable step up from the group’s over-dramatized previous single, as the narrator here takes stock of the the good things around them and recognizes that when they leave to do their job, they know “what I’m leaving for.” Unlike “I’m Already There,” which focused on the pain and angst created by the distance, the narrator here is relentlessly positive about the arrangement, knowing that both halves of their life complement each other and form a complete whole. (In fact, despite their occasional complaints, the narrator even admits that they like their job and that “I’m where I’m meant to be,” even if it pulls them away from their family for a while.) The details of the opening verse paint a vivid picture of the home that the user can easily visualize, the hook is effective (if not terribly witty), and the perspective is markedly different (read: mature) than the singles scene that much of mainstream country inhabits these days. It’s a self-aware-yet-optimistic take on the sacrifices we all make in the name of something we hold dear (be it a family, a lifestyle, or a silly little blog like this one), and it’s a welcome addition to the airwaves.

“What I’m Leaving For” is a well-constructed mix of sound and source material that makes for a easy, enjoyable listen. The writing is thoughtful, the sound backs it up with a great mix, and Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley are a charming and capable as ever. Lady Antebellum looked like a group whose time had passed a few short years ago, but like Brad Paisley, they’re going to keep delivering the goods for as long as they can (and unlike Paisley, the radio actually rewarded them for it). This trio will make for an interesting deep dive one day, but for now, let’s sit back and enjoy them while we can.

Rating: 7/10.

Song Review: Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You”

What if people stopped overreacting to breakups for a change?

Crying over a lost love may be the oldest trope in the country music playbook, but I’m noticing a mini-trend of narrators whining and flailing about in the wake of a lost love (Maddie & Tae, Brandon Ratcliff, Tucker Beathard, Michael Ray, etc.), and aside from the M&T track, I could do without all of them. Now Lady Antebellum is ending their mini-hiatus following the disappointing #15 peak of “Heart Break” back in 2017 by jumping on the trend and releasing “What If I Never Get Over You” as the presumed leadoff single to an upcoming album. Unfortunately, this song does exactly what you might expect: The talent of the trio make this a more palatable track than those offered by mediocre meatheads like Ratcliff and Ray, but the topic is no more compelling or memorable, and I’m just not interested in entertaining the narrator’s romantic paranoia.

The production here is a standard pop-country arrangement that isn’t anything to write home about: Clean electric guitars, real but restrained drum set, and some background synth swells for added atmosphere. (However, I’ll give props to the bass guitar, which adds a little flavor during the song’s quieter moments.) It’s not as slick a sound as, say, Dan + Shay’s latest material (hey, there’s no snap track here!), but there isn’t a lot of texture here and it feels like it keeps its distance from the listener rather than letting them share in the song’s emotion. There’s a mismatch between the tone and the subject matter as well, as the mix feels surprisingly bright and only the occasional minor chords really reflect the narrator’s underlying fears. In the end, the sound comes across as a bit sterile and generic, and it’s overly reliant on the vocals to bring any real emotion to the table.

Thankfully, at least the vocalists are talented enough to help cover for the production’s deficiencies. Charles Kelley and and Hillary Scott are both capable, polish performers with strong technical skills, and their distinct harmonies and impressive vocal chemistry try to impress the true feelings and concerns of the narrator onto the listener. (Dave Haywood is invisible as usual, but at least he does a lot of instrumental and behind-the-scenes work to justify his existence, unlike Brian Kelley and other second/third wheels.) However, this song is not a great fit for the trio’s leads: Kelley is pushed below his comfortable range during the first chorus, and the narrator feels like a single character awkwardly split across two vocalists rather than two distinct characters such as on a track like “Need You Now.” As such, despite Scott and Charles seeming believable in the role, the result is like watching a rainstorm from a window: You can certainly see that there’s emotion and anguish present, but you really don’t feel it (unless your roof is leaky). It’s a decent performance overall, but the group is starting from such a disadvantage that it limits the song’s ceiling.

And then we get to the lyrics, and okay, I get it already: Breaking up sucks and it hurts like hell. While the narrator acknowledges early on that time heals all wounds, they spend the rest of the song needlessly obsessing over the possibility that it might not. While Maddie & Tae sold their sob story as youthful inexperience, the members of Lady A feel like they should know better:

  • Things generally do get better over time.
  • Even if they don’t, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot you can do about it, so you might as well move forward.
  • Life is way too unpredictable to bother projecting your pain years into the future like the narrator does here.

Seriously, this one-track narrator makes me want to grab them by the shoulders and shout “You. Will. Be. FINE!” in their faces.  Their attitude is more annoying than endearing (if confidence is sexy, this is the least sexy character in the universe), and it detracts from what is otherwise a fairly well-written song: The narrator is at least self-aware, and the future projection helps the listener visualize the scene (even though it’s a bit light on detail).

I’d like to like “What If I Never Get Over You,” but there’s just not enough here to hold my attention. The production is too safe and middle-of-the-road, the writing is so over-the-top it’s irritating, and Lady Antebellum has trouble making up the difference and closing the sale. I’ll take this over anything Ratcliff, Beathard, and Ray have to offer, but it’s not something I’ll likely revisit of my own volition, and I doubt this will be the magic bullet Lady A needs to return to the mountaintop of the genre. Recycling an old topic like this one is fine, but you need better source material to really make it worth doing.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a try, but don’t set your expectations too high.

Song Review: Lady Antebellum, “Heart Break”

They say that confidence is sexy. If so, then “Heart Break” has to be the sexiest song I’ve heard all year.

I was disappointed that Lady Antebellum announced their return from hiatus with the terrible-sounding “You Look Good,” but the song managed to do everything the group needed it to: It had a successful chart run (#4 airplay peak on Billboard), it kick-started their new album Heart Break (it topped Billboard’s country album chart and reached #4 on the Billboard 200), and it re-established the group within the collective consciousness of the industry. Now, the group has chosen the title track as the second single, and not only is it a huge upgrade over “You Look Good,” but it’s a refreshingly interesting take on the typical breakup-recovery track.

Post-relationship songs can go it a number of different directions: The sad remembrance of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing,” the gradual recovery of Sara Evans’s “A Little Bit Stronger,” the power-tool-wielding rage of The Band Perry’s “Chainsaw,” the temporary, alcohol-fueled respites of Walker McGuire’s “‘Til Tomorrow” and Lady A’s own “Bartender,” and so on. “Heart Break,” however, approaches the topic from a surprisingly calm and rational perspective: The narrator confidently asserts her independence and hints that she will be back in the saddle soon enough, but also acknowledges that she needs some time away from the dating scene and makes plans to enjoy her downtime without any romantic pressure. While there’s a line in the second verse (“You might see through it but I’m putting on a poker face”) that suggests her measured response is just an act, the rest of the song stays on message and the implication doesn’t seem to stick. The image the listener is left with is one of a strong woman who pays her own tab, dances to her own beat, and deals with love on her own terms.

The biggest reason this song doesn’t sound hollow or unbelievable, however, is because lead singer Hillary Scott puts her foot down and simply doesn’t allow it. Her flow over the rapid-fire lyrics is smooth, her voice retains its power in both its upper and lower range (although the song admittedly doesn’t test her much), and above all her delivery exudes control and confidence, moving the listener to take her at her word. Even when the lyrics muddle the message a bit during the second verse, Scott’s performance is so strong that it doesn’t even register. After a showing like this, I can understand why Charles Kelley needed to put out a solo album: When you have a powerful, earnest performer like Scott around, why would you let anyone else touch the mic?

The production is the weakest link in the chain here, as it’s a standard modern pop-county mix that doesn’t quite fit the vibe of the song. Just like with “You Look Good,” the percussion is the most prominent part of the mix and still drowns out the other instruments, but the drums are dialed back just enough to let some guitars (mostly an acoustic one, with some electric guitars providing some atmospheric background) peek through and attempt to carry the melody. The song is also littered with minor chords, and while the guitars are fairly bright, they’re overshadowed so much by the percussion that they don’t impact the mood of the sound much. As a result, the song comes off as very dark and serious, which isn’t a great fit for a confident “I’m good” track. It’s a testament to Scott’s skills as a singer that she basically overrules the production and uses her voice to set the song’s tone herself.

Overall, “Heart Break” is a decent song with an pseudo-empowering take on life after a breakup, and while there’s a bit of conflict between the production and the writing, the vocal performance is strong enough to quell the dissent and pull everything together. I wouldn’t call it one of Lady Antebellum’s best songs, but it’s a major step up from “You Look Good,” and shows that when the trio is on point, they’re still capable of making some magic.

Rating: 6/10. It’s definitely worth checking out to see what you think.

Song Review: Lady Antebellum, “You Look Good”

If “You Look Good” is indicative of Lady Antebellum’s future musical direction, then they would have been better off staying on hiatus.

Lady Antebellum shot into the musical stratosphere back in 2009 with this smash hit “Need You Now” (which not only topped the country charts, but also peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100), and they managed to maintain that lofty position for the next five years. In more recent times, however, the group has been eclipsed in popularity by other (inferior) groups such as Little Big Town, and eventually Lady A announced a temporary hiatus while the individual members pursued their own solo projects. “You Look Good” is the group’s unofficial announcement that they’re back to make some noise, which unfortunately is exactly what the song is: Noise and nothing else.

The production for this song can be summed up in one word: drums. Seriously, that’s pretty much all you hear for 80% of the song. The remaining pieces of the song are filled with weak guitars that are overwhelmed by the percussion, as well as jarring stabs from a horn section that just sound sleazy. The whole mess just creates an atmosphere of vacuous swagger, like the attitude’s just there for its own sake, and above all, its sounds awful.

Both Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley are strong vocalists in their own rights, but “You Look Good” forces them both into awkward, choppy deliveries that do not play to their strengths. Lady A is best when they have smooth, deep material like “Need You Now” that lets their singing members showcase their talent, and this song is the polar opposite of that.

In terms of the lyrics, “You Look Good” is nothing but a vapid, shallow booty call, which means it’s about three years too late in terms of country music trends. While the group deserves credit for balancing the song’s objectification (both a man and a woman are called out for looking good), it doesn’t change the fact that the song reads like a Florida-Georgia Line reject:

On a boat, on a beach, in the water, in the sand
In the back of a bar, cold beer in your hand
Breaking hearts, breaking necks when we rolling down the street
Heads turning all day when they see you with me
I’m thinking everybody better stand in line
‘Cause they need to know that your body’s coming with me tonight

Apparently no one checked the calendar before heading to the studio, because what would have blended in with the crowd back in 2015 stands out like a sore thumb today.

Overall, “You Look Good” is a disappointing return for a talented group that’s capable of so much more. While I don’t doubt that Lady Antebellum is capable of retaking their place in the country music hierarchy, they aren’t going to pull it off with songs like this.

“You Look Good?” More like “You Sound Bad.”

Rating: 4/10. You’re not missing anything here.