Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2021 Edition)

With the end of the year approaching and song reviews being some of the least-interesting posts that I make, it’s time to take a wider view of the genre and try to cover our bases for the end-of-year lists coming next month. I think the genre has improved slightly overall from the bland soundalike tracks we got for most of the year, but if the Pulse scores are any indication, there’s still a lot of uninteresting junk flooding the airwaves right now. So how does our latest crop of singles fare? Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch:

Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me”

This song has dominated the Hot 100 basically since it arrived on the scene, and bringing in Chris Stapleton seems like a dream pairing of two of the best power vocalists in the business today…so why is my reaction to it so muted? Part of it is that the writing here is surprisingly weak and vague, as it doesn’t really make it clear who the song is aimed at (I thought it was at her ex, but apparently it’s for their son?), and the narrator’s story and explanation just isn’t that compelling or interesting (people making relationship decisions that they later come to regret makes up at least 25% of Nashville’s entire catalog). The two artists have decent vocal chemistry and it’s nice to see a Stapleton feature that actually uses him to push the song’s emotional boundaries (probably because Adele is one of the few singers in the planet he can’t out-sing), but he adds a rougher edge to the vocals (especially when he’s screaming them out on the bridge) that clashes with the softer, slicker feel of the piano (which is the only non-vocal instrument present here), and the tracks veers hard into ear-splitting territory when both singers turn it loose on the bridge. In the end, the song is okay, but there are a surprising number of tracks on the Mediabase chart right now that I’d pick over it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, I suppose.

Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never”

This song is trying way too hard to be something it’s not. The tale of two star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to makes things work beyond the physical attraction is a tale old as time, and the song tries to use minor chords, dark, foreboding instrument tones, and loud, hard-edged guitars and percussion (which bounces between a drum set and a slicker beat) to inject a sense of drama and danger into the song. Unfortunately, the garden-variety off-and-on relationship in the lyrics simply doesn’t warrant the hype (it reminds me a lot of Travis Denning’s boring “After A Few”), and while both Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell put their hearts into their performance (honestly, I like their vocal chemistry far more than Adele and Stapleton’s), they can’t convince the audience of the story’s importance. It’s just an oversung, overproduced batch of empty sonic calories, and I sincerely hope that Swindell and Wilson find some stronger material to work with the next time around.

Rating: 5/10. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to remember this one.

Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”

Parker is a Georgia native who’s attempting to make to leap from songwriter to performer after signing with Warner Bros. in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the source you find, but he’s not going anywhere with his debut drivel. The song features yet another delusional narrator waiting for a traveling ex to come back and imagining how much she misses him (give it up bro, she ain’t coming back), and the fact that he occasionally admits the futility of his feelings (“maybe you really are long gone and I’m just fooling myself”) isn’t enough to make him a likeable or sympathetic character. Everything else here is cookie-cutter and generic: The reliance on a buzzword-filled waiting spot featuring beer and trucks in the evening (also, what’s the point of specifying that he has a “BP PBR”? It sounds as dumb as me saying I’m drinking a Hannaford’s Powerade), the bland guitar-and-drum production, and Parker’s undistinctive voice that could be mistaken for five other singers in the genre (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song wouldn’t change at all). The song offers no compelling reason to listen or pay attention to it, and I’m getting really tired of indistinguishable tracks like this, especially one that feature an annoyingly-presumptuous attitude from the narrator. I didn’t put up with it from Tucker Beathard or Taylor Swift, and I won’t do it here either.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait”

George Strait’s gotten enough name-drops in the last ten years to fill an encyclopedia, and has been around so long that this isn’t even the first song built around his song titles (forget Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off,” I remember Tim McGraw singing “Give It To Me Strait” all the way back in 1994). I’m kind of torn on this one:

  • McCreery is a talented vocalist, but he’s not terribly believable in this role (he’s seven years younger than “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” so was it really his ex’s favorite song?)
  • The song is just a by-the-book lost-love song, but it does a decent job balancing the genuine sentimentality of a breakup and the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of hating a singer because of it.
  • The song title references are hit or miss: Some work okay (“Blue Clear Sky” is probably the best of the bunch), but some feel really forced (the “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” ones especially).

I think what sells me on this one in the end is the production: It starts as your typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, but once the steel guitar shows up it becomes the defining feature of the mix. It gives the sound some warmth and texture, while also helping it stand out from other tracks around it, most of which sprinkle the instrument in just enough to convince Billboard it’s “country.” It allows the song to pass the context test, as it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Strait’s own material. That’s enough to elevate it above the mediocre masses for me.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it hits you.

Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”

While McCreery paid homage to Strait, Rice tried to tip his cap to the latest member of the name-drop club, Eric Church…except Church’s material is far better than anything Rice could dream of putting together. From the filtered guitars to the textured drums to the restrained vocal delivery, Rice and his producer do their darnedest to copy Church’s signature country-rock style on this track, and while they end up with a half-decent reproduction in the end, the song falls completely flat thanks to its random, pandering, borderline-nonsensical lyrics: It uses an overly-simplistic “if I was X, I’d be Y” setup to work in references to Dale Earnhardt, the SEC, Johnny Cash, and Jesus Christ, it uses a bizarre flag-patch reference to shout out the military, and it throws in a grandfather/grandson bit that is both blatantly obvious and completely pointless. This is about a scattershot a track as you’ll ever hear, and its weak attempt to bring it all together on the chorus as a lost-love song doesn’t work at all (and the generally-upbeat production doesn’t help matters). The bridge is the closest the song comes to tying everything together, but it paints the narrator is an unflattering light: It lays out a blueprint for what he should do if he was “a smart man,” while at the same time insinuating that that’s exactly what he didn’t do. Listening to this track is an exercise in frustration, and the only good thing that could come of it would be for Church to sue Rice for trademark infringement and doing damage to his brand.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

While this track is at least up front that it won’t be plowing new ground, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to. My first question is why Mitchell Tenpenny was allowed anywhere near this thing: It wasn’t written as a duet, the presence of a second person adds nothing to the song, and Tenpenny’s weak, raspy voice is completely outclassed by Young’s solid baritone. Where McCreery passes the context test, this song really doesn’t, as its paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum doesn’t fit in with either a classic bar setting or the 90s song it name-drops (“Brand New Man,” “Time Marches On”), and by taking a more-neutral and serious approach to a bar song, it deftly avoids all the reasons people actually listen to a bar song in the first place (i.e, it’s either to party hardy or cry in your beer). The imagery and scenes are exactly what you’d expect to see: Love being found, love being lost, bartender stories and (of course) lost and lots and lots of alcohol. By focusing on what happens in the bar, the song fails to give the place any atmosphere, or make it seem like somewhere that you would actually want to go. Toss in the fact that the song feels half-written with only one-and-a-half verses, and you’re left with a bland snorefest that exists merely for the sake of existing.

Rating: 5/10. There are way better beer-joint odes to spend your time listening to.

Song Review: Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know”

Now this is the sort of artist evolution I can support.

It’s safe to say that I was not a fan of Lainey Wilson’s official debut single “Dirty Looks”: I called it a “boring and pointless song,” and I didn’t “see it getting Wilson or BBR the radio traction they’re looking for.” The song wound up crashing and burning so badly that it a) didn’t make the Billboard chart at all, and b) torpedoed her momentum so severely she doesn’t appear to have released a single at all in 2020. She’s back now, however, with an upcoming full album slated for release next month and a “new” single (albeit one originally from her 2019 EP Redneck Hollywood) called “Things A Man Oughta Know.” To call this a stunning turnaround from her awful debut would be a understatement: The song is a thoughtful, heartfelt piece with some surprising emotional weight behind it, and a far cry from the makeout session narration we got two years ago, making me wonder why Broken Bow Records didn’t release this song first to begin with.

The production is an intriguing balance of light and darkness that allows the track to reflect on the narrator’s past sadness while also projecting a sense of hope for the future. Rather than the usual guitar-and-drum mix, the sound here is defined by the mandolin carrying the melody and the bright synth notes that back it up. Yes, the electric guitars become more prominent as the song goes along and an unremarkable drum set keeps time throughout, but but they don’t dominate the sound the way they do in many songs on the airwaves, and their gradual inclusion helps the song to build momentum over time. The mandolin’s bright tone is counterbalanced with regular (but not overwhelming) minor chords, a nicely-tailored blend that pays respect to the narrator’s rough romantic past while also giving the listener the sense that the right person who knows what they ought to will come along. It’s an interesting arrangement that enhances the subject matter while standing out from its peers, which is the approach I wish Wilson and BBR had taken in the first place.

Similarly, Wilson is much better suited to a mature, reasoned take on love than the slimy hookup track she gave us originally. The song present few technical challenges in terms of its range and flow (although Wilson sounds a little rough when forced to drop too low in her vocal range), and while she still doesn’t show a ton of emotion here, it projects an air of experience and quiet confidence rather than the uncaring vibe of “Dirty Looks”this is a narrator who has been on the wrong end of a relationship, who knows what they want out of future pairing, and who is dead-set on finding a partner with the proper prerequisites. (It’s worth nothing that such matter-of-fact stoicism is often considered a masculine trait, which is yet another thing Wilson knows that “a man oughta know.”) It’s a performance that shows enough pain and vulnerability to generate sympathy from the audience, yet also assures the audience that they’re all right and still looking for the right person. Wilson is much better here than on “Dirty Looks,” and hopefully it encourages her team to find more mature material for her in the future.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a narrator who’s been hardened by subpar romantic experiences, and as a result has learned a lot of things about relationships that she demands her eventual partner understand as well (hence the hook “I know a few things a man oughta know”). The song starts by listing off some predictable “country boy” practices (shooting, fishing, etc.), but quickly pivots from physical to emotional maturity to discus relationship maintenance and emergency repair (“How to stay when it’s tough,” “how to fix [the relationship] ‘fore it’s too late,” “how to chase forever down a driveway,” etc.). While not every lesson here is a good one (repressing feelings and “how to keep it hidden when a heart gets broke” is something we should be discouraging, not encouraging), these are the sorts of mature takes on love that we haven’t gotten from the genre lately. I really like how some of the lines show the narrator’s pain rather than just telling us about it (the driveway line is one example, and “I can hang a picture same as I can take it down” indicates that she’s had to do both a few times in the past), although the narrator does get more direct on the “I know a boy who gave up and got it wrong” line. In short, the song gives us both a solid storyline and a lot to think about, another rarity in the shallow, party-hardy era we’ve been rehashing.

“Things A Man Oughta Know” is the debut song I wish Lainey Wilson had released two years ago, featuring the sort of musical and emotional heft that can really engage with listeners. The production sets the right mood and stands out from the crowd, the maturity of the writing stands in stark contrast to the shallow escapism and sticky-sweet love songs we’re constantly subjected to, and Wilson herself delivers a strong performance that encourages me more than “Dirty Looks” disheartened me. This isn’t just a message to the narrator’s future romantic partners, it’s a message to the male-dominated genre: Enough with the paper-thin, dime-a-dozen songs about love and heartbreakinstead, dig a little deeper and bring a little more hard-won wisdom to the writer’s table. To quote Trevor Noah, “if you don’t know, now you know.”

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Lainey Wilson, “Dirty Looks”

A guy walks into a bar and starts making out with his girlfriend, and I should care…why?

Lainey Wilson is a Louisiana native who’s been releasing music for a couple of years now, but only recently jumped aboard a major label when she signed with Broken Bow Records last year. It took BBR over a year to get an EP out, and they’re only now releasing an official single “Dirty Looks” to country radio. After a few listens, it’s pretty apparent why it’s taken them so long for this to come out: Not only is the song yet another unsexy sex jam that brings back memories of the worst of the Metro-Bro era, but it’s also the most boring and pointless song I’ve heard in a while, and utterly fails to justify its existence or its place on the airwaves.

The production here is dominated by a slick, serious feel that doesn’t suit the mood one bit. Instrumentally, this is pretty much the same old generic guitar-and-drum mix that everyone else leans on, but the electric axes that dominate the mix have a few too many coats of varnish on them, and their tone (mixed with the piano and the frequent minor chords) makes the song feel somber, serious, and not at all sensual. The drums may be real, and the acoustic guitar dutifully strums along to help carry the melody, but the whole thing feels lifeless, making the tempo feel even slower than it already is. (There’s also a slight volume balance issue here, as the vocals are a bit too loud compared to the instruments.) It’s a mix that pushes people away rather than draws people in, and puts people to sleep if they listen for too long. Can country producers stop trying to make songs sound sexy already?

I hear a lot of Ashley Monroe in Wilson’s voice, but unfortunately I hear far too much Jason Aldean in her delivery. The song doesn’t really stress Wilson’s range, flow, or power all that much, which is part of the problem: Wilson comes across as a stoic, almost distant narrator, trying to demonstrate how serious her feelings are while demonstrating very little passion or emotion in the process. She isn’t very believable in the role of a grime-loving narrator looking to jump her partner’s bones, and she doesn’t offer any reason for the listener to care or pay attention to her exploits. There’s a hint of a dirty, defiant vibe in her performance (she’s basically saying “I’m going to wallow in your filth and I don’t care who watches”), but it works against her by making her seem insensitive and unsympathetic, making the audience care even less about her behavior. I get the sense from this that she might possibly have the slightest chance of pulling off a song like this, but not when it’s this poorly-executed.

The writing here is the sonic equivalent of a Seinfeld episode: It’s pretty much a song about nothing. The narrator’s partner is all messy from a hard day’s work, so they drink and make out at a bar, and that’s about it. The “dirty looks” hook feels like it’s trying way too hard to be clever, and beyond that, there’s just nothing here: No story, no setting the stage, no setting the mood, no action (heck, even the making out gets nothing but a line or two), nothing. (Given that there are only one-and-a-half verses to this thing, it’s not like there wasn’t room to flesh this whole tale out.) Most of what we get is how annoyed the people around the narrator are about this whole ordeal, and it’s that irritation that gets transferred to the listener more than any passion from the couple. Above all, though, the whole song just feels incredibly pointless: Why should we care how dirty this other person is and how horny it makes you? I’ve got better things to do (and better songs to hear) than listening to these two slobber over each other, and if I still had enough energy to stay awake, I’d use it to turn the dial on this mess.

“Dirty Looks” is appropriately named, because that’s all this song is getting from me. The writing is awful, the production is awkward, and Lainey Wilson sings about passionate romance with all the passion of an someone reading a grocery list. It’s not the worst thing I’ve heard all year, but it’s certainly nothing I care to revisit again, and I don’t see it getting Wilson or BBR the radio traction they’re looking for.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.