Song Review: LANco, “What I See”

“What I See” is a lazy attempt at a nostalgia trip.

LANco had a modest showing with their Hallelujah Nights album, earning a #1 with “Greatest Love Story” and cracking the Top Twenty with “Born To Love You” last year. Ever since then, however, the group has struggled to find its footing in the genre, starting with its unnecessarily-angry single “Rival,” which was so toxic that it barely made the Billboard airplay chart at all (while also comfortably assuring itself a spot on my “worst of 2019” list coming next month). The group is back now to try to make amends with their latest single “What I See,” but frankly this thing isn’t much of an improvement from their last single. It’s a generic laundry list of rural tropes tied loosely together by the narrator’s uninteresting past, while a sprinkle of Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know” thrown in to declare that outsiders just won’t get it. The truth is that we’ve already gotten everything here that there is to get, and it wasn’t worth getting in the first place.

The good news here is that the band has abandoned the loud, in-your-face bravado of “Rival” in favor of the more-restrained sound from “Greatest Love Story” rode to fame in the first place. Gone are “the hard-rock electric guitars, spacious choral ‘whoa-ohs,’ and in-your-face drums” that dominated “Rival,” and instead we get the return of the acoustic guitar, dobro, and the buried-under-audio-effects drum set that defined the group’s earlier sound…at least for a verse or two. The choruses feel a bit more conventionally constructed, with the drums brought back up from underwater, some electric guitars added to the background, and even (sigh) a token banjo rolling on through. It’s a welcome return to form, and at least the warmer, brighter instrument tones match the shade of the narrator’s rose-colored glasses as they look back on their small-town life. (The mix also gives ample room for the lyrics to breathe, which would have been awesome if the lyrics were actually worth listening to.) That said, the mix plods a bit more than I expected, and overall it just seems to exist, doing little to entice the listener into paying attention to the track. It’s a step in the right direction, but I was hoping for a larger one.

I’m really torn on lead single Brandon Lancaster’s performance here. On one hand, he doesn’t sound terribly good: The song keeps him trapped mostly in his lower register, and he sounds unexpectedly flat and toneless as he works his way through the verses. (The song really needs to be kicked up a key or two to give him more room to stretch his vocal chords.) On the other hand, however, Lancaster rediscovers some of the charisma that he misplaced before recording “Rival,” and brings enough earnestness to the table to not only be believable in the narrator’s role, but also to impress upon the audience the importance of their hometown and how much they love it. (Sadly, one again the rest of the band proves that their talents are as instrumentalists rather than backup vocalists, as their harmony work is utterly replaceable here.) The biggest problem, however, is that rather than agree with the narrator’s assessment of their situation, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy: They’re looking back on glory days that will never return, and are basically trying to delude themselves into thinking they’re okay with that. Couple that with the hint of attitude shown when discussing how invalid other people’s views are, and…yeah, I gave up caring about the dude halfway through the song.

The lyrics serve as a verbal tour through the narrator’s hometown, discussing the brief moments of glory they had in days gone by. I’ve never been a fan of backwards-looking drivel like this, and I’ve got some serious problems with this particular piece:

  • For on thing, the small town we’re shown could not be more generic if it tried to be: High school football fields, two-lane roads, late-night parking lots, American flags… Basically, this is the same run-of-the-mill rural community that we’ve heard about in hundreds of country songs over the years, and by trying to describe everything, the lyrics really end up describing nothing at all.
  • Also, the narrator isn’t describing the town as it is, he’s describing the town as it was, back when they were young and full of promise. There’s no mention of the present, however, which gives the listener the sense that we’re really dealing with a corroding shell of a community whose only value these days is sentimental. By not giving us any sense of what they’re doing now, the narrator gives off the vibe that they’re in the same spot as the town: Stuck in the past with nothing but the memories of what was to comfort them. Honestly, the narrator’s reminds me a lot of the won’t-grow-up main character from Kelsea Ballerini’s “High School,” and the listener is left wanting to slap them and tell them to get over themselves.
  • Finally, I can’t stand the narrator’s attitude towards the rest of the world, defiantly proclaiming that their delusions are real and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong (“Can’t nobody take that from me/See what you want but this is what I see”). It’s the sort of thing Aldean tried to pull with “They Don’t Know,” and it just leaves the narrator looking like an unsympathetic jerk. (The flag section on the bridge is especially galling, giving off the rank odor that they think other people don’t love their country as much as they do.) Bro, you need to make like Elsa from Frozen and let it go.

The best thing I can say about “What I See” is that it’s better than “Rival,” and even then I don’t expect this nonsense to land much higher on my year-end song list. It’s a generic ode to a mythical place that disappeared decades ago, and much like the current state of LANco’s career, there’s no sense of hope for the future. The sound is meh, the writing is pathetic, and the vocals convey nothing but a sense of blind loyalty. I don’t know what LANco and their team saw in this song, but “What I See” is a waste of my time.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: LANco, “Rival”

If being against LANco makes me a “Rival,” then just call me Gary Oak.

I’m starting to notice a disturbing trend in country music: Artists are stepping up to the mic with a palpable “f*ck you” mentality, releasing a bunch of pent-up anger and declaring that one day their enemies will suffer a grim fate, as if they were a child lashing out after being bullied one too many times. Anger can be a powerful force in music if it feels justified or at least understandable (see: “Rearview Town”), but most of the rage I’m hearing now feels baseless and excessive, with artists swearing at shadows and drawing bright red lines between themselves and their supposed haters. I’ve heard it on awful tracks like “REDNECKER,” “The Bull,” and “God’s Country,” and now LANco is trying to add their name to the list with “Rival,” the presumed-leadoff single for the sophomore album. I say “trying” because this song is the weakest attitude song I’ve heard in a while, with neither the sound nor the singers bothering to match the passionate defiance of the writing, and the whole thing feels like a hollow shell of an angry song that no one wanted to hear anyway.

The production is the least impressive effort I’m heard from LANco thus far, as they scrap the acoustic/retro style that helped distinguish them from their peers for a generic, conventional sound that’s indistinguishable from the rest of the genre. The song opens with the acoustic guitar and banjo that you would expect from the group, but the hard-rock electric guitars, spacious choral “whoa-ohs,” and in-your-face drums quickly jump in, drowning out the acoustic guitar and making the banjo as token as one from a Florida Georgia Line track. (Oh, and the producer felt the need to throw in a bunch of repeated phrases slathered in vocal effects, which are more annoying than anything else.) Despite all the noise in the mix and the attitude in the lyrics, however, the producer makes the bizarre decision not to lean into the anger and instead relies on brighter tones for the sonic foundation, making the song sound more like a recycled Bro-Country party track  than a chest-pounding “come at me bro” statement. While it’s admittedly the lesser of two evils in this situation, this discrepancy in the “what” and “how” of the track leaves the listener wondering what the fuss is all about, not to mention wondering why they should bother to pay attention in the first place. The whole thing winds up as nothing more than a wall of noise, offering empty sonic calories for those crazy enough to care.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of lead singer Brandon Lancaster, but this has got to be his worst performance to date. Whatever charisma and earnestness he showed off on “American Love Story” and “Born To Love You” is tossed out the window for a placid performance that feels way more monotonic and mailed-in than it should. (Seriously, we have to wait until the closing line of the second chorus before Lancaster proves he has a pulse and starts to put some feeling behind his delivery.) His range and flow are enough to keep the track moving, but he’s equal parts unsympathetic and unconvincing in the role of a swaggering, my-way-or-the-highway narrator, and his performance pushes his audience away rather than drawing them to his side. (For their part, the rest of the band doesn’t provide a whole lot of cover with their run-of-the-mill harmony work.) Lancaster and LANco should probably stick to the Dan + Shay lane and lean on slower, emotion-laden ballads, because trying to be some weird hybrid of Florida Georgia Line and HARDY doesn’t suit them at all.

Lyrically, the song features yet another loud, aggrieved narrator who’s just itching to throw some shade at their faceless haters because they’re supposedly going straight to the top, and if you aren’t with them, you’re against them:

I rumble, and I roar
I’m winning, I ain’t even keeping score
It’s a movement, a revival
And if you ain’t with me, you’re the rival

First of all, given that unimpressive #18 airplay peak from your last single, you might want some Ex-Lax to get that movement going again. Second of all, who are these haters and why are they hating on you? The narrator claims that they stand for something and that people oppose them, but they never actually tell us what or who that is, hoping that the listener can fill in the blank with their own experience. Instead, the protagonist wastes their time ranting into the void, declaring that “I’ma get the last laugh” and that “you can shut your mouth” if you don’t agree with them. Their needless fight-picking, laser-focus on their enemies, unjustified grievances, and over-the-top declarations of victory just make the guy sound bitter, unconvincing, and even a little unhinged, and the audience spends most of the track slowly backing towards the exit, hoping to escape before the song finishes.

“Rival” is nothing more than a bad song executed badly, featuring an angry, aggressive narrator than neither the producer nor LANco seems terribly committed to following. What’s more unnerving to me, however, is the trend this junk represents: There’s a lot of anger in the world right now, and people are looking to emphasize their differences and lash out at anyone who they think isn’t part of the home team. Nashville doesn’t push its chips to the center of the table like this unless it’s confident there’s a market for its product, and with “Kumbaya” songs falling out of favor (has anyone else noticed that “Love Wins” seems to have stalled on the Mediabse charts?), 2019 is fast becoming a year of drawing lines, picking sides, and flaunting your purity and superiority. I don’t like this trend, and I don’t like this song.

Rating: 3/10. Nope.

Song Review: LANco, “Born To Love You”

Oops, wrong song:

I wasn’t completely sold on LANco’s debut single “Greatest Love Story,” but the track caught the ear of enough listeners to top the country charts last December and spur the release of the group’s Hallelujah Nights album last month. For their follow-up single “Born To Love You,” however, the group has taken a strikingly different direction with their sound, moving from their minimal, acoustic-based debut to an more-affected style that sounds more like 60s pop than anything else. While it’s a clear step up sonically from “Greatest Love Story,” the rest of the track doesn’t quite measure up.

The biggest thing that defines the production is the fuzzy, fainly-echoing filter that covers every instrument here (including the vocals), giving the song a distinctly retro feel. The eclectic instrument choices further this old-school feel: The track opens with a sitar-esque swell, fills time between verses with a vibraphone and a higher-pitched string instrument (is that a hammered dulcimer?), and backs the mix with a rhythmic, era-appropriate guitar and driving bass/snare drum combo. The only modern-sounding instrument here is a bright electric guitar that provides an intro solo and some general atmosphere. The mix does a nice job of building energy and momentum as it progresses, and its judicious use of minor chords adds just enough seriousness to the otherwise-happy track to hint at the depths the narrator had sunk to. In summary, it’s unique, it’s well-executed, and it’s surprisingly catchy.

I’m still not a huge fan of lead singer Brandon Lancaster (he’s as poor an enunciator as there is on the radio today), but his lack of vocal clarity suits the track’s low-fi vibe, and he has a knack for portraying younger, going-nowhere narrators who are saved by love. The song is not a technically-demanding one (Lancaster’s range and flow are barely tested here), but it requires someone with enough charisma to make the listener feel the narrator’s wonder and appreciation for the woman in his life. Much like Alan Jackson feels uniquely qualified to handle the role of an older, reminiscent voice, Lancaster has the necessary blend of youth and gravitas to take on the narrator’s role and declare that he’s already found his life’s calling and doesn’t need to go searching for it. (It’s also worth noting that the harmonies are pretty decent here, as they give off a slight “Lennon and McCarthy” vibe that matches the production’s retro styling.) I wouldn’t call this a great vocal performance, but it’s decent enough to do the job.

Lyrically, this song is basically “Greatest Love Story, Part 2,” albeit with less backstory and more world-building. I criticized LANco’s debut single for “using broad, bland imagery” and for not including “enough detail to really hit home for a lot of people,” and while “Born To Love You” improves a bit on that second complaint, it actually doubles down on the first issue by describing its dead-end small town in the most generic, overused terms possible (Trees! Trains! Churches! Football!). It’s not all bad, however, as the narrator tries to use the town as a foil: He doesn’t care that he’s stuck in the most boring corner of Small Town, USA, because he’s found his significant other, and by gosh, that’s all that matters! In the end, however, the writing falls into the same trap as its predecessor: It’s just not that interesting of a story, and it doesn’t stick with the listener.

When it all sugars off, I think “Born To Love You” is a better song than “Greatest Love Story,” but it’s not that much better. The production is really the only compelling thing about this track, as the vocals are just passable and the lyrics are outright sleep-inducing. I will, however, give credit to LANco for one thing: They reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Collie back in the day.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to gauge your reaction.

Song Review: LANco, “American Greatest Love Story”

Only a select few can wear the title of The Greatest: Ali, Jordan, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, etc. No offense to LANco, but the song formerly known as “American Love Story” hasn’t quite earned the rights to its new name.

LANco has been around for a few years, but doesn’t have a lot of released material to show for it (basically one-and-a-half EPs, given how much material the second cannibalized from the first). The group’s biggest claim to fame up to now was having this song featured in a Netflix TV show, as their first single “Long Live Tonight” topped out at a paltry #32 on Billboard’s airplay chart. “Greatest Love Story” is the group’s second attempt at chart success, and while I think the title oversells the track a little bit (“Slightly Above-Average Love Story” would have been more appropriate), it’s nice to know that cheesy romantic ballads finally appear to have a place on the radio again.

The song’s production is surprisingly minimalist and mostly made up of acoustic elements (guitars, drums, and a slow-rolling banjo), with a light, bright electric guitar giving the song some spacious atmosphere during the choruses. (The use of the banjo here deserves special praise, as it feels like an integral part of the production rather than a token ‘country’ instrument like on Bro-Country tracks.) The tempo and tone of the mix do a good job matching the lyrical content, and the whole thing is actually plenty pleasant to listen to.

While I wasn’t exactly bowled over by lead singer Brandon Lancaster’s vocals (he reminds me a little of Train frontman Pat Monahan), he does a good job capturing the youthful spirit of the song’s narrator. The song’s construction keeps Lancaster well within him comfort zone, but also keeps him from showcasing whatever range or flow he might have. Thankfully, he has enough vocal charisma to come across as sincere and believable, which allows him to sell the song’s story.

The story itself, however, is a little vague and generic, and the lyrics fall into a common trap for romantic ballads like these: Using broad, bland imagery in an attempt to connect with as many people as possible, at the cost of being too shallow to leave any real impact on the listener. The tale of young lovers separating and eventually rekindling their love is as old as time itself, and while it’s kinda-sorta d’awww-inducing, it just doesn’t include enough detail to really hit home for a lot of people. The song is all breadth and no depth, and is overly reliant on Lancaster’s salesmanship to draw in listeners.

Overall, “Greatest Love Story” isn’t really all that great or memorable, but it’s okay, and that’s all that it needs to be for now. There’s enough here to suggests LANco has some future potential, and I’m curious to see whether radio picks up on this one or leaves it behind.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen or two to see how it makes you feel.