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

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

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

Morgan Evans, “Love Is Real”

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

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

Justin Moore, “With A Woman You Love”

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

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

Lee Brice, “Soul”

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

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

Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days”

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

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

Song Review: Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With”

For a “Memory I Don’t Mess With,” Lee Brice certainly whines enough about it.

I called Brice a “wildcard” the last time I talked about him, but he seems to have found a second wind after some stumbles in the mid-2010s, with “One Of Them Girls” eventually becoming his third consecutive No. 1 single despite the fact that it was complete garbage. Now, however, he seems to be aiming for the boring center of the genre, jumping on the recent trend of interchangeable love-lost songs with the follow-up single from Hey World, “Memory I Don’t With.” Even by the mediocre standards of these tracks, this one doesn’t measure up, as neither the sound, the singer, or the writing really capture the melancholy mood they’re aiming for, and only succeed in putting the listener the sleep.

I’m starting to think Nashville is going through a musician shortage right now, because there’s just no variety in the production anymore, and this track is no exception. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: You’ve got your slick electric guitar, barely-there acoustic strumming, and synthetic percussion to open the track, followed by a gradual addition of real drums and some spacious background keyboards in time for the first chorus, and…that’s it. It’s the same old guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is using right now, with its only distinguishing quality being an overly-slick feel to the production (especially the electric guitars) that interface with the emotion of the track and keep it from feeling all that sad or raw (the echoey effects slathered on top of everything don’t help either). The usual dark instrument tones, minor chords, and methodical tempo are all here, but the whole arrangement just seems to run together and offers nothing interesting or movingthe only tears shed by the listener during this track are tears of boredom.

Listening to Brice here is like trying to have a conversation through a plexiglass wall: You can see the other person talking and that they’re feeling something, but you don’t hear or feel much yourself. From a technical standpoint, the performance is fine: Brice’s range and flow are barely tested, and he basically sleepwalks through the whole song. What’s striking is how even-keel the performance soundsthere’s no ramp-up or extra oomph on the chorus, and even when Brice reaches for another gear on a few lines, he doesn’t add any extra vocal power or volume when he does, and he fails to broadcast his emotion to the audience as a result. Worst of all, when the lyrics start to get a little whiny (we’ll get to that), Brice is unable to elevate them to a tolerable level (or even a less-annoying one), and he leaves the narrator felling less sympathetic than they should be. I don’t want to place all the blame on Brice here, but given how poorly he has sold his last few singles (heck, I wasn’t even thrilled with “Boy”), it’s time for him to step up his game.

The writing here tells the story of a heartbroken narrator who can’t bear to “mess with” the memories of a failed relationship. This describes nearly every song I’ve reviewed in the last month or two, so what makes this one so mediocre? There are a couple of issues here:

  • The scenes we get as the narrator cycles through their memories (the beach, the snow, the backseat) are short, disjoint, and jarring, making the verses feel like a laundry list with no common thread.
  • The hook is a lie: The narrator claims that this is a “memory I don’t mess with,” despite the fact that they spend the entire rest of the song doing just that, rehashing the memories in fast-forward during both verses. It makes them feel incredibly disingenuous and hurts their credibility (although it does prove their point that “I’d fall right back with one slip”: That line should be in the present tense, not the past.)
  • Lines like “girl, you just don’t get it” and “don’t hate me, I can’t help it” come across as surprisingly whiny, as if the narrator thinks the other person could never understand why they feel the way they do. Add in the “obsessed” line, and it starts to paint a picture of an unhealthy relationship, and leads the audience to speculate that it was the narrator that caused the relationship’s collapse. (Given that the end of the pairing is never discussed, this shows the danger of leaving so much detail for the listener to fill inthey don’t always fill that hole with what you expect.)

Put it all together, and there’s just no reason to listen to the narrator or care about this story.

The only good thing I can say about “Memory I Don’t Mess With” is that it finally inspired me to come up with a label for this uninspired moment in country music: We’re officially in the “Blandemic” era, and this song is a pretty good poster child for the movement: Lifeless, cookie-cutter production, writing that inspires more apathy than sympathy, and a poor sales job from Lee Brice. It’s as if the entire genre (except Ashley McBryde) has completely run out of ideas, and has devolved into a couple of guys with guitars sniffling about long-lost romances that no one else can be convinced to care about. (We’ve, uh, kinda-sorta got bigger problems right now.) This might actually be a step back from the Cobronavirus era, as these current releases bring none of the energy and don’t contain enough real substance to make up the difference. It’s a depressing time to be a country music fan, and I don’t see a ton of hope on the horizon this year.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t bother messing with this song.

Song Review: Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls”

Oh joy, it’s another one of them songs, isn’t it?

Lee Brice has been a bit of a wildcard in country music over the last few years. For every half-decent song you get out of him like “I Drive Your Truck” or “I Don’t Dance,” you get a garbage track like “Parking Lot Party” or “That Don’t Sound Like You.” His last few songs have been mostly forgettable (“Rumor,” his Carly Pearce collab “I Hope You’re Happy Now”), so we were probably due for a clunker, and we’ve got one in the form of Brice’s new single “One Of Them Girls,” the presumed leadoff single for an upcoming project. Much like Jimmie Allen’s “Make Me Want To” or Dan + Shay’s “10,000 Hours,” this is one of those stories about a pushy guy who just won’t take no for an answer, a Boyfriend-country wannabe who deserves to have his head kicked in by Lorrie Morgan.

The production here is your standard guitar-and-drum mix, one that feels a little to slick for its own good. An amped-up acoustic guitar opens the track, but it steps back in favor of a slick electric sidearm, with a bunch of atmospheric synth tones floating around in the background. The drums got from bass-only to a full set by the first chorus, but that’s pretty much all we get from the arrangement. Despite all the normal instruments, there’s a surprisingly synthetic feel to the mix, and the amount of darkness present in the instrument tones and chord structure doesn’t really mesh with a track that’s trying (and failing) to be some sort of love song. It’s a little like Florida Georgia’s Line “I Love My Country” in that way: The ingredients may be different (and perhaps more natural), but the final product sounds the exact same as any other generic Metropolitan or Boyfriend country track. In the end, it’s an unmemorable sound that leaves little impression on those that hear it.

I’m going to jump to the lyrics next, because they’re so juvenile and infuriating that I want them out of the way as soon as possible. The narrator here is one of those leering creeps who immediately locks on to a woman and won’t leave her alone, and when she says no, the moron assumes that she’s “one of them girls” whose actually wants to be with him and that her ‘no’ will eventually turn to ‘yes’ if he pushes hard enough. I got some advice for you, bro: Back the #$%& off. Your juvenile one-track mind might not believe this, but “no” actually means “no,” and acting like it doesn’t make you look like the slimiest jerk in the room. You antiquated mindset makes the listener actively root against you, and whoever you’re talking too has every right to imprint their knuckles on your nose. How about instead of see the woman’s resistance at a challenge (“Got a wall I gotta knock down”), you take the hint and leave them alone? Frankly, this dude is flat-out disgusting, and the audience is heading for the exits before the track is halfway through.

It would take a strong, highly charismatic artist to make this tire-fire even remotely palatable, and Lee Brice is not that artist. He’s got enough voice to handle the minimal technical demands of the track (although you get the sense that he’s straining to generate the necessary power on the chorus), but instead of coming across as even remotely classy, he sounds like a garden-variety meathead out to get lucky. As bad as the lyrics are, there are a few openings for clearer heads to prevail (“If I’m wrong, then stop me, yeah,” and the whole “I’m one of them boys who’d trade his whole world” bit), but Brice doesn’t put enough feeling behind them to make them feel genuine, and they’re washed away by the next annoying remark. Brice has shown glimpses of likeability in the past and it’s a little bit unfair to hold writing this putrid against him, but at some point you’ve got to take responsibility for your own material, and if Brice recorded it, we’re going to pass judgement on him, and right now he has been found lacking.

“One Of Them Girls” is yet another misguided attempt by country music to sell obsessive coercion as romantic, and it falls just as flat as it usually does. The production is lukewarm and cookie-cutter, the writing is downright nauseating, and Lee Brice gets dragged down into the mud without much of a fight. I’m not interested in listening to a guy trail someone like a bloodhound in heat, and if this is the best Brice can do for a leadoff single, I’d rather see him practice good social distancing and stay six feet away from all microphones from now on.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”

Apparently when you take the twist out of a song, you take all the flavor with it.

Neither Carly Pearce nor Lee Brice have had a particularly smooth go of things for a while. Pearce’s chart peaks have drifted sharply downwards since her #1 debut “Every Little Thing” (her last single “Closer To You” only reached #28 on Billboard’s airplay chart) and while Brice topped the charts with the earache that was “Rumor,” it was his first trip there since 2014. Desperation can lead to strange metaphorical bedfellows, and now Pearce and Brice have unexpectedly teamed up for a new single “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a song that examines the wreckage of a failed relationship and wishes the other party well. It’s the exact same song as Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” minus the vengeful twist at the end of the chorus, but that one subtraction (and the raw emotion associated with it) leave us with a bland, generic track that doesn’t leave anywhere near the impact of its immediate predecessor on this blog.

The production here is much more conventional than Barrett’s pop-leaning mix, but it doesn’t do as good a job setting the proper mood for the song. The foundation is primarily a standard guitar-and-drum affair (although the guitars that drive the melody start acoustic and stay that way), with a prominent dobro providing much of the seasoning as the track goes along. (A keyboard floats around in the background and an electric guitar steps out briefly and unimpressively on the bridge solo, but neither makes much of a contribution here.) The mix shoots for a spacious feel but doesn’t quite get there, and the energy level is just barely enough to keep the song from plodding, and the overall level of polish here gives the song a dull, controlled feel that severely blunts its impact on the listener (even the minor chords aren’t really dark, and just seem to introduce confusion about the narrator’s true feelings). It only kinda-sorta does the job it’s asked to do, and it’s certainly nothing to write home about.

Honestly, I don’t think pairing Pearce and Brice was a terribly good idea. The vocal chemistry is lacking, and their harmony vocals don’t sound good unless Brice really stretches to match Pearce’s upper range (when Pearce goes low, Brice just bottoms out and disappears). Similarly (and despite Brice’s best Marty Raybon impression), until they really start bringing some power to bear on the choruses, both artists come across as a bit nonchalant on their deliveries, as if the loss of the relationship really doesn’t bother them (which really sounds awkward when the chorus ends and the production immediately jumps to a minor chord). They’re certainly believable when they wish each other the best, but they just don’t seem all that hurt by the breakup, making the audience wonder if the other person really meant that much to them. Where Barrett brought an edge and an attitude to her song, Pearce and Brice bring a restraint and a casualness to the performance that simply isn’t as memorable or interesting, and the listener forgets that the pair even collaborated by the time the next song starts playing.

The lyrics here just feel lukewarm to me: Two people get together, one decides to go in a different direction and breaks things off, and both parties declare that they “hope you’re happy now.” The artists’s casual approach to the tune makes it seem like the breakup was mutual, but the lyrics tell a very different story: One person accepts the blame and says it was for the best, while the other expresses disbelief at the pairing’s termination. This feels like a very public split where everyone’s saying the right things and not getting too worked up over the incident, but there’s very little emotion in the writing, and it makes the relationship come across more like a business partnership than a romance. Outside of the “don’t know why it’s called a goodbye” line, there’s nothing particularly clever here, and the platitudes offered by both protagonists are a generic as you’d expect them to be. I think the writers were aiming for some emotion here, but they didn’t go far enough, and as a result it gets buried by the indifferent performances of everyone else involved.

In the end, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” doesn’t do anything besides exist, and its justification for such existence is lukewarm at best. The sound is too safe and stock, Carly Pearce and Lee Brice demonstrate zero interest in each other, and the writing doesn’t shout loud enough to make anyone pay attention. This is inferior not only to Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” but to Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell’s “What Happens In A Small Town” as well. I sincerely hope that Pearce and Brice are happy now, because if they aren’t, I doubt this song will change their mood.

Rating: 5/10. If you’re looking for a song like this, there are better options available.

Song Review: Lee Brice, “Rumor”

…You know what, I’m going to let Grumpy Cat handle this one:

While Lee Brice has been around longer than you might think (his debut single came out over a decade ago), he’s never really progressedprogressed beyond the ‘hit-or-miss single’ stage. For every song he releases that makes you think “Yeah, I could get behind this” (“I Drive Your Truck,” “I Don’t Dance”), he releases another that makes your stomach turn (“Parking Lot Party,” “That Don’t  Sound Like You”). Now, four years removed from his last hit single, Brice is back to test our ears with “Rumor,” the second single from his recent self-titled album. It’s the sonic equivalent of a missed chip-shot field goal: The sound and writing put Brice is a solid position to succeed, but he manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and we’re ultimately left with this off-putting snorefest as a result.

The production has more of a bluesy feel than you’ll usually find on country radio. The song opens with a blend of Wurlitzer piano, electric guitar, and steel guitar that blends together way better than it has any right to, with a booming drum set giving the track a strong foundation. There are a few other instruments floating around in the background (an acoustic guitar and even an organ), they’re really just there to fill in the gaps in what turns out to be a spacious, reflective mix with a fairly chill vibe. However, while the track’s lack of energy is intentional, its utter lack of groove probably wasn’t, and as a result the track feels more run-of-the-mill than standout. It seems to flow a bit too easily in one ear and out the other, and doesn’t leave much of an impression on the listener after it’s done. It’s a decent sound that complements the writing well; I just wish it had done a bit more to grab my attention.

I don’t like pinning the failings of a track directly on the artist, but the truth is that Brice is the main reason this song just doesn’t work for me. Technically, his performance is fine: His vocal have a “Stapleton-lite” feel to them, his range suits the track well, and he does an impressive job handling the parts of the lyrics that try to cram too many syllables into a line. The problem is that a song like this one, which tries to entice/push someone into a romantic relationship with the narrator, requires a strong vocalist with enough charisma to keep the whole thing from feeling slimy, and Brice fails surprisingly hard on this count. Even when the lyrics give him the opportunity to say otherwise, Brice’s delivery gives us the clear impression that he’d really like this relationship to go forward, and thus when he says he’s willing to dispel this romantic rumor, he comes across as neither earnest nor believable. A better artist (say, Darius Rucker) would have been able to elevate this track and make it feel a bit more on the level, but Brice sounds like just another bro trying to pick up a date, and it’s not a great look for him.

The main reason I’m so hard on Brice here is that the writing gives him several explicit opportunities to take a step back and consider the feelings of the other person. The song’s premise is that there is a “Rumor” going around implying that the narrator and the person he addresses/dances with are in a romantic relationship, and the pair is pondering how to respond to this accusation. While I’m not overly impressed by the narrator’s calls to make this rumor a reality (“tell me why we’re even trying to deny this feeling/I feel, don’t you feel it too?” feels a little too pushy for my tastes), the writers seem to recognize the optics of the situation and built in some course corrections on the verses and bridge:

Well I can shut ’em down, tell them all they’re crazy
I can do whatever you want me to do, baby

Oh be honest girl now
Do you want to do this or not?
Should we keep them talking, girl
Or should we just make them stop?

There are some other unrelated issues with the writing (as mentioned earlier, they try cramming too many many words into a line on several occasions), but they at least went out of their way to try and make the song more conscious of the other person’s feelings. This make Brice’s failure to transmit these concerns via his performance a lot more glaring.

I believe there’s a good song somewhere inside “Rumor,” but it’s a track best suited for a more-charismatic artist. I noted during my review of “Boy” that I just wasn’t moved to feel the emotion that Lee Brice was shooting for, and while I wondered if the issue was his or mine at the time, he subsequent failure to elevate this track (despite the production and writing’s best efforts) makes me conclude that he’s just not a strong enough singer to handle this sort of material. Shoulda-woulda-coulda aside, we can only judge the track we’re given, and what we’ve been given is nothing but radio filler.

Rating: 5/10. Yet another mediocre track that’s not worth going out of your way to hear.

Song Review: Lee Brice, “Boy”

When I listen to Lee Brice’s “Boy,” I can’t help but feel like something’s missing. The question is, which one of us is missing something, Brice or me?

I’ve had mixed feelings about Brice’s singles in the past: For every enjoyable track like “I Drive Your Truck” or “I Don’t Dance,” there’s a clunker like “Parking Lot Party” or “That Don’t Sound Like You.” “Boy” is Brice’s first new release in two years and serves as the leadoff single for his upcoming album, and it’s been getting some pretty decent critical buzz, even from the country traditionalist crowd. To my ears, however, the song is lacking that one critical piece that keeps it from resonating with me, and ends up sounding just okay as a result.

The production is incredibly sparse and restrained, with only an acoustic and electric guitar to carry the melody and a quiet (real) drum set keeping time. Despite the presence of a steel guitar that provides some background tones and a nice instrumental on the bridge, there’s a distinctly modern tone to the instruments here: The electric guitar is moody instead of meaty, and the snare drum sounds about as synthetic as a real drum can get. However, the mix succeeds in setting a calm, reflective tone that is easy on the ears while also matching the song’s subject matter very well. It’s easily the best part of the song.

I wouldn’t call Brice the strongest vocalist in the world, but he really seems to struggle on this song. He runs into trouble a few times on the verses when the song seems to drop below his range, but when he tries to infuse some power into his performance during the choruses and bridge, his delivery becomes labored and his voice sounds more hoarse and raspy than usual (thankfully, he doesn’t quite reach Kip Moore levels of raspiness). While Brice has delivered some charismatic, believable performances on his past material, he doesn’t quite reach the level of earnestness needed here to really sell the track, and he doesn’t compare favorably to his competition (Zac Brown sings circles around Brice on “My Old Man”). While Brice’s performance here is still passable, it detracts from the sort of impact the song is trying to make.

The lyrics of “Boy” depict a father telling his newborn son what to expect from his life in the future, and touching on the cycle from being a boy to being the father of one. While the writing features some confusing lines (if the kid is supposedly an infant, can you really tell him that “That fire in your eyes is twenty counties wide” and “you weren’t built for backing down?”), it’s a nice story overall and a huge step up from the lyrics of a lot of songs on the radio today. However, the song is obviously aiming for an emotional reaction (either via nostalgia or current experience), and while it might hit a parent right in the feels, it completely misses the mark for anyone else. This is where my initial “missing” question comes into play: As a childless adult, I’m know I supposed to feel all mushy and sentimental when I hear this song, but…well, I just don’t. Is this because Brice doesn’t do enough to covey the song’s emotion, or because I simply don’t have the life experience to properly relate to the song? In the end, unfortunately, it’s Brice who pays the price for not connecting with his audience, regardless of the reasons why.

Overall, “Boy” is a decent song, but your mileage may vary based on your own experience. If you’ve raised a son, or are currently raising a son, this song will probably move you. If you haven’t, well, it’s still above-average compared to the rest of the songs on the radio today, but it’s nothing special.

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