Song Review: Chayce Beckham & Lindsay Ell, “Can’t Do Without Me”

I was kind of hoping country music would make a New Year resolution to avoid songs like this…

Chayce Beckham is a California native whose claim to fame is winning season 19 of American Idol last year, debuting a few original songs such as “23” (no, not that “23”) and winning a record deal from 19 Recordings. “23” was released as a digital download but not as a radio single; instead, 19 jumped on the collaboration trend and brought in Canadian artist Lindsay Ell (whose only stateside success was on the Brantley Gilbert collab “What Happens In A Small Town”) for yet another attempt at a country sex jam with “Can’t Do Without You.” I’ve been pleading with country music to knock it off with these songs for a while now, and this one is no better than all the others, with a sound too dark and ominous to feel sexy and two performances that are too weak and cookie-cutter to feel deep and passionate.

The production here is a slight extension of the typical guitar-and-drum formula, but its main failure is that it just doesn’t set a proper mood for the writing. The electric guitars, drums, and keyboards are the same ones you hear on every track right now, right down to their darker tones and the ominous atmosphere they create, but there’s a steel guitar that gets enough screen time to leave its mark on the mix (also its influence seems to wane as the track goes on). The slightly-faster tempo is at least an attempt to create a sense of anticipation for the lovemaking that the narrators are working towards, but I’ve never liked how country producers try to use danger as a substitute for actual emotion and passion, and as a result that song just doesn’t have the sensual feel that it needs to succeed. Additionally, even when compared to a rawer-but-mediocre track like Cole Swindell and Lainey Wilson’s “Never Say Never,” the mix here lacks the edge or punch to drive home its message and sell its attempt at sexiness, and thus the audience is unmoved by the story or the sound. I really wish that this genre would either find a new formula for sex jams or just walk away and leave them to the professionals, because I don’t see this drivel getting anyone in the mood.

I would describe Beckham’s voice as Lee Brice with a bit of Gilbert’s raspiness sprinkled in, and while neither he nor Ell run into any technical issues on the track, there’s something missing that keeps the pair from connecting with their audience. There’s urgency in their delivery, but there’s also a lack of power and emphasis that makes their lines feel more muted and restrained than they should. It’s like there’s a pane of glass between the singers and the listener: You get a sense of the narrators’ passion, but neither Beckham nor Ell can break through and really make you feel it, and you’re left with two people who are both incredibly horny and incredibly uninteresting. The vocal chemistry between the two artists is “meh” at best, and Ell in particular seems stuck in a lower range that keeps her from applying whatever power and emotion she might have. (Back in my “Criminal” review, I said that Ell’s “effective range is incredibly limited, especially on the lower end, and her voice lacks tone and power on the verses and bridge as a result,” and while she took a step forward on “I Don’t Love You,” she falls back into the same trap here.) I think finding a different duet partner instead of trying to cram Ell’s voice into Beckham’s range would have been a better play, but honestly neither artist acquits themselves well here, and the song does little more than exist because of it.

The lyrics here boil down to two people who just want to get together and have sex, nothing more and nothing less. The songs uses evocative phrases like “burning up them sheets” and leans on fire-and-lightning imagery to create a sense of danger, but they do little to make the song feel sensual—these are just two people looking for a quick release rather than anything emotional or meaningful. Heck, the song never gives us the sense that these people are even in love at all—the word doesn’t actually appear in the lyrics! Strangely enough, we don’t get to see the release either, as the song is all anticipation but no climax: The narrators say they can’t wait to do things, but they never actually get to do those things. Instead, we’re abruptly cut off at the hook with “doing all those things that you can’t do without me.” This track suffers from a lot of the issues we’ve documented in recent love songs: It comes across as impulsive and ephemeral instead of deep and everlasting, and it’s based purely on physical attraction instead of an emotional connection that suggests that this is part of a larger romance. You’ve heard this sort of song a million time before, and this ones adds nothing to the conversation.

“Can’t Do Without Me” is yet another misguided and failed attempt by country music to a) create a sensual sex jam that actually feels sensual and sexy, and b) to debut a new promising artist to the general public. Chayce Beckham isn’t the incredible vocal talent that Carrie Underwood or Scotty McCreery is, but you can’t win American Idol without having something that resonates with the people, and songs like “23” indicate that the man is capable of creating and telling deeper and more-personal stories. Instead, Beckham gets shoved into a one-size-fits-all mold by the Nashville machine, paired with Lindsay Ell with little regard for how they sound together, and is made to sing a boring song that conforms neatly to the country music meta without doing anything to push or change it. It’s not really the way I wanted to start 2022, but I suppose we’ve still got twelve months to convince Music City to change (or at least slightly alter) their ways.

Rating: 5/10. You can live without hearing this one.

Song Review: Lindsay Ell, “Want Me Back”

I guess it’s good that someone wants Lindsay Ell back, because country music doesn’t seem terribly interested in her.

Ell finally managed to find some success south of her Canadian homeland through her collaboration with Brantley Gilbert “What Happens In A Small Town,” but she wasn’t able to build off of the momentum, and her follow-up “I Don’t Love You” crashed and burned at #48 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, Ell has returned to the arena with the second single from her upcoming Heart Theory album “wAnt me back” (what’s up with all these weirdly-stylized titles in this genre lately?), a confident kiss-off track that unfortunately lacks the punch and emotion it needs to stand its ground and hold its audience. It’s exactly the sort of forgettable track that Ell doesn’t need right now as she tries to keep her foothold in the US market.

The production is the sort of unabashedly pop mix I would associate more with Kelsea Ballerini or Danielle Bradbery, and it doesn’t feel like a great fit for the song. It opens with a slick electric guitar and prominent drum machine, and relies on these to anchor the arrangement as more instruments are added (which boil down to more guitars and some real drums). The dark guitar tones and cold, clinical feel of the percussion give the song a strange feel that is both serious and dispassionate: The narrator acknowledges the depth of the other person’s regret, but really doesn’t seem to care about it. It’s about as generic and sterile as a stereotypical guitar-and-drum can get, and it doesn’t generate any strong emotions that the listener can grab hold of (even the guitar solo is okay at best, yet again wasting Ell’s six-string prowess). The listener feels absolutely nothing when they hear this song, and that’s the last thing an artist or producer wants.

The production’s failure to launch puts all of the responsibility on Ell to inject some life into the song, but her performance is just as measured and uninteresting as the sound. Her technical skills are fine (she covers the range, flow, and power requirements without issue), but it feels like a “necessary, but not sufficient” situation. She brings a bit more volume and intensity on the choruses, but there’s no feeling behind it: No righteous anger at her ex’s behavior that the audience can piggyback on, no smirking schadenfreude to let the audience revel in the ex’s suffering, nothing but a matter-of-fact declaration of understanding why the ex feels the way they do. While Ell is still believable in the narrator’s role (some people move on and set their feelings aside faster than others), it’s the emotional angle that draws people into the story, and the lack of feeling here leaves the audience asking why they should care about the story in the first place.

The writing is actually decent, but “decent” isn’t enough to hide the flaws we’ve already discussed. The narrator is responding to being confronted by an ex-partner who wants to restart a failed relationship, declaring that they understand and that “if I were you, I’d want me back too.” The writers do a fair amount right here: They clearly establish that the ex is the villain (“always wanting what you can’t have,” “think of what we could’ve been
If you’d have just tried,” etc.), imbue the narrator with a lot of confidence (“I’m the best you ever had and I’m always gonna be”), and even leave a few hooks for the singer to inject some real feeling into the tune (lines like “Dammit, we were so good then/Think of what we could’ve been” would have been the perfect place for Ell’s to add a frustrated edge to her delivery). Still, there are definitely holes here, the biggest being that the original relationship is never explored beyond sexual attraction (“bet that hotel bed ain’t never been the same”), making the listener wonder if this was a meaningful relationship or just an extended hookup. Overall, however, the writers did enough to give Ell and her producer the opportunity to make this a better song, and its main problem is that neither bothered to take it.

In the end, “Want Me Back” is little more than radio filler, something to pass the time while waiting for a better song to come along. It had the potential to be that better song, but it get squandered thanks to boring, sterile production and a lack of emotion from Lindsay Ell herself. It’s a step backwards from “I Don’t Love You,” and I don’t see it being the narrative-changer (at least not stateside) that Ell really needs right now. If she wants country music to want her back, she’ll need to release more compelling material than this in the future.

Rating: 5/10. Feel free to let this one pass you by.

Song Review: Lindsay Ell, “I Don’t Love You”

I’ll be darned—is Lindsay Ell not going to squander her momentum like I expected?

For a Canadian artist trying to gain traction on U.S. radio, Ell has been shoveling some serious garbage into our ears recently (“Criminal,” “Champagne”). However, a surprisingly-solid collaboration with Brantley Gilbert (I wouldn’t call “What Happens In A Small Town” a great song, but it might be the best thing either Ell or Gilbert has ever done) earned Ell a Billboard #1 and a bit of buzz for her post-The Project plans. Based on her past output, I figured whatever came next from Ell wouldn’t be much to write home about, but instead we “I Don’t Love You,” a decent performance with some actual feeling and vulnerability behind it (and a song that actually plays to Ell’s strengths as a vocalist). In the wake of her duet success, this just might be enough to finally allow Ell to break through the American radio blockade.

There isn’t a lot to the production on this track: You’ve got your standard guitar trifecta (the acoustic handling the verses, the electric providing some chorus support and offering a lukewarm bridge solo, and a steel floating around deep in the background weakly trying to generate some atmosphere), a real drum set that starts out underwater but slowly emerges from a sea of audio effects as the song goes on, and that’s pretty much it. The song is a study in effective contradictions: The instrument tones aren’t particularly dark here, but the mix still sets a somber tone that accentuates the writing, and despite the total lack of power and energy (warning: slow 3/4 waltz time alert!), the song keeps pushing forward and never bogs down. (I’m sad that we don’t get to hear much guitar wizardry from Ell here, but she and her producer recognized that a sizzling solo just wouldn’t have fit the mood here.) It’s a less-is-more, do-your-job arrangement that does exactly what it needs to do to support the other components here.

I’m still not terribly impressed by Ell as a vocalist, but all the negatives I cited in my “Champagne” review are turned into positives this time around:

  • “Her effective range is incredibly limited, especially on the lower end, and her voice lacks tone and power on the verses and bridge as a result.” This is still true, but the narrator is a struggling ex instead of a wannabe sultry partner, and Ell’s breathy delivery and lack of low-end power adds to the sense of weariness and struggle that the character projects, and she is much more believable in the role as a result.
  • “…her delivery comes off as far too serious for the subject matter.” It’s a lot harder to sound “too serious” when you’re in the throes of post-breakup longing.
  • “She tries to give the narrator a ‘sultry temptress’ quality, but she just doesn’t have the charisma to make it stick.” She sticks the landing this time, however, because she brings a real feeling of emotional vulnerability to the track. The narrator has an abundance of loneliness and a dearth of romantic feelings, and Ell does a great job balancing the two and selling the role to the audience. (She repeats “I don’t love you” three times per chorus, but instead of making the listener say “the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” the lines feel more like a mantra to keep her focus on the fact that getting back together would be the wrong decision.)

I’m still not completely sold on Ell, but now I’ll at least admit that she can thrive in the right situation.

The lyrics might be my favorite part of the song because unlike Billy Currington’s “Details,” the writers here actually care about the details! The narrator here is spending their newly-found free time using the things around them as touchstone to remember a failed relationship, and has to consciously fight back the urge to rekindle a connection that was no longer truly there. The verses do a great job setting the scene and segueing seamlessly between topics, and give the audience a vivid picture of what life was like both then and now. The narrator seems exceptionally self-aware here, acknowledging that being alone is hard to adapt to but also realizing that reconnecting with the other person is a short-term fix that won’t really address the problem. (The only complaint I can offer is that by constantly insisting that the narrator doesn’t love the other person, the writing is heavily reliant on the artists’ charisma to convince the audience that yes, they really mean it.) Overall, this is a well-crafted song that leaves  enough hooks that the artist and producer can latch onto to elevate the track.

“I Don’t Love You” is yet another example of how female artists are dominating country music from a quality standpoint (a fact that my year-end song rankings will drive home in a few weeks). The writing is fairly strong, and while it’s a bit high-risk/high-reward, Lindsay Ell defied my expectations provides solid vocals and gets decent production support to clear the bar with room to spare. This probably won’t make my “best of the year” list, but it’s a song I wouldn’t mind hearing more on the radio, and makes me a bit more interested in where Ell will go from here.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a shot and see what you think.

Song Review: Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell, “What Happens In A Small Town”

“What happens in a small town stays in a small town”…unless it gets the chance to wreck my year-end schedule. 😐

Just when I thought I had finished all of my reviews for 2018, Mediabase decided to troll me by suddenly tossing two songs that had been camping in the top five into the recurrent pile, leaving an opening for Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell to sneak into the Top 50. Neither artist has had much luck on the airplay charts lately (Gilbert’s “The Ones That Like Me” only made it to #15, while Ell saw “Criminal” stall at #19 and “Champagne” miss the chart completely), so the two decided to join forces on “What Happens In A Small Town,” a lament to the memories that linger in a place after the people have moved on. It’s a song that plows the same old tired ground as a number of recent singles, and while there’s really nothing new here that demands your attention, at least the execution is better than I expected.

After some of the halfhearted and ill-fitting mixes I’ve heard recently, it’s nice to hear production with some punch behind it for a change. While on some level this is the same old guitar-and-drum mixture everyone else uses (there’s also a piano floating around in the background), at least the guitars are given even leash to flex their muscle and bring their power to bear, and the drums (at least the real ones) have enough pop to match the guitars’ intensity and drive their point home. The darker tones and textures of the instruments, combined with the I-vi-IV-V chord structure, gives the sound a sobering feel that complements the writing well, and the tempo and volume provide enough energy to keep the song from bogging down. (I would, however, have liked to hear a bit more from the guitar solo, especially since Ell is one of the few artists in the genre that can credibly play an axe with authority.) You could argue that the production goes a little overboard in trying to impress the narrator’s pain on you, but after some of the songs I’ve heard recently, it’s probably better to make sure your point gets across rather than potentially leave it unmade.

This song didn’t need to be a duet and including the perspective of both players doesn’t add a whole lot to the story, but I feel like it added a lot to the vocal performance. Unlike the production, Gilbert smartly reigns in his usual attitude and machismo and shows some vulnerability for a change, making him much more of a sympathetic character than he usually is. While Ell, who actually shares top billing with Gilbert instead of just being “featured,” doesn’t get as much airtime, she capably covers the second verse and provides some solid harmony work (Gilbert’s voice forces her both high and low at times, but she manages to maintain her tone fairly well), and the pair showcases a surprising amount of vocal chemistry when they share the mic. Neither artist is who I’d call a power vocalist, but that fact actually works in their favor here (especially Gilbert’s), as you can really feel them work to match the production’s intensity on the chorus, making them feel invested in the story and more believable when they tell it. Granted, it’s a story I’ve heard a million times before, but if you’re going to re-tell it, you could do a lot worse than this.

So what about that story? Well, the song is the tale of two post-breakup narrators who struggle to move past their failed relationship because everything and everyone around them constantly reminds them of the romance that was, all the while wondering if the other person feels the same way. In the last few years, we’ve heard Eric Church (“Give Me Back My Hometown” and kinda-sorta “Round Here Buzz”), Sam Hunt (“Break Up In A Small Town”), Chris Young (“Think Of You”), Luke Combs (“One Number Away”), and a host of other artists address this same topic, and frankly I’m getting really tired of it. (The constant wondering about the other person’s feeling gets frustrating after a while: If you’re so obsessed about the subject, how about you try reaching out and communicating with them instead of just sitting around talking to yourself?) The lyrics are chock-full of the same vague proclamations we always get, and despite its role of the story, the only details we get about the fabled “small town” are “Friday night bleachers, [and] Sunday pews,” and thus we’re mostly left guessing about the memories the place inspires (heck, the narrator’s car is fleshed out more than the town!). Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell deserve some credit for trying to inject some life into “What Happens In A Small Town,” but ultimately the lyrics don’t really justify the song’s existence.

Ultimately, “What Happens In A Small Town” is a decent house built on a poor foundation, and while you’ll forget about it soon after you hear it, I suppose there are worse ways to end the year. (After all, ’tis the season to bring all the old songs and holiday specials back out of mothballs for one last hurrah before the calendar changes.) Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell are banking on Santa bringing them the gift of chart success and continued relevance, and honestly, I wouldn’t object too loudly if they got it…as long as I get a Switch Pro Controller out of the deal too. 😉

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing a few times, but don’t expect a holiday miracle.

Song Review: Lindsay Ell, “Champagne”

Dear country music: Please do us all a favor and leave the sex jams to the professionals.

It feels like every other country song being released right now is trying to inject passion and sensuality into the genre (“Turnin’ Me On,” “Night Shift,” “Bring It On Over,” etc.), and for the most part, these songs fall absolutely flat and have little to no sex appeal at all. Now, Lindsey Ell, a Canadian artist who has sturggled to find traction south of the border (her last single “Criminal” reached #1 in Canada but barely cracked the Top 20 in the US) has jumped on the trend with “Champagne,” an awkward cross between Maren Morris’s “Rich” and Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It.” With its raunchy-but-ill-fitting sound and writing that bounces between ostentatious and nonsensical, it winds up confusing the listener more than anything else.

Following the esteemed tradition of Jason Aldean, the production is way too dark and serious for the subject matter. The first thing that hits you is a deep-throated saxophone with some minimal piano backing, giving the song a somber and sleazy feel right from the start, and despite the addition of some guitars (acoustic and electric) and a lightweight percussion line, it doesn’t get any better. There’s a little bit of a groove here, but there’s absolutely no energy present (sexual or otherwise), and the song just plods along stoically from start to finish. The song is yet another attempt from a country producer to mimic that “dangerous love” feel that “Run Wild Horses” captured so well, and like all the other pretenders, it lacks the passion and feeling to truly pull it off.

Ell has never really impressed me a vocalist, and “Champagne” gives the listener a clear window into her struggles:

  • Her effective range is incredibly limited, especially on the lower end, and her voice lacks tone and power on the verses and bridge as a result (they feel more talk-sung than actually sung).
  • Just like the production, her delivery comes off as far too serious for the subject matter. If she’s as happy about her partner’s behavior as the lyrics indicate, she sure doesn’t sound it.
  • She tries to give the narrator a ‘sultry temptress’ quality, but she just doesn’t have the charisma to make it stick. This make the more opulent and outlandish portions of the writing feel awkward and hollow, and make Ell come across more as a poser than a diva.

Her flow isn’t shown off the way it was in “Criminal,” but what’s here is tolerable. Beyond that, there’s nothing to recommend and no reason to listen.

There are a lot of ways to describe the lyrics here, but none of them are positive. In theory, the narrator is celebrating the way their partner treats them, but the imagery they use to do so is so over-the-top (comparing herself to Jessica Biel and Aretha Franklin, coming out of a limo dripping in diamonds) that it almost feels satirical, and “you make me feel like I’m the champagne” might be the worst hook I’ve ever heard (seriously, what does that even mean? Is that supposed to be a compliment?). There’s an odd disempowering feel to these lyrics as well, as lines like “Don’t you dare take your hand off the small of my back” or “I can open my own door, but I like that you don’t let me” make the narrator come across as slightly subservient to their significant other. The more I listen to this song, the more I think that the only way it could have worked is if a real diva (someone with gravitas who just radiates power, like a Franklin or a Beyoncé) had recorded the track, as they could give the track some real sensuality while also giving listeners the sense that they are in total control of the situation. Ell is decidedly not that kind of performer, and the track falls apart as a result.

I’m not sure there’s a singer in the genre today that could make a song like “Champagne” work (maybe Carrie Underwood or Rachel Wammack), and Lindsay Ell feels like a fish out of water trying to fill the narrator’s shoes. The production is more somber than sexy, the lyrics collapse under their own weight, and the audience is left wondering what the heck they just wasted their time listening to. Forget about breaking into the US market; I don’t even think the Canadians will put up with this train wreck on the airwaves for very long.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Lindsay Ell, “Waitin’ On You”

This song reminds me of Aubrie Seller’s “Liar Liar.” That’s not a good thing.

Lindsay Ell is a Canadian artist (who, incidentally, is proficient with several different instruments) who has achieved some modest success up north (one Top 10, two Top 15s) but hasn’t crossed over much in the US (her peak on Billboard’s airplay chart is a pitiful #44). “Waitin’ On You” is the debut single from her recently-released EP Worth The Wait, but if this single is representative of the rest of this project, then the FTC needs to investigate Ell’s team for violating truth-in-advertising laws.

The production is where the Sellers similarity is most apparent, as it’s a raw, minimal mix that features a bluesy guitar on the melody and a sharp-sounding drum set anchoring the beat. (You can hear an organ in the background occasionally, but it only adds some atmospheric tones.) The vibe here is brighter and more playful than the dark “Liar Liar,” but what strikes me the most is how basic the production sounds on a technical level. For all Ell’s acclaim as a musician, her guitar solo on the bridge comes across as simple and underwhelming, and the drums never rise above methodical time-keeping. I stated in my “Liar Liar” review that Sellers’s song “brings to mind a group of teenagers in a garage who are trying to hide their inexperience,” and felt like “the musicians are still learning how to play their instruments properly,” and that’s exactly the same feeling I get from “Waitin’ On You.” All in all, the production here is not very impressive.

Ell doesn’t come across as a very strong vocalist here—her delivery is labored but tolerable in her upper range, but raspy and completely toneless in her lower range. (That opening “what’s not to like” line that Ell half talks, half sings is particularly cringeworthy, and makes a really bad first impression on the listener.) This issue is compounded by the the fact that this song is not suited to Ell’s voice at all, as it confines her to her lower ranges on both verses (listening to which is the aural equivalent of getting dragged across a gravel driveway). While her delivery does a nice job capturing the song’s playful vibe, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of sexiness she was aiming for, and she isn’t able to compel the listener to pay attention to anything other than how bad the verses sound.

Lyrically, the song describes how much the narrator enjoys their newfound love while also seeking some reassurance from their partner that they’re looking for this relationship to continue. It’s nothing too complex (or original, really), and the imagery here ranges from generic (“dry ground waiting for the rain to fall down”) to the bizarre (“I’m a July sky, you’re a bottle rocket”). The song is a bit on the short side (we only get half of a second verse, which I’m okay with given my griping above), and while it’s not intended to leave a huge impact on the listener, it should at least make them feel something, and it just doesn’t. It’s the kind of writing that wouldn’t hurt a well-produced, well-performed song, but doesn’t help a mess like this song.

Overall, “Waitin’ On You” is a disappointing song and an absolutely awful choice for a lead single. The song highlights Lindsay Ell’s shortcomings rather than her talents, and makes me doubt that she has much of a future in the country genre. Ell needs to find some better material fast, because country radio won’t wait on her for long.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.