Song Review: Luke Combs, “The Kind Of Love We Make”

Okay Nashville, you’ve taken your best shot at a sex jam. Can you please stop foisting these things on us now?

I complain about a lot of things in country music these days, but one of my more-consistent gripes is that Music City is fixated on sex jams, surmising that some extra passion and lust will draw in a bigger audience and earn them more time on the radio. Whether or not they’re right is yet to be determined, because they’ve dumped a bunch of “sexy” tracks onto the radio over the last few years, and none of them have actually succeeded in sounding or feeling sexy. I’ve liked exactly one country music sex jam since I started my work here at the blog (but at least I really liked it), and given that Aaron Watson isn’t exactly a Nashville insider, I wouldn’t exactly give that town much credit for the track. When you’ve thrown your best minds and voices at a problem for this long and come up with zero solutions, it’s time to ask the tough questions: Can anyone truly make a sultry song in this genre?

Enter Luke Combs, i.e. Thanos, i.e. the reigning king of country music, i.e. the one guy with enough clout and leeway to take a swing at this challenge. In truth, however, the crown has seemed rather uneasy on Combs’s head lately, as his latest single “Doin’ This” felt like it lacked the power of his previous releases. Granted, it was still a #1 hit, and a six-month chart run is something that the majority of artists in the genre would give their eye teeth for, but when compared to the otherworldly performances of some of Combs’s past hits (racing up the charts, spending months at #1), you couldn’t help but feel like the trend line was pointing in the wrong direction. (Yes, “Doin’ This” spent two weeks at the summit, but even seemed forced, as if Thanos and Columbia were trying to make a statement in order to hide the song’s underlying weakness.) With the release of his third album Growin’ Up imminent, Combs found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to prove himself, and nothing says “Don’t step to me, my snapping fingers can still destroy the universe” like taking on Nashville’s sex jam problem and succeeding.

So, does “The Kind Of Love We Make” actually succeed? Well…er…maybe? The song is nowhere close to Watson’s 2018 masterpiece, but I’ll admit that you can hear shades of “Run Wild Horses” here, and while they’re not enough to make the declare the song good, they work well enough to let me label the song as okay, which is as close as Nashville has gotten to quality on these tracks in a while.

The key to getting me to pay attention to a song like this is to use minor chords and darker instrument tones to introduce a feeling of unstable, borderline-dangerous passion, and this song gets about halfway there, even if it doesn’t go all in on this raw feel like Watson did. It opens with a deep-voiced electric guitar and a background organ, quickly pivots to an acoustic axe and a more-conventional electric guitar for the verses (a steel guitar gets a few words in as required by law), and then brings everything together to amp up the volume and intensity on the choruses. The problem in the constant shifting between the minor and major chords: The minor chords are what give an edge to the sound, and going back and forth so often really breaks the song’s immersion and makes it feel a bit less raw and inflamed. Additionally, where Watson leaned on a lower-ranged guitar and a fiddle to make the sound feel more distinct, the run-of-the-mill guitars take precedence here and keep the sound from standing out and making the impact I was hoping for. The producers did some things right, but they only did them halfway, which ends up limiting the song’s power.

It’s a similar story with the vocals: You can feel the strain and emphasis in Combs’s delivery just as you could with Watson’s, but it just doesn’t hit the same way this time around. Part of this is because Combs has a raspier voice to being with, so the contrast between normal and intense Combs isn’t as noticeable (he kind of enters this mode on all of his songs tbh). Part of this is because Combs doesn’t seem to fill the narrator’s shoes quite as well: His everyman charisma doesn’t play as well in a song that demands a bit more suave from the speaker, and when he tells his story, it feels like someone else’s tale instead of him speaking from firsthand experience. This song is written pretty generically (more on that later), and for Combs to stick the landing on a track like this, I think it needs to be “a Luke Combs song”; that is, a song tuned to be more personal and specific, something that no one but Combs could possibly deliver. There’s definitely emotion here and you can just feel the wheels turning as Combs puts his heart into it, but the result is more of a glancing blow than a direct hit. Still, it’s better than the swing-and-misses you usually get from Music City on this subject.

In terms of the writing…look, I get that there are only so many ways to say you want to have sex with someone, but isn’t there something you can say to make the song feel less boilerplate? We’ve got the candles (and low lighting and general), we’ve got the records (no artist name-drops for a change though), we’ve got the ‘we’ve been working too hard lately’ setup, we’ve got the dress on the floor…all we’re missing is the wine and the 700-thread-count sheets. Actually, we’re missing the foreplay too: There’s no attempt to set the mood or create any atmosphere, it’s just “we’re here, let’s get busy!” (Heck, the narrator never really tells us what they love about their partner, outside of “the way your body’s movin.'” ) “Making the kind of love we make” is an aftermarket add-on of a hook, as it doesn’t connect very well with the rest of the song and is so weak that it causes the chorus to end with a resounding thud. I sort of want to blame this track on the current meta (dang it, I thought I was going to get through the whole review without saying that word): In a streaming environment, putting the punch line first is key to engaging your audience, and if your punch line is “hot steamy sex,” then you’re going to skip the pregame show, go light on the details, and go right to the action. (In comparison, Watson doesn’t even start singing until the thirty-second marker of “Run Wild Horses,” which would give any label’s streaming team instant indigestion.) In other words, saying the lyrics aren’t the strong suit of this track is an understatement, and they’re overly reliant on both the artist to bring the feeling and the listener to bring the details.

So where does all this leave “The Kind Of Love We Make”? Relatively speaking, even given the drivel that passes for the writing, I think it qualifies as a success by Nashville sex jam standards. The sound is catchy and delivers its share of edgy passion, and Luke Combs does his darnedest to make you feel the song as much as he does. Overall, however, I think this falls into the “your mileage may vary” category: It’s remains a long way from being a quality song, and if Combs or the production doesn’t resonate with you, it’s no more interesting or compelling than any other song along these lines. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, but this feels like an unnecessary risk from an artist whose hold on the ‘Thanos’ title seems to be slipping, and if the audience doesn’t feel the love, Combs may end up abdicating the country music throne to his competition. If “you come at the king, you best not miss”…but the king can’t afford to miss too often either.

Oh, and Nashville? This was your best chance at actually pulling off a sex jam, and it only kinda-sorta worked. For our all sakes, just give it up already.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin or two and see what you think.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Doin’ This”

Honestly, I wish Luke Combs was doin’ a lot more than this.

I first bestowed the nickname “Thanos” on Combs almost three years ago, and for a long time he owned the title by owning country music, racing up the charts with each single and spending weeks (and even months) at #1. However, his material started growing stale and more formulaic (to the point where he seemed to sing the same darn song over and over), and his momentum started to waver late in 2021, as “Cold As You” didn’t show Combs’s usual speed in climbing the charts and only spent a single week at #1. Granted, a bad day at the office for Combs is a terrific day for any other mere mortal, but there are higher expectations for Thanos, and after going seven singles deep into What You See [Is | Ain’t Always] What You Get, it felt like time for Combs and company to go back to the drawing board and come up with something fresh. At long last, the moment has arrived: Combs is releasing “Doin’ This,” the presumed leadoff single for his third album, and it’s…well, at least it’s not yet another iteration of a cheesy love song. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a step up either: The sound is still too boilerplate and doesn’t fit the story, and the story itself isn’t terribly interesting or inspiring. Combs deserves some credit for trying, but he’s set the bar pretty high over the last few years, and this doesn’t clear it.

The production here is…well, let’s see if I can say it without saying it. We’ve got an acoustic guitar that opens the track, some heavier electric guitars adding some weight to the chorus (and a lighter one handling the bridge solo), a piano to get the signal the song’s seriousness, a steel guitar relegated to background atmosphere duty…you know, the same things everyone else is sticking in their mixes. This isn’t automatically a bad things, but even the instrument tones feel generic and soundalike, as if there are only five session players in all of Nashville anymore. The arrangement gives a track a spacious, arena-ready sound that reaches for an uplifting and inspiring feel, but it’s severely overselling the subject matter: This is a personal song in which the narrator declares that fame hasn’t changed them and that they would be the same person doing the same things, and doesn’t really have the inspirational angle that the mix would have you believe. Because of this, there’s a slight ’empty sonic calories’ feel here, as if the production is writing checks that the writing can’t really cover. In short, this sound is a bit of an awkward fit here, and it doesn’t grab the listener the way that it needs to.

Combs’s performance suffers from a similar issue: Much like with “Cold As You,” he puts a lot of force behind his delivery that just doesn’t seem warranted. It’s not a technically-demanding song and Combs sounds comfortable on the verses, but you can almost feel the veins in his neck bulging as he shouts his way through the choruses. Such an approach would make sense if there were a grander message for the audience behind all this (see: Cody Johnson’s “‘Til You Can’t”), but for a personal song like this one it feels like overkill and makes it sound like Combs is framing this song as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks fame has changed him. (I think the issue stems from how raspy his voice gets when he cranks up the volume; if he could better maintain his tone it wouldn’t be that big an issue.) I know he gets asked a lot about what he would do if he weren’t a radio star, but his tone implies that there’s some mysterious negative intent behind the question. Given his relatable everyman charisma, applying this much power to his delivery is unnecessary—the man could sell an ice maker in Antarctica, and if he says he’d be the same music addict with or without the fame, I believe him. This should be the perfect song for someone like Thanos, and my guess is that just like the producer, he’s oversinging here to try to make the song something that it’s not and doesn’t need to be, and it hinders his ability to connect with the audience as a result.

The lyrics here are fairly simple: The narrator is a big-time musician now, but they were planning on being a musician regardless of their stature in the industry, and if they weren’t rich and famous, they’d still be grinding it out on the local venue circuit. The story has some detail with it, but outside of the “burning CDs” line, it’s pretty standard and predictable: They’d be driving an old car, working a low-wage job, and playing with friends for tips at any place that’s willing to give them a platform. We’ve gotten a bunch of songs about “the struggle” before (for example, Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”), and this one really doesn’t stand out in any way. The production and vocals try to push this song as an inspirational anthem, but it’s a bit too personal and the message isn’t quite there—it’s less “follow your dreams” and more “I’d be doing this anyway.” (The “I’d still be doin’ this if I wasn’t doin’ this” hook isn’t as catchy as the writers think either.) There’s just something missing here to really convince the listener to pay attention, and keeps the song from making the impression it’s hoping for.

While I’m happy that “Doin’ This” keeps Luke Combs out of saccharine ballad territory, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t get him to explore more-interesting topics either. While someone like Thomas Rhett is more interesting when he draws on his life experiences, Combs seems to be less interesting when he tries the same trick, which is not great for someone who co-writes all of his own material. This is a small step in the right direction, but I was hoping for a giant leap to kick off Combs’s third album cycle, and this one simply doesn’t do enough to draw the audience in. Combs is still Thanos for now, if only because there’s no one else in a position to challenge his dominance in the genre (although Walker Hayes has a lot of momentum right now; let’s hope that fizzles out quickly), but he’s going to have to up his game if he wants to keep his crown and his Infinity Gauntlet.

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing much.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Cold As You”

Is it time for Thanos to find another Infinity Gauntlet?

Regardless of what Marty Stuart may say about Leroy Troy, Luke Combs is the most popular man in country music, and his power over the genre only seems to be growing: After “Better Together” spent five weeks atop Billboard’ country airplay chart and reached #15 on the Hot 100, he managed to better both numbers with “Forever After All,” which spent six weeks atop the country charts and nearly did the impossible by debuting at #2 on the Hot 100! I’d like to be happier about this (and honestly, I’d choose Combs over a lot of artists in Nashville right now), but the man has also taken another less-prestigious title, stealing Blake Shelton’s crown as “the safest artist in country music” by leaning heavily on boring, uninspired ballads to the point where “Better Together” and “Forever After All” were pretty much the exact same song. It’s time for Thanos to pull a few more tricks from his sleeve, so naturally his latest offering “Cold As You”…is a carbon-copy of his 2019 song “Beer Never Broke My Heart” (wow, was that really six singles ago?) Much like with “Forever After All,” the copy is not as good as the original, as it’s missing even the minimal moments of levity that made the 2019 single kinda-sorta work.

“Cold As You” may have been added as a bonus track for the deluxe release of What You See Is/Ain’t Always What You Get, but you can’t tell me it wasn’t recorded at the same time as “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The arrangements and approaches are exactly the same: The “hard-rock axes,” “prominent drum set, and slow-rolling, almost-token banjo” are all stuck in the same roles as before (while I didn’t mention it in the earlier review, there’s an organ-like keyboard providing background chords in both tracks as well), and it’s got the same “deliberate tempo” that harkens back to the Bro-Country party anthems of the 2010s. The one noticeable difference is that despite the lack of minor chords, the sound comes across as overly dark and attitude-laden, making the mix feel too serious for the subject matter (to the point where it feels like an overreaction—the response it provokes isn’t sympathy, but “okay, we get it, you’re sad”). The whole thing feels like an awkward fit for the song, and it fares poorly on the context test as well (it’s the sort of hard-edged track that you would never hear in the sort of beer joint that the track celebrates). Overall, this is a case of copy-paste production gone wrong, and I really wish the producer had gone in a different direction for this song.

Combs may be the heir apparent to Garth Brooks, but even he can overdo things sometimes, and that’s what happens on “Cold As You.” While there are no technical issues with his performance, he comes across a bit awkwardly trying to go up and down on the “guys like me lose girls like you” line, and he brings his forceful chorus approach from “Beer Never Broke My Heart” back here when it really doesn’t fit the song. (Does he really need to scream at us that the bar has a dance floor, a broken clock, and a jukebox with Willie Nelson? It makes me think of an enthusiastic realtor showing someone a house: We got granite countertops, new appliances, and marker-resistant paint on the walls!) There’s no hint of fun or self-awareness to be found—in fact, there’s no emotion in Combs’s delivery at all, making him sound extremely bitter but not actually sad about what happened, which in turn limits the amount of sympathy he garners from the audience. It’s like he’s trying to ride the trend of defiantly angry tracks like “Old School’s In” without fully embracing it, and as a result his performance feels over-the-top and unnecessary. It’s not a great look for Combs, and it lacks any of the charm and personality that at least made “Beer Never Broke My Heart” tolerable.

The lyrics, which paint of picture of a classic country bar where folks drink away their heartache, are a mixed bag at best. On one hand, they do a decent job providing details that allow us to visualize the place, and I even found the “beer almost as cold as you” hook to be kind of clever. On the other hand, describing the place is pretty much all the song does—in particular, there’s no talk about what actually happened to the narrator (all we know is that the walls aren’t “as dirty as you done me,” which isn’t enough to let us in on the story). The whole thing feels incredibly generic (you’ve got your beer, your trucks, and your neon) and comes dangerously close to laundry-list territory, and while it at least elaborates on the items it mentions, it doesn’t help bring the location to life (seriously, the phrase “cinder block walls” make the place sound more like a prison than a beer joint). Compared to a song like Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” or even Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication,” the writing here feels devoid of emotion (you could say it’s as cold as it’s title), and while part of this is Combs’s fault for his ill-fitting vocals, the lyrics don’t give him a whole lot to work with. Detail is all well and good, but it shouldn’t the the only thing you include, and I think Combs and his co-writers should have struck a better balance here.

“Cold As You” is not a bad song, but it’s not a good song either. It’s a halfhearted attempt to keep the Luke Combs gravy train rolling, featuring awkward and plagiarized production, vocals that try (and fail) to replace emotion with attitude, and lyrics that could have probably used a few more drafts. I understand why Combs and Columbia Nashville are releasing this track (this dude is one of the biggest names in all of music; why mess with a formula that’s working this well?), but I’m still disappointed with the decision. With his clout and popularity, Combs is the guy in Nashville who could shape the genre however he wanted (different sounds, different topics, etc.), and instead he seems to be settling for letting the genre shape him. His work feels incredibly stale right now, and after seven singles I think it’s time for Combs to get out of his comfort zone, close the book on What You See Is What You Get, and try something different.

Rating: 5/10. You might as well stick with “Beer Never Broke My Heart.”

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Forever After All”

Come on Thanos, you’re supposed to be a trend setter, not a trend follower.

On the surface, the Luke Combs Inc. franchise is firing on all cylinders: “Better Together” spent five weeks atop Billboard’s airplay chart and became the ninth single out of ten to spend multiple weeks at the summit (“One Number Away” only topped the charts for one week; what a disappointment), further cementing his status as the current king of the genre. However, over his last few singles, Combs has awkwardly morphed into a Boyfriend country artist, and while “Lovin’ On You” spiced things up with a dose of fun, “Better Together” was as sappy and cheesy as anything that Dan + Shay have released in the last few years. This trend continues with “Forever After All,” which is basically a worse version of “Better Together” and highlights Combs’s limitations more than his strengths. This song may not slow down the moneymaking machine that is Combs’s career right now (and let’s be honest: In non-pandemic times, a sixth single like this would probably never see the light of day), but I also wouldn’t call it a great sign of things to come.

The production here has a few more moving parts than “Better Together,” but the serious, devotional mood is essentially the same. It’s got the standard guitar-and-drum foundation that everyone else uses, but the steel guitar is more plentiful and pronounced (it even gets the lead role in the bridge solo, even if said solo is a bit lackluster), and it combines with the mandolin and piano to give this track a warmer, more spacious feeling. The problem is that these arrangement additions don’t do much to make the song any more enticing: The song is a little light on energy and plods along more than it should, and you just can’t shake the feeling that you’ve heard this song a million times before (heck, between this, “Better Together,” and “Beautiful Crazy,” you’ve heard this song a million times before from Combs himself). Frankly, the mix is more boring than anything else, and while it does an okay job supporting the writing, it ends up putting you to sleep before it can melt your heart.

If there’s one thing that caught me off guard here, it’s that Combs sounds really bad on this track. I blame whoever arranged this thing: The song seems to be a key or two too low for Combs’s voice, and when he starts plumbing the depths of his lower range on the verses, his voice completely loses its tone, power, and polish, leading to some seriously awful moments (the “good truck” and “first love lost” lines make me cringe every time I hear them). He’s much better on the choruses when he can climb the ladder and put a little power behind the words, but there’s no washing those verse faux pas out of your ears, and he just can’t charm the audience the way he did on previous singles (he seems awfully devoted to the other person, but he can’t convince us to care about it). It’s easily the weakest performance I’ve heard from Combs as an artist, and it’s not a great sign when you get shown up this badly by your own previous single that wasn’t that good to begin with.

The writing here goes to the time-tested well of “nothing lasts forever except our love,” and it’s not a terribly interesting take on the tale. The items used for comparison feature a laundry list of generic country tropes (beer, trucks, blue jeans, etc.), the rhymes can feels awkwardly forced (some lines have a bunch of extra syllables stuffed in to make the wordplay work), and the “some things last forever after all” hook is meh at best. The imagery is a bit unbalanced overall: We get tons of random stuff that will wear out over time, but but all we hear about the other person is moonlight in their eyes and “a t-shirt in the kitchen” (pulling a TL;DR with the “million other things” seems to undermine the claim that the love here is deep and unendingif you love them so much, tell us about them!). There’s just something about these lyrics that feel basic and unpolished, and I think the track needed a few more drafts before they brought it to the studio.

“Forever After All” is just another uninspiring love song from an artist that’s gotten increasingly predictable over the last year or so, and it might be the worst single I’ve ever heard from Luke Combs. Both the writing and the vocals are surprisingly rough, and the production only meets the minimally-acceptable standards for a generic Boyfriend country ballad. Combs is falling into the same trap that Thomas Rhett did not long ago: When you sing about the same thing over and over, eventually people grow tired of your shtick and start looking for a fresher take. (Editor’s Note: The same principal applies to song complaints reviews as well.) The old saw “nothing lasts forever” applies to the reign of kings in country music too, and unless Thanos can find a way to recharge that Infinity Guantlet (he did mention he was starting to work on album #3…), his dynasty may end a bit sooner than he thinks.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round

2020 was many things (isolating, aggravating, a tragedy on a global scale), but it was also super busy for me, and it forced me to cut down my blog posting schedule from five days a week to three. The result of this is that the Mediabase charts started to outrun my schedule, forcing me to play catch-up and use preliminary grades for the weekly Pulse posts. Now, with time running out and the year-end lists approaching, it’s time to clear the queue and catch up on some tracks that I should have covered a while ago.

With so many songs to cover, I can’t go as in-depth as my usual reviews do, but honestly many of these songs don’t merit that deep a dive anyway. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the end of my 2020 review list…

Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

This thing was released back in September, but it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t really taken off after three months: It’s a run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track dedicated to drinking yourself into a stupor, released several months after the trend fizzled out. The mix is the usual guitar-and-drum mix, with the classic Bro instruments (clap track, token banjo) tossed in for seasoning. Janson’s performance is nothing to write home about (the dude really needs to stop talk-singing like he does on the bridge), and the writing checks all the usual Bro boxes (and that “waitin’ on five to start on six” is just groan-inducing). This trend has already been tossed into the dustbin of history, and this song belong right there next to it.

Score: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name”

Country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, so Rodgers decided to try and break the sophomore slump by recruiting Thanos himself for his follow-up single. Unfortunately, not only is this thing yet another  run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track, it’s actually worse than Janson’s lame attempt. For one thing, the guitar-and-drum mix here is oddly dark and lethargicwhere Janson at least tried to establish a fun, lighthearted atmosphere, this lethargic death march isn’t fun at all. Rodgers’s turn behind the mic is utterly replaceable, and Combs adds nothing but star power to the song (he’s trapped mostly in his lower range, and he sounds both oddly restrained and a little uncomfortable). Once again, the writing aims to check all the Bro boxes, and includes a couple a cringey moments (“my baby puttin’ sugar on me”? Ick, just say she kissed you and leave it there). If you asked me to sum this track up in one word, I’d just start snoring.

Score: 5/10. *yawn* Quick, let’s move on before I fall asleep.

Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”

Robb is an Ohio native who signed with Monument Records in 2018, but he only dropped his debut EP back in April, and it’s already being dumped for a new song. It’s a generic nostalgia track, one that features none of the interesting details that Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” or Justin Moore’s “We Didn’t Have Much” brought to the table. The story is pretty boilerplate, and doesn’t do anything to convince the listener of the hallowedness of the ground (the place sounds more like purgatory than heaven to me). The “heaven on dirt” hook is even more groan-inducing than Janson’s drivel, and there’s nothing special about Robb’s vocal performance (there are hints of Brett Eldredge in his tone, but Robb has none of Eldredge’s power or charisma). The acoustic guitar/banjo foundation of the mix is the best of the songs we’ve looked at so far, but the electric guitar that gets tossed in on the bridge feels really out of place. The whole thing feels incredibly bland and boring, and doesn’t encourage repeat listens.

Score: 5/10. Don’t tell me we’re starting this streak again…

Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat”

Corbin still can’t seem to find an actual record label that will sign him, but he’s managed to cobble together a new EP and release a new single. Yes, it’s the same darn guitar-and-drum mix I’ve been ranting about for months (years?), but at least this thing’s got some tempo and a decent groove that helps it generate energy and build momentum over time. I like the framing of the the writing on this one: Instead of wasting time drinking themselves to death and pining over a lost partner, we explore the much-more-enjoyable scenario where said person actually comes back and picks up an old relationship where it left off. No, there’s nothing deep or poignant here (the narrator asks why their partner came back, but we never get an answer), and the overall relationship still feels kind of ephemeral, but Corbin’s still a likeable guy with charisma to burn, and he persuades the listener to forget about the future and get lost in the moment for a while. It’s a decent effort overall, and given the songs it’s rated above in this post alone, I’m still surprised that this guy hasn’t found a new permanent home in Nashville yet.

Score: 6/10. It’s a fun little spin that’s worth hearing again.

Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her”

Bandi is a Missouri native who, like Robb, dropped a debut EP and single earlier this year, but never found any traction on the airwaves. The production is one of those piano ballads I’m generally a sucker for, but the electric guitar and drum machine make the song feel a lot slicker than it should. There’s a very neutral feel to both the mix and Bandi’s raspy vocal performanceinstead of balancing the happiness of gaining a wife and baby daughter and the sadness of wondering how the narrator’s dead father would have felt (Bandi thinks he “would have loved her,” of course), it feels like neither emotion is really present here, and it’s really hard to tell who the focus of the story is: Is it the people the narrator is gushing about, or the ghost he’s gushing to? It’s mostly predictable and kind of sappy, but I’ll admit that the inclusion of the child’s birth was an unexpected and appreciated twist (otherwise it would felt like an awkward Boyfriend country song). Cole Swindell may run circles around this song with “You Should Be Here,” but at least it features some story progression and maturity, and no one’s encouraging you to drink the world’s problems off your mind.

Score: 6/10. Corbin’s song is better, but I guess this one is okay.

Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair”

It killed me that this thing didn’t get more attention when it released back in July, because I consider Randy Travis the GOAT when it comes to country singers.The song was a demo that Travis had been recruited to sing back in the early 1980s, but it got pushed aside during the Urban Cowboy movement and mostly forgotten until recently, where it was touched up with 2020 production and released into the wild.

The production here is reminiscent of Randy’s most-recent work (no surprise, given that his longtime producer Kyle Lehning put it together), and it features the kind of arrangement diversity that modern country music lacks (it’s got fiddle, steel guitar, and piano, with the light-touch drums and understated electric guitar serving as complementary pieces rather than the main attraction). The overall feel is more polished than slick, and it does a really nice job capturing and accentuating the emptiness of the narrator’s feelings.

You can tell that early-career Randy in behind the mic here (the voice wouldn’t be out of place on Storms Of Life or Always & Forever), but the recording feels a little awkward with 2020 production values (Travis almost sounds auto-tuned at points). The subject matter is pretty standard as far as cheating songs go, but you never hear these sorts of songs anymore (Midland tried to push one and failed), and it provides enough detail to bring the listener into the story and let them imagine the scenes as they go alone. Overall, it’s a well-executed track with a legendary voice, and if any of the songs we’ve covered here really deserved a full review, it was this one.

Score: 8/10. Is it better than “Cheatin’ Songs”? I’d say they’re about equal in quality, though they approach the topic in different ways.

With that, I think I’m finally ready to tally up the scores and put together my year-end song rankings. Look for them to come out next week!

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Better Together”

So apparently even Thanos is running out of ideas now…

If you ignore the murder hornets, the Greek-lettered hurricanes, and the coronavirus pandemic, life is going pretty well for Luke Combs right now. He’s released nine official singles so far, and not only have all nine reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart (and almost all of this have sat there for multiple weeks), but they’ve also all cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100, further confirming that Combs is the king of country music and powerful enough to snap half of the genre out of existence any time he pleases. As a critic, however, I’ve been a bit lukewarm (pardon the pun) on Combs’s single choices, and while I liked his last offering “Lovin’ On You,” I’m less enthused with his latest single “Better Together,” the fifth from his What You See Is What You Get album. It’s a watered-down version of “Beautiful Crazy,” and while there’s enough heartfelt feeling involved to keep Combs’s winning streak alive, it’s a song that feels like it should have stayed an album cut.

The production here is…a piano. Seriously, that’s all you get hereno guitars, no percussion, no token banjo or steel guitar, nothing. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (some of my favorites songs have been primarily piano-driven, such as Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl”), when you’re literally the only instrument in the room, you need to bring way more presence and volume than the weaksauce melody we get here. (The producer also botches the volume balance badly here, as Combs’s vocals are so loud that they drown out the piano for most of the track.) While it does manage to set a suitably serious tone for the track, there’s little buildup to give the song any momentum, and it’s Combs that ends up doing most of the work creating the atmosphere. (Honestly, he could have done this whole song acapella, and you wouldn’t notice the difference.) Less can be more sometimes, but in this case less is basically nothing, and that’s exactly with this production adds to the song.

Combs may be the Garth Brooks of our time with his everyman charm and charisma, but getting left with no backup as he is here is something that should only be attempted by the strongest of strong voices, like Brett Eldredge or Chris Stapleton. Instead, Combs gets hung out to dry, and his limitations become painfully apparent: He’s not terribly smooth as a vocalist (his flow can be choppy and occasionally cuts out abruptly), and you can really feel him strain to apply power as the song progresses. Luckily, that everyman charm and charisma didn’t go anywhere, and Combs still does a nice job injecting some sincerity and feeling into the narrator’s role. (Like Aaron Watson, Combs turns his not-so-effortless style into a strength, using that audible straining to signal the intensity of his feelings.) You can tell that the narrator is definitely smitten with their partner, and the audience still kinda-sorta feels it themselves despite the deck being so stacked against the singer. The song is a testament to Combs’s skills as an artist, but it’s also a painful reminder of how much better he is with proper production support.

Speaking of support, Combs could have used a bit more help from the writing as well. The narrator tries to convey that they and their partner are, like many pairings in life, are “better together,” but the comparison just boils down to a laundry list of items that range from the moderately novel (“Your license in my wallet when we go out downtown”) to the painfully generic (most of the first verse, and the “good ol’ boys and beer” line on the chorus). The reliance on old tropes keeps the song from feeling personal, and saying “The way you say ‘I love you too’ is like rain on an old tin roof” doesn’t strike me as all that flattering. The marriage-proposal twist is a nice touch à la Dierks Bentley’s “My Last Name,” but on the whole this is nothing more than a cheesy, run-of-the-mill love song, a topic that Combs did a much better job covering with “Beautiful Crazy,” and the lyrics do nothing to help Combs’s sentiment resonate with the audience.

The biggest indictment I can make of “Better Together” is how many times I took a break while writing this review to listen to something better. This song, with its non-existent sound and its cookie-cutter writing, just doesn’t stack up against Luke Combs’s past work, and only rises to the level of radio filler. Combs is much more comfortable on the fun side of country music (“When It Rains It Pours,” “Lovin’ On You”), and while he’s got the chops to deliver a decent love song, he never seems to have the sound or the lyrics to match up. Of all the pairs that are “Better Together,” Combs and this song aren’t one of them.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with “Beautiful Crazy” instead.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Lovin’ On You”

Wait…did Thanos just copy off the Hot Country Knights?

I’ve generally been underwhelmed by Luke Combs’s work thus far, but aside from covering more-salient topics à la his pandemic release “Six Feet Apart,” the most-effective way for him to get my attention is to lean into the 90s nostalgia and deliver a rollicking good time as he did on “When It Rains It Pours.” However, after delivering his eighth consecutive #1 song with his Eric Church collab “Does To Me,” Combs decided to go back to the neotraditional well for his next release “Lovin’ On You.” Although the song itself is really nothing special, calling this “well-executed” would be an understatement, as Combs and his producer put together the best homage to the muscular neotraditional sound of the early 1990s since Dierks Bentley’s made-up throwback band, turning a run-of-the-mill love song into a fun time for all.

The production ramps up quickly, quickly expanding from Comb’s typical guitar-and-drum mix to include a piano and steel guitar, giving off strong vibes of a Brooks & Dunn or Travis Tritt single from the early 90s (and thus passing the sniff test when Combs professes his love for B&D B-sides in the first verse). The electric guitars are a bit rougher than you might expect, but they still manage to capture that rollicking vibe that defined the rock-infused side of the genre back in the day. (Still no fiddles, though…) While the mix gets dangerously close to ‘wall of noise’ territory, especially when the guitars ramp up on the chorus, the individual instruments are still clear and distinct enough to pick out during the chorus swells. The combination of the bright tones and higher volumes compensate for the relative lack of tempo (which is best described as ‘deliberate,’ but wouldn’t have been out of place during the 90s either), and provide a ton of energy from start to finish (it doesn’t generate momentum simply because the mix starts with all the momentum it needs). The result is a fun, celebratory atmosphere that complements the lyrics perfectly and make the track a good time for all.

You don’t reach Thanos’s exalted position in country music without some serious charm, but this is a strong vocal performance even by Combs’s standards. The song deserves some credit for setting him up for success: The range and flow demands are minimal, the power meter is easily filled, and the song asks Combs to be nothing more than a gool ol’ boy who loves his partner, which is basically his default setting. (If there’s anything I would knock him for, it’s the lack of vocal clarity that can make it hard to make out the words at points, particularly that “I’m a junkie for your midnight moves” line.) There’s an overwhelming sense of happiness in Combs’s delivery that tells the audience he’s having an absolute blast behind the mic, and you just can’t help but smile along with him. Combs’s enthusiasm goes a long way towards elevating the track and turning it into a memorable experience.

The lyrics…well, it’s a good thing the sound and singer are so on point, but the writing is a bit lackluster. The narrator spends most of their time reading off of the typical country checklist and saying they like all these things (fishing, drinking, hunting, smoking, hearing old country songs, wearing old cowboy boots, driving old cars, and even golfing), but they love “lovin’ on you.” It’s a weak hook that caps off a generic laundry list, punctuated by that “junkie for my midnight moves” line that’s honestly a bit more “eww” than “ooh.” Beyond that…well, there’s nothing beyond that, making the song feel a bit lazy and uninspired (did they really need four writers to put this together?). However, the lyrics accomplish two important tasks: They elevate the song above a Cobronavirus party track by giving the song a purpose that justifies its celebratory feel (even if it’s just another love song), and they’re lightweight enough that it’s easily elevated by a strong performance from everything around him, which is exactly the case here.

Ultimately, “Lovin’ On You” combines the principles of Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing” and Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert’s “Drowns The Whiskey”: A song doesn’t have to be novel to be good⁠—it just needs to be well-constructed and super fun. The lyrics are bland and a bit disappointing, but both Combs and his producer bring their A-games to the table, turning the track into a enjoyable 90s tribute with more than enough love to go around. This is the version of Thanos that I want to see rule the world of country music, someone who’s not afraid to go old-school to get their point across. (Wait, if neotraditional country is old-school, than that makes me just plain old. Curses…) Combs remains the clear king of country music right now, and while I’m not always happy with his output, it’s nice to hear him using his powers for good for a change.

Anytime you get an excuse to post this picture, you take it. 🙂

Rating: 7/10. This one’s worth the price of admission.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Six Feet Apart”

So I liked the song that wasn’t written specifically for the pandemic; let’s how a song that was written for it fares.

At the risk of being snapped out of existence forever, Thanos, a.k.a. Luke Combs, has looked surprisingly mortal over the last few months. Sure, “Does To Me” being in the Top Ten three months after its release would be a major accomplishment for most artists, but for someone who’s been racking up month-plus No. 1 singles over the last year or so, it kind of feels like a letdown, as if the door might be swinging open for another artist to steal Combs’s Infinity Gauntlet crown as the king of country music. Thanos isn’t going down without a fight, however, and he’s not going down without expressing his feelings about the current pandemic that’s got most of the world sheltering in place. “Six Feet Apart” is the first mainstream single to address COVID-19 directly, and while I still prefer Tim McGraw’s unintentional effort to do so, this is a solid song that follows Combs’s usual formula for success.

I called “Does To Me” “a straightforward guitar-and-drum mix with a slight neotraditional flair to it,” and that’s a pretty good description of “Six Feet Apart” as well. The guitars continue to be the primary melody drivers (both acoustic and electric guitars open the track, but the acoustic ones handle the verses while the electric ones jump back in for the choruses and bridge), with a standard drum set keeping time behind them. (There are some hints of a mandolin at times, but it’s buried deep in the background, and that’s really the only other instrument you notice.) The instrument tones are a bit deeper and richer (especially the electric axes), but mostly maintain an optimistic feel to them, helping the writing keep the focus on the future while also projecting a bit of seriousness to reflect the state of the present. If I had to nitpick, I would have liked a bit more focus on the serious aspects of the crisis, and a little more diversity in the arrangement would make this stand out more (a steel guitar would have been the obvious addition). All in all though, it’s a decent mix that supports the writing well and is extremely easy on the ears.

The biggest difference between “I Called Mama” and “Six Feet Apart” to me are the vocal performances of Combs and McGraw. Specifically, McGraw does a much better job reflecting the gravity of the current situation (be it a death or a global pandemic) while also charting a path forward and giving the audience the sense that he (and by extension they) will get through it. Combs, in contrast, leans far more towards the positive side of the equation, breezing through the downer of an opening verse without giving the listener a sense that he really feels the weight of the current situation. He still brings a lot of charm and charisma to the table, and he sounds more than comfortable when he starts dreaming about all the things he’ll do once the threat has passed, but I was looking for a bit more of an acknowledgement of where we are now in contrast to where he hopes we’ll be in the future. McGraw did a better job striking that balance, which is why I still prefer “I Called Mama” to this song.

I generally like the writing here, but my questions about the light/dark balance of the tracks linger here as well. The narrator opens with an empty outdoors scene (the dogwood and cricket line really help you visualize the scene), they talk about the news for a moment…and then we’re taken into a dream future “when we aren’t six feet apart” in which we go to restaurants, pubs, movies, concerts, sporting events, etc. It definitely speaks to the pent-up demand for togetherness that people are feeling right now, but if you’re writing a song about this pandemic, rushing through the bad stuff and ignoring the immense human toll of the virus and the risks being taken by essential workers and first responders makes it feel like we’re only getting half a song here. (Then again, I prefer the ignoring strategy over the superficial tacked-on shoutout we got from Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer.”) It’s also doesn’t address the ways society may change as a result of this crisis: “Givin’ hugs and shakin’ hands” may cease to be the common greetings we remember, at least in the short term. The gold standard here is Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” and there was a lot more acknowledgement of the dark places we all went to during that time, and to leave that out here just doesn’t feel right. The song does what it does well; I just wish it did a whole lot more.

“Six Feet Apart” is not a nihilistic party song (which is a victory in itself on some level), but it’s not quite what I’m looking for from a definitive pandemic song. There are definitely things to like here, especially the optimism conveyed by all involved that we will, in fact, get through this together. However, for a bar set this high (especially given Combs’s recent success), I just don’t feel like it quite measures up: The production’s a bit too cookie-cutter, Combs delivery is lacking in pathos, and the writing’s a little one-sided. In the end, I’d still call this a good song, but I think there’s enough room for improvement that I hesitate to call it the song of the COVID-19 era.

Rating: 7/10. Reservations or not, it’s still worth checking out.

Song Review: Luke Combs ft. Eric Church, “Does To Me”

It’s been a while since a song has made me feel this happy and this sad at the same time.

I’m not the world’s biggest Luke Combs fan, but there’s no denying his success thus far: He’s gone 7-for-7 reaching #1 with his singles, and after spending only two weeks atop Billboard’s country airplay chart with “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” he rebounded nicely with “Even Though I’m Leaving,” earning five weeks on the mountaintop and lingering near the summit throughout the 2019 holiday season (even though I found the track to be inferior to its predecessor). Now, “Thanos” is back to extend his genre dominance into 2020, pairing with Eric Church for “Does To Me,” the third single from Combs’s What You See Is What You Get album. It’s a bright, earnest look back at the “minor” successes the narrator holds dear because they reflect his values and convictions, but there are some darker undertones as you realize how big a shadow these past glories cast on the narrator’s present and future. It’s a song that puts on a brave face in the face of implied adversity, and as a result it’s a track that hard to get too excited about.

The production is about what you’d expect from Thanos at this point: A straightforward guitar-and-drum mix with a slight neotraditional flair to it. The acoustic elements are toned down a bit from “Even Though I’m Leaving,” but the plugged-in replacements are light, bright, and effervescent, and they come with all the usual toppings: Plentiful steel guitar riffs, a few keyboards (both a Wurlitzer piano and a more-traditional electric piano appear here), and a full drum set. The arrangement and slightly-stepped-up tempo give the song some decent energy to work with, and the overall tone is contented and optimistic, adding credence to the narrator’s claim that they are genuinely proud of and happy with what they’ve done. Whatever issues lurk within the writing (we’ll get to those in a second) are mostly obscured and papered over by this cheerful mix, convincing the listener that however sorry we might feel for the narrator, they certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves.

Combs has a knack for connecting with his audiences in a way that I haven’t seen anyone do since Garth Brooks, and this track is a clear continuation of this trend. From the technical standpoint, Combs doesn’t have the power or punch in his delivery that he showed on previous tracks, but his tone and flow are more than adequate to cover the song’s demands, and most importantly, when he tells you that his modest accomplishments “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” not only do you believe him, but you feel like he gives you license to revel in your own not-always-meaningful achievements (my three X ranks in Splatoon 2 “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” right?). On the other hand, Church’s inclusion feels completely unnecessary: He barely contributes to the song beyond singing the bridge, provides no cachet or stature that Combs didn’t already provide himself, and he suffers from an annoying case of Willie Nelson disease (he finishes his “does to me” so fast that he seems out of time with the song). His performance is as uninspiring as Thanos’s is impressive, and he’s lucky that Combs is good enough to mitigate any potential damage.

And then we get to the lyrics, where the narrator reflects on the memories they hold dear and declares that even if their actions are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t affect the pride and contentment they feel for accomplishing them. This is where the darkness starts to creep in: The narrator’s actions (a football tackle, a prom date, a wedding speech) are not only the same boilerplate scenes everyone else in the genre talks about, but they smack of the sort of nostalgic, best-days-of-my-life moments that a person holds onto when they see no hope for better times in the future. The narrator holds on tightly to their past glories because they see no chance of accomplishing comparable or better glories in the future, and they proclaim their pride at being “a hell of a lover, a damn good brother, and I wear this heart on my sleeve” because deep down they think that’s all they’re ever going to be. As upbeat and optimistic as Combs sounds, there’s a distinct lack of optimism in what he says, and it makes both the sound and the vocals feel like a thin, disingenuous veneer barely disguising a bleak, hopeless situation. I can’t help but think of President Obama’s “cling to their guns or religion” remark back in 2008, and it leaves me conflicted over just how this song should make me feel.

Despite my concerns, however, I’d still rate “Does To Me” as a slight upgrade over “Even Though I’m Leaving,” mostly because Luke Combs brings enough personality to bear to grit his teeth and make the best of a bad situation (while Eric Church is just kind of along for the ride). All may not be well in the land of the narrator, but Combs and his producer don’t care: He is who he is, he’s done what he’s done, and if he never does anything else, he’s (mostly) convincing when he says he’s okay with that. Beyond that, however, the facade of cheerfulness fades away under further inspection, and you’re really not sure whether to be happy or concerned about the narrator’s well-being. The best thing I can say is that you’ll have to listen to it and decide for yourself.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth thinking about for a few spins.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving”

How can a song feel so organic and so corporate at the same time?

Life is pretty good for Luke “Thanos” Combs right now: His last single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” spent only two weeks atop Billboard’s airplay chart (compared to his prior release‘s seven-week stay), and he’s generally regarded as the reigning monarch of country music. Despite this, Columbia decided to go the EP route for his sophomore effort, and is now releasing a second single from the five-pack called “Even Though I’m Leaving.” I’m really torn on this one: It’s got decent production and the usual Combs charm, but it’s also so sappy and formulaic that it feels like it was written by an algorithm geared towards cheap sentimentality. It’s far from Combs’s best work, and makes it seem like he’s trading artistry for popularity.

The production has a lot going for it: It’s got a solid acoustic foundation with real drums behind it, sticks some steel and electric guitars in the background for added atmosphere, and it features a bright and happy mandolin for most of the track. It’s a warm, bright mix with a lot of texture, but there’s such a thing as being too bright, and this thing overshoots the mark by a country mile, with its tone blowing far past saccharine and syrupy and ended up feeling like something out of a Hallmark movie. (Ironically, as much as I like the mandolin, the fact that it’s so in-your-face is what makes this thing bother my blood sugar, and the producer really needed to tone it down a notch or three.) The subject matter calls for a bit more seriousness amidst its sentimentality, but the producer sold out for the “D’awww” factor instead, and it ends up being more awkward of a fit than it should have been. It’s not a terrible max, but I need more substance than the empty sonic calories we get here.

Combs sounds as good as he always did here, but I don’t find him to be as credible or believable as usual. The song and key fit his voice well and don’t test his range and flow much, but it requires some serious charisma to break through the mawkish writing and sound, and while Combs has demonstrated the talent to do that, he doesn’t get the job done this time. He doesn’t show a ton of emotion in his delivery, he isn’t convincing in any of the narrator’s roles (especially as a scared child), and he isn’t able to mask the odor given off by the song’s other pieces and convince the audience that this is any more than a contrived example. I realize that the song is basically setting the difficulty at max for Combs (more on that later), but he is the man of the moment in the genre right now, and on this subject he’s getting shown up by everyone from George Strait (“Love Without End, Amen” to Cole Swindell (“You Should Be Here,” “Dad’s Old Number”). If you’re aiming to be the best, you just can’t let this happen.

Honestly, the writing here irritates me more every time I listen to this song, and seems to be the major source of the song’s ills. It just feels like the writers got together and tried to figure out how to maximize the impact on the listener’s feels, and decided to take the scared child trope, some reflexive token patriotism, and the dying parent story, and just mash them all together to see if they could turn on the waterworks. (Frankly, the song feels like it was written for someone with little-to-no presence or charisma, offering a crutch for someone who can’t generate their own empathy. In other words, it’s beneath Combs’s talents.) The predictable story means the audience sees the punch line coming a mile away, the paint-by-numbers scenes are beyond bland, and the characters are one-dimensional and rely on the listener to fill in the gaps with their own experiences to make them interesting. The whole thing comes across as equal parts lazy and calculated, and the listener can see right through the ploy (and they are not impressed).

“Even Though I’m Leaving” is a blatant-yet-flavorless attempt to prey on the audience’s emotions, cycling through a bunch of stock scenes in the hopes that something connects with whoever’s listening. It’s the weakest track I’ve heard from Luke Combs yet (even “Hurricane” had more punch than this), featuring sickeningly-sweet production, nondescript vocals, and lyrics containing zero feeling or imagination. Thanos may be on top of the world right now, but as many wise souls have said, “it’s only a short fall back down,” and in this business you’re only as good as your last single. When historians chronicle Combs’s career years from now, they won’t spend much time on this track.

Rating: 5/10. Leave this one alone.