Song Review: Old Dominion, “Memory Lane”

If I were Old Dominion, I’d want to stay on “Memory Lane” too.

It wasn’t that long ago when this group was the toast of Nashville: They won Vocal Group of the Year from 2018 through 2020, and “One Man Band” was a smash hit that cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cleaned up at the CMA Awards. Ever since then, however, the group has been in a commercial tailspin, with two songs (“Some People Do” and “Never Be Sorry”) failing to crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s airplay chart, a leadoff single (“I Was On A Boat That Day”) that only made it to #9, and their previous single “No Hard Feelings” peaking at a mediocre #14. (Their Kenny Chesney collab “Beer With My Friends” hasn’t looked that strong either, and was in danger of ending up on the zombie list at the conclusion of the Pulse posts.) The group seems to be growing more desperate as the calendar turns to 2023, as the Time, Tequila & Therapy era was abruptly ended after two singles and a new leadoff single “Memory Lane” has been delivered to country radio. Unfortunately, despite the song’s attempt to be as flowery and inoffensive as possible, in the end we’re left with yet another lost-love track that combines two things that I really can’t stand: Delusional nostalgia, and an complete inability to move on.

As far as the production goes, the first question that came to mind was “What’s the point of having a band when they sound this generic?” The song is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar and a percussion line that’s split about 75/25 in favor of synthetic beats (Grady Smith’s favorite hand claps are here too), with some electric guitars and synth tones that stay mostly in the background (although the electric axe gets some screen time with its lead on the bridge solo). Ilya Toshinskiy, a.k.a. the guy who plays on 90% of Nashville’s recordings these days, is brought in to add a mandolin for support, and while it does add some brightness to a mix that wants to be light and upbeat, it feels a little weird to have to bring in a session guy for a group that’s supposed to have their own players and their own sound. Still, it strikes a nice balance between pushing the song forward and maintaining a relaxed, positive feel that invites the listener to ponder the meaning of the lyrics (which in retrospect was not the greatest idea). It’s a bit of awkward fit when paired with lyrics that tell of a failed romance, but by not having even a shred of sadness in the sound, it helps convince the audience that the narrator is fully immersed in their illusion and has successfully avoided their feelings (at least for now). It’s a decent mix for what it is (and might actually be the best part of the song), but it feels more than a little out-of-place once we scratch beneath the surface.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey is no stranger to ignoring his feelings (see “I Was On A Boat That Day”), but there’s a lot more positivity in his performance this time around, befitting a man living in his head with the good times from a love gone wrong. He’s a charismatic performer and brings a lot of charm to the table, but while he’s done a great job fooling himself, he can’t pull the wool over the eyes of the listener, and thus can’t quite share his forced happiness with the audience. We see the narrator for who he is: A man who can’t move on from a failed relationship and prefers to live in an idealized past, deluding himself and no one else. While this is primarily the fault of the writing for putting him in this position (more on that later), a strong singer can at least elevate the song a bit through a strong performance, and Ramsey just doesn’t reach that level here. (I feel like I ask this question every time I review an OD single, but I still don’t see what the point of maintaining a band is when they don’t contribute anything meaningful to the songs—their harmonies are utterly replaceable, and now they don’t even generate the sound they need.) This is one of those “necessary but not sufficient” moments: Ramsey brings the relentless positivity needed to feel believable in the narrator’s role, but isn’t able to pull the song any farther, leaving the listener feeling a bit unfulfilled when it’s all over.

The lyrics are where this song falls apart, which is a shame because the first verse feels almost poetic in its literal use of “memory lane” as a real-estate metaphor. Soon enough, however, we get…well, half the story: The speaker is living in the past because their relationship has failed in the present, and they can’t stop dwelling on what used to be. The good news is that this is not an Ex-Boyfriend track (there’s no anger to be found here), but despite the flowery words in the opening verse, we’re missing a lot of information here—specifically, we have no idea what (or who) led to the breakup, and thus we really don’t understand why this guy is living in a daydream. In truth, we don’t get much information about the good times either, and the use of phrases like “jean jacket nights” and “tangled up mornings” only tell us that sex was involved, and aren’t great at signaling the depth of the pair’s feelings. It leads the listener to question what the relationship was really founded on, and what the narrator actually misses from the whole ordeal. The prose may be decent here, but it’s a bit vapid, and the listener is left staring at someone stuck in the past because they can’t move on into the future, and they aren’t enough of a look to know whether the past is worth living in.

In the end, I’m left feeling kind of ambivalent about “Memory Lane.” The writing has too many issues for its slick opening to cover, and neither the vocals or the sound of Old Dominion are able to elevate the track beyond mere existence. Unfortunately, this group hasn’t done much besides exist lately either (which is not entirely their fault: I thought “Some People Do” was their best work, but country radio did not), and after the last few years, it’s fair to wonder if even that existence is in doubt. Old Dominion is capable of good work, but this song doesn’t quite meet that standard, and if things don’t turn around, they themselves may be relegated to “Memory Lane” before long.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (September 2022 Edition: Parker McCollum, Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, Corey Kent, Matt Stell, Ryan Griffin)

And here I thought Labor Day was supposed to celebrate work by not working…

I mentioned back in July that “everyone and their cousin’s ex’s pet is trying to peddle their wares to radio,” and two months later very little has changed, especially as radio ramps up for their summer-to-fall transition. With a bunch of A-listers making their second-half moves, it doesn’t feel like a great time to be pushing a new single with an artist with a low Q score, but Nashville keeps shoveling out soundalike songs just the same, and my review list keeps growing as a result. In order to keep up with the more important stuff, it’s time for another rapid-fire round of reviews for songs that just aren’t worth the usual deep dive. Without further ado, that’s more than enough waffling—let’s dive right into things.

Parker McCollum, “Handle On You”

As much as I don’t like Parker McCollum, I’ll give him and his team a little credit on this one: The production does a decent job capturing that retro 90s/2000s feel, and there are a couple decent lines included in the writing (“I tell myself that I should quit but I don’t listen to drunks” is the highlight). Still, at the end of the day this is just another cry-in-your-beer track in a genre’s that’s already oversaturated with them, and it just doesn’t go far enough to rise above its competition. The mix has a guitar-and-drum foundation and doesn’t go beyond the usual steel guitar riffs and brief keyboard appearances to make it stand out, and the instrument tones are a bit too bright and have a bit too much energy for the writing (the narrator’s supposed to be in pain, but it sure doesn’t sure like it). McCollum cleans up his act and doesn’t come across as poorly as he did on “To Be Loved By You,” but I still wouldn’t call him a charismatic artist and his performance doesn’t make the song any more compelling to listen to. The story barely qualifies as one, as the narrator is just trying to drink themselves into a stupor after a failed relationship, and both the hook and the Merle Haggard references feel more than a little forced (especially the hook; I see what they were trying to do, but using “handle” as a alcohol measurement seems too esoteric for most listeners to pick up on). It’s a “meh” song, but it’s one of the better “meh” songs, and after Michael Ray followed up a similar song “Whiskey And Rain” with “Holy Water,” I wouldn’t mind seeing McCollum follow a similar path.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, “Beer With My Friends”

Oh joy, another booze-soaked party song that sounds the exact same as the last hundred of these things we’ve heard. I am really tired of junk like this, so if you’re going to drop one on me, you’d better change up your formula to keep me interested. Unfortunately, they followed the usual recipe to a T here: A guitar-and drum mix headlined by some rough-edged electric axes driving the sound forward, the standard “work hard, drink hard” story that we’ve all heard a million times before, and a pair of acts (on a song that has no right being a duet) that not only show no sign of the stress and anxiety they claim they’re facing, but also seem to cancel each other out (when Old Dominion jumps in on the chorus, Chesney’s voice practically disappears). An angle like this on a song like this can work (think Justin Moore’s “Kinda Don’t Care”), but you’ve got to do something to catch the audience’s ear and make them connect with you song. Moore did it with a throwback sound and by injecting some actual world-weariness into his performance, but Chesney & company turn in a soundalike, cookie-cutter (and out-of-season) party anthem that doesn’t justify its existence next to the hundreds of such songs we’ve gotten lately. You’ve heard this before, and there’s no reason to hear it again.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Corey Kent, “Wild As Her”

Okay, now I think Nashville is just trolling me. After hearing two lost-love songs featuring no trace of heartbreak, we get to the debut single of Kent (an Oklahoma native and former Voice contestant)…and it’s a dark, foreboding track full of minor chords and brooding hard-rock guitars. It’s a mix that might finally suit a lost-love song (even if it’s a little over-the-top)…except that the song is supposed to be celebrating an informal partnership between the narrator and a woman who’s “looking for somebody as wild as her.” Huh? The ominous tone might make sense if there was some actual danger in the relationship, but the pair isn’t doing anything risky (they’re just cruising down the road together like every other couple in a country song), and the narrator projects so much confidence that the not-actually-a-relationship will last that you don’t get the sense it will fail. As for Kent, he’s an off-brand Morgan Wallen vocally, and he delivers this song with an Aldean-esque intensity that feels way overdone and sucks all of the drama out of the story. I think the story has some real potential (characters that can’t be tied down are nothing new, but coming to a arrangement that only kinda-sorta ties them down is different), but I kind of wish it had dived into the other person’s motivations: What is it about commitment that concerns them? Have they been in bad relationships in the past? Instead, the writing barely scratches the surface, focusing on the less-interesting present and finding ways to work in some meta buzzwords to satisfy someone’s streaming algorithm. It’s just not something I’m interested in revisiting, and can be chalked up as another failed attempt by Music City to break in a new artist.

Rating: 5/10. Honestly, Tyler Joe Miller did it (slightly) better.

Matt Stell, “Man Made”

This song sits in the same awkward position as Cody Johnson’s “Human” for me: It seems like a song I should like, and yet I’m really not impressed by it. I think the issue starts with the writing: The narrator is trying to honor women by declaring that they are the real reason men ever accomplished anything (“If a man made anything, it’s ’cause a woman made that man”). It’s a topic that’s been done before, but the lyrics this time around don’t do a great job delivering the message: The opening verse is just a laundry list that got weaker every time I listened to it (many of these were invented at a time when anyone who wasn’t a white male never got a chance to make anything), and the line about man inventing the wheel to “drive a girl around and get stuck in some field” came across as both dumb and sleazy. The song just felt surprisingly reductionist to me, as if it were implying that women were only good for inspiration/moral support while pushing aside the real contributions they had made (for example, do we put “footprints on the moon” without the Black women who got John Glenn into orbit seven years earlier?) Stell remains a nondescript artist to me, and he didn’t have the charm or charisma to push me to focus on the positive side of his message. I’ll give the producer some credit for creating a lighter, reflective mix that invited listeners to ruminate on the writing (even if this is yet another guitar-and-drum mix whose only accenting instrument is the pedal steel). This one didn’t leave a huge impression on me in the end, and I doubt I’ll remember that it exists in another month or so.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Ryan Griffin, “Salt, Lime, & Tequila”

Another nihilistic drinking song? Gag me with a spoon. Griffin is a Florida native who’s already on his second record label and is currently working for Jay DeMarcus, and the closest comparison I can think of for his voice is Hunter Hayes, but this performance is utterly replacable (stick any other creation from Nashville’s young male assembly line behind the mic, and nothing changes). The producer deserves a little credit for giving the song a tropical vibe with the bright acoustic guitar, but the drum machine can feel a little awkward at times, and outside of a steel guitar floating around in the background, that’s basically all you get here. However, it’s the atrociously generic writing that really gets my goat: There is nothing to this song beyond “life sucks, so just drink yourself silly.” We’ve gotten this song a hundred thousand times over the last few years (sometimes multiple times from the same artist—I’m looking at you, Thomas Rhett), and there’s nothing even even remotely interesting or novel that would make you pick this song over any of its competitors, and the “grain of salt, lime, and tequila” hook is nowhere near as clever as the writers thought it was. I put this L more on Music City than Griffin: Could Nashville put the freaking bottle down for a moment and not use getting drunk as a solution to everything? Is the only way to get a new artist some airplay these days making them blend into the background? It seems counterproductive and silly to me, because making an artist’s first impression this unimpressionable only seems like a good way to not earn them a second chance.

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

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

The train for the Korner’s year-end lists leaves tonight, and if a song hasn’t gotten a ticket/review by then, it won’t make it to the list in time! This means that songs have one shot, one opportunity to seize everything they ever wanted. So will they capture it, or will they let it slip? Let’s find out…

Walker Hayes, “AA”

All the viral success in the world can’t hide the fact that Hayes is a really poor excuse for an artist, and “AA” merely confirms this point. The song tries to make light of life’s common hardships and strike a “laugh to keep from crying” tone to signal solidarity with the working class, but between the slick synthetic beat, the guitars marinated in audio effects, Hayes’s raspy, toneless voice, and his utter lack of charisma (hearing him try to sell himself as “just another John Deere guy” is not only unbelievable, it’s downright laughable), the song completely fails to connect with its intended audience. As a result, the upbeat sound clashes badly with the gloomy lyrics (which are hit-and-miss at best—the oil-changing lines are okay, the pointless Nick Saban reference is not, and the “keep my daughters off the pole” line is just awkward), and the song winds up as a failed attempt at pandering, feeling neither believable nor relatable. It’s not easy making that common-man connection as Alabama does in “Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’),” and Hayes doesn’t even come close here.

Rating: 4/10. We all should try to avoid songs like this.

Brett Young, “You Didn’t”

Five years ago Young looked like the future of country music, but these days he’s scrambling just to remain part of the genre’s present. This song was released a while ago, and I was wondering why it wasn’t finding any traction on the radio. Now that I’ve heard it, I think I see what happened: Country music is drowning in tracks where unlikeable dudebros make pushy demands to be liked or cling to long-lost romances for way too long, and Young bucks the trend by doing the exact opposite. The narrator admits that the relationship it over, casts no blame on anyone, and tries to act in the best interest of the other person, and while a weaker vocalist would fall on their face trying to sell that last part, Young pulls out his best impression of another Brett (Eldredge), and while he doesn’t quite reach BE’s level, he does more than enough to make the narrator feel genuine and believable. The slick guitars and mix of real and synthetic permission give the song a slightly-sensual feel (honestly, this comes closer to being a sex jam then some actual country sex jams), and while the steel guitar doesn’t get a ton of screen time, it provides some nice accents for the arrangement. This feels like a return to form for Young after his more-generic Ticket To L.A. singles, and I will happily take it.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth taking a chance on hearing.

Old Dominion, “No Hard Feelings”

…Wait, didn’t I just review this song? After the nihilistic tire fire that was “I Was On A Boat That Day,” Old Dominion has returned to their senses, and take the Brett Young approach to approaching a failed relationship. This takes a slightly different approach than “You Didn’t”: For one thing, the vibe is much more springy and upbeat, with bright acoustic guitars and light-touch, improvised-sounding production (are those wood blocks, glass bottles, or something metallic?), and even some swelling bass notes all anchoring the production. The narrator achieves believabilty through a) lead singer Matthew Ramsey putting a spring in his step and matching the positive atmosphere of the sound, and b) by being honest about how much the breakup affected them initially: They were mad, they got drunk, and they’d still rather be together than not, but they worked through their grief and eventually came to the same conclusion that Young does (i.e. what makes the other person happy makes the narrator happy too). Old Dominion is much better when they try to be more thoughtful in their work, and here’s hoping they stay sober and off of that boat for a while.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the turntable.

Ingrid Andress & Sam Hunt, “Wishful Drinking”

Sadly, we close out the year with a pair doing some delusional “wishful drinking,” and it’s no more interesting than Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson’s recent failed attempt at closure. In contrast to Swindell/Wilson’s more-fiery take on the scenario, this one takes a smoother, more-pop-infused approach, with its prominent snap track and synthetic beat and its overall minimalist approach (less loud, less busy arrangement, using a dobro to drive the melody instead of harder guitars), and while I think this approach is the more effective of the two (I’d also argue that Andress & Hunt have better vocal chemistry), it still doesn’t help make the story any more interesting or compelling. There’s too much alcohol and not enough detail here: We don’t get any sense of the relationship that was lost, so the listener is forced to fill in the gaps will all the things the pair misses about each other, and in the end the benders accomplish nothing of purpose or interest. (Unlike the Swindell/Wilson track, you don’t even get the sense that the narrators made out or even met up at the end of the night; they might as well be on opposite sides of the world.) It’s more of a boring song than a bad one, and if teaming up with Hunt is the only way to get Andress more time on the airwaves, I suppose I’ll just have to put up with it for now.

Rating: 5/10. Both Andress and Hunt have better songs that are more worthy of your time.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day”

The pandemic is winding down in America, so why is Old Dominion trying to bring the Cobronavirus trend back?

On some level, it’s hard to blame the band for dropping this turd of a single on us. 2020 was a rough year for Matthew Ramsey and the crew, with “Some People Do” (a thoughtful, heartfelt proclamation to be a better person) only reaching #28 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and “Never Be Sorry” (a lightweight, forgettable call to take a chance on love regardless of the eventual result) crashing and burning at #38. In response, the group closed the book on the Old Dominion album and tried to jump on the Cobronavirus trend a year too late by trotting out “I Was On A Boat” as the lead single for their upcoming fourth album. Let’s be frank: This track is a Seinfeldian nightmare, a party song so nihilistic that the narrator doesn’t even bother to party, let along tell us the story behind the whole mess. It highlights one of the major things I hate about contemporary country music: Acts may be capable of quality output, but if all you reward is pointless, derivative drinking songs, that’s what you’re going to get.

The apathy here starts with the production, which is so basic and boring that the entire mix sounds like it was made entirely out of GarageBand loops. 90% of the song is the same old acoustic guitar and drum set repeating the same old riff over the same old I-ii chord setup (except on the chorus, when the guitar gets lazy and just plays the chords instead). The only other instrument of note here is an accordion, but while it’s a constant presence that helps give the track a relaxed atmosphere, it only accentuates the uncaring nature of the track, and it’s relegated to background chord duty (if you’re looking for a Cajun flair to the sound, you won’t find it here). The constant major/minor chord flip-flopping puts the mix in an awkward spot where it’s neither fun nor serious, adding to the listener’s confusion over how exactly to feel about the song, and the deliberate tempo ends up limiting the amount of energy that the song can create. Overall, this is a bland sound that is so phoned in that Travis Tritt should ask for his quarter back, and I’m convinced that I could make a better, more-appropriate mix on my decade-old MacBook.

Speaking of phoned-in: This is easily lead singer Matthew Ramsey’s worst performance since “Break Up With Him.” While the lyrics admittedly don’t give him a lot to work with, Ramsey ends up pulling a Jake Owen and dives so deep into an unlikable character that he actually sounds drunk at points (that half-coherent “one, two, three” opening was an ominous sign). There’s no hint of joy or sorrow in Ramsey’s performance—instead, it’s permeated by a laissez-faire, devil-may-care attitude so strong that even Luke Bryan would say “Dude, there’s more to life than this.” The narrator simply does not care about the story they’re telling, and this approach effectively renders the rest of the song meaningless: For example, the questions that lead off the chorus sound disingenuous, and are asked in such bad faith that the narrator might as well be Tucker Carlson. (For their part, the band is pretty much invisible here: If the production sounds like it came from a laptop and only Ramsey and Brad Tursi are credited as background vocalists, what’s the point of keeping all these people on the payroll?) The result is that the listener tunes the song out before it reaches the second chorus (if the storyteller can’t be bothered to care about the story, why should the audience care?), and it’s flushed from their memory the moment the next song starts playing.

Based on the lyrics, this is a Cobronavirus song so perfect that it could have been written by Steve Goodman, and that’s not a good thing. Even the most nihilistic of party songs from last year at least cared about having a good time, but the narrator here cares about nothing but maintaining his blood alcohol levels, watching as their partner leaves them without so much as a shrug about it. The nautical setting suggests the narrator is going for a party atmosphere, but if so, they have a strange definition of fun: We find them alone just “letting the sun and the rum just do what it does,” and the boat really isn’t much of a factor into the story at all (put the narrator in a lawn chair in Decatur, and the song barely changes). There are no crazy antics, no kiss-off proclamations, and no chill vibes; the goal is simply to be “drunk as a skunk eating lunch with a cross-eyed bear.” A narrator this blasé just begs to be put into context, but nothing of the sort is provided: We have no idea why the woman left (besides, you know, the narrator being an uncaring drunk), and the narrator expresses no emotions (happy, sad, or otherwise) over the apparent breakup. (They didn’t even care enough to note whether their now-ex was laughing or crying when they left, which is an awfully hard thing to miss if you even kinda-sorta pay attention.) The whole thing frames the narrator as an unsympathetic jerk who doesn’t deserve your pity, and the listener can’t be bothered to care any more about the tale than the narrator does. Did it really take seven people to write this drivel?

The only thing that makes sense about “I Was On A Boat That Day” is how utterly lifeless it is, given that the song is a Cobronavirus zombie brought back from the dead. With lazy production, careless writing, and a performance from Old Dominion that’s completely devoid of emotion, this is the exact opposite of what I want out of a song: I want music to move me, not tracks that can barely move themselves. Unfortunately, deep sentiment doesn’t sell these days, and after back-to-back bombs, Old Dominion is in full ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ mode, hoping to get their career back on track by giving Nashville the lightweight, booze-soaked rubbish the genre so desperately wants. The ploy may well work, but if so, the band will find themselves asking:

Image from Know Your Meme

Rating: 3/10. No.

Song Review: Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t”

Sorry, but “I Can’t” get into this one.

Caitlyn Smith is a Minnesota native who’s maintained a fairly active songwriting presence for nearly a decade now, but has only recently established herself as a singer, with two albums released since 2018 (the second of which, titled Supernova, dropped at about the same time the world locked down for the pandemic, destroying whatever momentum it might have generated). Last month, Smith finally made a move for radio airplay be releasing “I Can’t,” a collaboration with Old Dominion (whose stock is dropping so fast that hedge funds are starting to short it). Unfortunately, this seems to be yet another bad decision for an artist trying to introduce themselves to the airwaves: The song is just another forgettable love-lost song with little beyond Smith’s own performance to encourage unfamiliar listeners to tune in.

The production is a unremarkable offering that sets a suitably melancholy mood but does little else to encourage the audience to tune in. The arrangement is pretty much what you would expect: A prominent piano that does most of the melody-carrying, some slick electric guitars that offer support but no sizzle (even the bridge solo is relatively tame, and it’s buried so deeply in the mix that you barely notice it at all), and a drum set that impassionately keeps time. The volume balance feels way off here (the piano drowns out everything except Smith herself), and while its darker tone signals an appropriate level of seriousness and depression, it doesn’t do a great job grabbing the listener and drawing them into the song (honestly, it feels like it pushes people away like they’re too close to the stage speakers). It’s a solemn-yet-safe mix that does little besides exist, and it doesn’t do enough to make the song stand out from the crowd.

Vocally, Smith falls somewhere between Ashley Monroe and Ingrid Andress with her bluesy sound, and while she delivers a technically-solid performance here (no range or flow hiccups to note), it’s lacking that extra push to really sell the story to the audience. She seems to lack a real presence behind the mic, and when saddled with trendy, mediocre material like this track (we’re get into that later), she isn’t able to elevate the song and make it memorable (which isn’t a good sign, considering a sad song like this one should fit well with her delivery). It’s one of those classic halfway performances: You get the sense that the narrator feels deeply about the failed relationship, but they can’t transmit their emotions and get the listener to care about the story in the same way. (As for Old Dominion, only lead singer Matthew Ramsey is distinguishable here, and he feels a bit out of place on the track, as the song seems a bit too high for his vocal range and the chemistry between he and Smith is not that strong. There’s also no real reason for a second singer to be included, aside from trying to trade on an established act’s rapidly-diminishing clout.) There are certainly flashes of potential here, but I’d really like to hear more from an artist on a “debut” single, and we just don’t get it.

I know that heartbreak has been the bread and butter of country music forever, but with the recent spate of lightweight love-lost tracks, songs like this one are getting dangerously close to trendy territory (call it an overcorrection from the Cobronavirus movement). You know the drill be now: The narrator has suffered a painful breakup that they just can’t get think or drink their way through, and they just keep saying “I can’t” adjust to all the changes around them. (The opening verse tries to expend the hook by talking about how the narrator’s hometown has changed, but the concept is never revisited or even tied back to the song that well, so it comes across as irrelevant and out-of-place.) I think it’s the defeatist attitude of these tracks that’s wearing on me: The narrator retreats into a shell and stays planted to the bench instead of stepping back up to the plate, and while you feel for them, just listening to them recount their tale of woe gets old pretty quickly. Cookie-cutter hard-luck tracks like this just don’t catch the listener’s interest, which is not good when you’re trying to find traction on the airwaves.

“I Can’t” is the sort of frustratingly-bland track that Nashville keeps feeding us when they’re trying to push a new artist, and often ends up backfiring when the artist can’t distinguish themselves. (It’s almost like the label is trying to sneak something past us, making their new singer blend in with the rest of the radio until it’s too late and they’ve been on the chart for a year yet are still only around #15.) The production and writing are unremarkable, and while Caitlyn Smith is a decent vocalist, she simply can’t escape the mediocrity that surrounds her. I know the field seems wide open for new acts to break through right now, but uninteresting stuff like this is the problem rather than the solution, and if you’re not taking a big swing, I’d prefer to wait for someone who is.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry”

This is one of those moments when I really get irritated with country music.

Back in March, Old Dominion released “Some People Do,” a heartfelt declaration of maturation and pleas for understanding that I labeled as one of the best songs I’d heard all year. Country music, however, got caught up in the carefree nihilism of the Cobronavirus movement, and the song withered and died on the vine with only a mediocre #28 peak to show for it. The response of OD and RCA Nashville has been swift: “Never Be Sorry” has now been released as the fourth single from the band’s self-titled album, and the contrast couldn’t be more striking: Both this and “Some People Do” feature a broken relationship, but instead of a slow, emotional statement to try again and do better, “Never Be Sorry” kicks up the tempo, drains out much of the feeling, and takes a glass-half-full approach by celebrating the good times and ignoring the fact that they’re over. It’s not a terrible approach, but it’s definitely a few steps back from the band’s previous single. Unfortunately, if the radio won’t reward quality, I suppose you gotta do what you gotta do.

Back when I talked about Diamond Rio’s career, I noted how their distinct sound made them stand out from other acts on the radio. Old Dominion’s sound, however, isn’t nearly as distinct, and the conventional pop-tinged arrangement they bring to the table here is a prime example. You’ve got your usual slick electric guitar carrying the melody, some keyboards providing some background riffs, and a mix of real and synthetic percussion keeping time (I’ll give you three guesses as to whether or not a snap track appears, and the first two don’t count). The faster tempo and brighter instrument tones work to create a happy vibe with a lot of energy and even a catchy groove, but I’m really not sure it fits the subject matter that well. Reflecting on a failed relationship, even if you choose to remember the good times, requires a delicate balance of light and darkness to give listeners a full picture of the situation: You may never forget the good times, but the fact that they (and the relationship) are over has to hurt at least a little, right? Not here: The sound is unrelentingly positive, making it seems like the narrator isn’t that sorry about anything, not even the relationship ending. Looking on the bright side of things is all well and good, but I slapping a wannabe dance track on a song that runs the gamut on emotions doesn’t feel quite right.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey suffers from the same problem as the sound: He chooses to focus on the positive and declare that he has no regrets for the relationship taking place, but he sticks to the positive party line so much that the listener starts to wonder how invested the narrator was in the relationship in the first place. Technically speaking, this is a solid performance: Ramsey has enough flow to handle the rapid-fire portions of the track without an problem, the range demands are minimal and keep him within him comfort zone, and he brings enough power to the table to deliver his line with conviction. Charisma-wise, however, this is a disappointment: When he says he’s sorry that the relationship ended, he doesn’t sound sorry about allin fact, he comes across as if he’s at peace with the whole thing, which makes you question how he could move on so quickly from a relationship he so clearly enjoyed. Furthermore, the ease with which I could imagine other artists doing this song (seriously, give this to Thomas Rhett and it would sound the exact same) and the return of the “decent-if-indistinguishable harmonies” I noted in my “Some People Do” review make the song feel more generic than it should, as if anyone could be behind the mic right now. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s not terribly good either, and it’s a step backwards for a group that’s been on the upswing recently.

Lyrically, the narrator finds themselves at the end of a good relationship gone bad, and while they’re sad its over, they will “never be sorry” for taking a chance on love. I at least appreciate that the writers at least the performers a chance to actually feel some remorse (“sorry the sky fell down, sorry I don’t know why all we do is apologize”), despite the fact that Ramsey and the producer completely flub the lines. However, the premise of the song just feels a bit awkward to me: I’m sure that there are good memories and good lessons to learn from the experience, but to express the narrator’s feelings in this way makes the relationship feel transactional, as if it were no more than a one-night stand (and the track’s focus on the physical expressions of love doesn’t help matters). I’m a bit torn on the turns of phrase as well: The hook is so-so at best, and for every line like”sometimes forever gets away from you no matter how hard you grip it,” you get a strange line like “we swung our feet off of the edge of the moon” (huh?). Bringing up a pair of shoes the narrator bought for the other person once seems like an odd choice of memories as wellmaybe they were super expensive? You just never get the sense that there was anything terribly serious between the two parties here, and when you pair it with the way the sound and singer make walking away sound a little bit too easy, the audience is left feeling ambivalent about the whole mess.

What really burns me up about “Never Be Sorry” is how radio-friendly the whole thing is, making it come off as a direct response to the cold shoulder that “Some People Do” got. It’s catchy, uptempo feel and soundalike production will slide easily between the Boyfriend and Cobronavirus tracks dominating the airwaves right now, and while I’d call this marginally better than those trends, it’s a far cry from “Some People Do” or even “One Man Band.” For a group like Old Dominion that has been steadily raising the bar over the lase few years, this isn’t the sort of song I was hoping to hear, and while they may “Never Be Sorry” about the situation, I will always be sorry that country music pushed them in this direction.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with “Some People Do” instead.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Some People Do”

Is it just me, or is this song a metaphor for Old Dominion’s entire career arc?

Once upon a time, Old Dominion stood for everything that was wrong in country music: Meatheaded misogyny, lazy songwriting, unlikable narrators and vocalists, a milquetoast Metropolitan sound, etc. Ever since the group turned the page on Meat & Candy, however, the group has demonstrated noticeable growth is nearly every phase of the game, first by taking a page from Thomas Rhett’s playbook and veering into lightweight romantic material, and then adding a bit more emotional heft to their songs on their latest self-titled album. The shift has paid some serious dividends: “One Man Band,” the group previous single, not only became the group’s sixth consecutive #1 single, but even reached the illustrious heights of the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100. They’ve flipped back to the sad side of country music with their third release from Old Dominion, “Some People Do,” and it might be their best work to date, featuring a deft mix of emotions from across the spectrum, wrapping it in a suitable sonic package, and using heartfelt charisma and flawless execution to make the audience believe every word they say.

Spoiler alert: This is a serious song, so naturally the production is sparse and piano-driven, but even among its peers like Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” this arrangement this mix stands out for its restraint. A washed-out, atmospheric piano carries the mail from start to finish here, with only a few short, brighter keyboard riffs and a foundational cello for backup. Guitars? Percussion? They’re nowhere to be found (which begs the question: What does the rest of the band do when this song plays?), leaving us with a slow, methodical sound that projects a tragic-feeling seriousness around the track without feeling unsettled or ominous, while still somehow giving us a silver lining to grasp on to. It’s the sort of balancing act that almost never works, and yet the instrument tones resonate with the audience on an unexpectedly-deep level, drawing them into the mood while never getting in the way of the song’s message. It’s a masterfully-constructed mix that enhances the narrator’s likeability and believeability, and I give mad props to a) whoever mixed this thing, and b) whoever had the guts to drop this as a single.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey struggles a little bit with his flow and timing here, but he more he makes up for it with the incredible charisma he demonstrates here. The range he shows here is solid enough, but what I appreciate here is how he uses his range to affect the emotional feel of his delivery: His solemn, matter-of-fact tone on the verses projects an air of self-awareness as it tips its hat to the seriousness of the narrator’s transgressions, but his move into his higher range (and even a decent falsetto!) during the chorus, along with an accompanying volume boost, accentuates the writing’s underlying hope and optimism, giving the listener the sense that the narrator and their partner still have a chance to turn things around and live happily ever after. The repentant, clear-eyed narrator here is light years away from the selfish dudebro of “Break Up With Him,” and Ramsey’s earnestness really gives you the sense that he’s learned his lesson and wants to be a better person going forward, even if the relationship is broken beyond repair. (The sentiment here reminds me a lot of Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” which is not an easy standard to meet.) The band tries to make up for being sidelined in the production by providing some decent-if-indistinguishable harmonies for the chorus, and the end result is a vocal performance that was a lot more moving than I expected.

On some level, the writing here is your standard “Please take me back!” song, featuring a chastened, wizened narrator who takes full responsibility for ruining the relationship and begs for one more chance to make things right because “some people do [change for the better].” What elevates this track to a higher plane are two key components:

  • The narrator projects optimism, but they also know that talk is cheap and that some actions can never be taken back or apologized away. They are fully aware that their actions were reprehensible, that very few people who give them another chance in the wake of said actions, and that they’ve accepted that it may be too late to make amends. Even so, they’re here anyway but fixing the past means that much to them, and even if it’s too late for the relationship, they’re going to keep walking down this new path they’ve found and keep trying to improve as a person. Where some songs in this vein feel hollow and insincere, something about the narrator’s mindset here makes their words feel heartfelt and genuine, and you can’t help but root for them.
  • Speaking of the narrator’s actions…what were they? They never actually come out and say, but they hint very heavily and what happened based on what “some people” do in the chorus:

Some people quit drinking too much
And some people quit lying
Some people decide to grow up
But it’s never good timing

Through a little bit of “show, don’t tell” magic, the lyrics indicate that this was a classic case of the narrator not knowing what they had: They were caught in the throes of the ephemeral party lifestyle, and have now realized they lost a chance at life-long happiness along the way. Couple this with how well the hook is incorporated into the writing, and you’ve got a thoughtful, tightly-constructed piece that runs circles around some of the lazy songwriting (the same sort that Old Dominion was guilty back in the day) that I’ve heard lately.

“Some People Do” isn’t just a continuation of Old Dominion’s impressive turnaround, but it’s a sign that 2020 might be a strong year for songs by country music groups (see: Little Big Town’s “Over Drinking,” Runaway June’s “Head Over Heels,” Midland’s “Cheatin’ Songs,” and Lady Antebellum’s “What I’m Leaving For”). Solid writing, great production, and a better vocal performance than Matthew Ramsey has any right to give make this a moving, impactful song that stands above anything else the group has released up to this point. Much like the narrator’s plight, some people may never forgive the transgressions of the Meat & Candy era, but if they keep this streak up, some people just might.

Rating: 8/10. If you’ve been boycotting Old Dominion, now’s the time to jump back on the bandwagon.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “One Man Band”

Old Dominion is quickly becoming the band version of Thomas Rhett, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Bro-Country era gave us a bunch of one-trick meatheads that rode alcohol, cut-off jeans, and electronic beats to success, but those that survived did so by demonstrating a mature progression in their material, eschewing hookups and one-night stands for something more genuine and long-lasting. Rhett is probably the most extreme example of this (heck, now the man can’t stop singing about how awesome hiw wife and his family are), but Old Dominion has quietly been moving in the same direction, with its singles generally ranging from lighthearted love-forever material (“No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” “Make It Sweet”) to asking potential partners serious questions about their future (“Written In The Sand”). Their latest song, “One Man Band,” is closer to the former set, as the narrator uses a musical analogy to describe how meeting his significant other changed his life. It’s cute, fluffy, and not all that original, but it’s well-formulated and mostly harmless.

The production here uses a pretty sparse arrangement for five-person group, but it does a decent job setting the mood for the track. I especially like how the mix opens with a single, soft, overly-slick electric guitar carrying the melody, driving home the point the narrator is alone up on stage and lacks the accompaniment to create the moving, spacious arrangement they desire. Of course, in classic Old Dominion fashion, when more instrument do get the chance to jump in, all we get are various forms of percussion, ranging from maracas to clap tracks. (There’s a keyboard in the background as well, but it’s limited to atmospheric chords and ends up being barely noticeable as a result. However, I like that the song eventually brings in bass and tambourine to tie into the called-out lack of such things in the first verse.) It’s very much in line with past OD mixes and probably could use another instrument or two to give things a bit more warmth and texture, but the brightly-toned guitar does a decent job going solo on the atmosphere construction, and the chord structure strikes a nice balance between how empty life without someone there (minor chords) and how great life would be with another person there (major chords). In short, this mix isn’t going to clean up at the award shows, but it decent enough to avoid getting in the way and bogging down the track.

It’s the same story for lead singer Matthew Ramsey: He isn’t the strongest singer from a technical angle (the song forces him a bit too deep into his lower range at times, reducing his voice to a hoarse whisper) and isn’t the most distinctive frontman in the world (give this track to someone like Thomas Rhett or Brett Young, and it probably sounds the exact same), but there’s a real optimism to his delivery when he’s in his wheelhouse, and he’s got enough charisma to balance his desire for companionship with an almost-repentant view of his life up to this point, convincing the listener that this dude is in this for the long haul instead of a short-term thrill. Nobody’s heart is melting over this confession, but given how easily songs like this could go sideways and feel disingenuous (and even a little slimy), Ramsey at least keeps things in the middle of the road here (though the band’s backup vocals don’t add a whole lot), and makes sure we know that unlike on “Break Up With Him,” his heart is in the right place here.

Honestly, I think the writing is actually the strongest part of this song. Sure, on some level it’s the narrator trying to convince a potential romantic partner to ride with him (in “a run-down van,” no less), but I’m impressed by how far the writers are able to stretch the musical metaphor of a “one-man band” without it ever feeling forced or thinned out, and the hook is tightly coupled with the story for a change. Some of these are standard fare for such comparisons (harmony vocals, “singing in the same key as me”), but it also adds a little twist by borrowing from classic rock-star tropes (the “trash hotel rooms” line is my personal favorite…wait, is this actually a prequel for “Hotel Key”?). Instead of forcing a sexual metaphor down our throats like Easton Corbin’s “Baby Be My Love Song,” the focus here is on the journey rather the bedroom: “Run down your wild dreams,” “chase every high with you,” and the “nobody’s left here but we’re still playing” part represents growing old together rather than sharing a one-night stand. It’s a well-constructed song that helps elevate might feel like a run-of-the-mill effort from Old Dominion and their producer.

For what it is (a sappy song about true love), “One Man Band” is a solid effort from Old Dominion, and while I’d like to see the group try to take a step forward with stronger subject matter and more-interesting arrangements, I’ll settle for them not backsliding back into Metro-Bro territory for the moment. It’s a better song than “Make It Sweet,” and signals two things: The band isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the genre might actually be better because of this.

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

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Make It Sweet”

If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If at first you do succeed, however,  you do it again and again until you stop making money.

After the radioactive Bro-Country disaster that was Old Dominion’s debut album Meat And Candy, the band introduced their follow-up disc Happy Endings with “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” an upbeat, lighthearted call to live and love with hope and happiness, regardless of the noise that surrounds us in modern-day life. The tune signaled a welcome change in the band’s sound and attitude, and they were rewarded with three No. 1 singles for their efforts. Now, with the book closed on Happy Endings, Old Dominion is launching their third, yet-to-be-titled album with “Make It Sweet,” which is…an upbeat, lighthearted call to live and love with hope and happiness, regardless of the noise that surrounds us in modern-day life? I know this trick worked out well for them the first time, but now it invites a natural comparison to their last leadoff single, and unfortunately “Make It Sweet” is the weaker and less interesting track of the pair.

While “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” had a experimental feel to its production, “Make It Sweet” features a much more conventional mix. Instead of leading with the percussion, the guitars take the lead right from the start, starting with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments and then slowly phasing out the former in favor of the latter. (The percussion goes in the opposite direction, moving from nothing to fake claps to a full drum set over time.) On its own, the sound actually has a lot going for it: It’s got a bright, energetic feel with enough of a groove to get your toes tapping, and it gives the song a real sense of optimism that complements the lyrics well. In the wake of its predecessor, however, the song feels a bit more run-of-the-mill than it should, and lacks that extra something to catch the listener’s ear. It’s a bit like eating a chuck eye steak: It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite measure up after you’ve had the prime rib.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey seems to have found his niche singing light, fluffy tunes, and he actually shows some development as an artist on this track. I gave him some grief on “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” for his choppy flow, but he takes the edge off of his delivery and sounds a lot smoother here, even on some of the faster sections. Both his range and the band’s harmonies remain are solid, and Ramsey does just enough to give the listener a sense of the narrator’s feelings for their partner. I don’t feel like he does as good a job balancing the positive and negative pieces of the song as he did before, but that’s partially by design: The song isn’t trying to make the same sort of societal statement as “No Such Thing…,” and the bad stuff doesn’t get as much airtime in the lyrics. Overall, it’s a good showing from Ramsey, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the practice he’s had on the subject.

The writing is where I find this song fall short compared to its predecessor. “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a song that felt like it had something to say about living in today’s world, and while its happy vibe may have undercut that message a little, at least it had some action items buried deep within: Focus on what you can control, and stay positive even when the world around you is collapsing. “Make It Sweet” is not nearly as ambitious, and instead comes across as one of those “forget about the rest of the world and just have fun” songs that ave been clogging up the airwaves recently. Once all the world’s badness in enumerated in the first verse, the song dumps it by the side of the highway and turns into a generic road-trip romance song that doesn’t really care if the planet is spinning or not. (The song also features some disturbing callbacks to the Bro-Country era with lines like “I never gotta wonder where my honey be” and “I ain’t savin’ all my sugar for a Saturday night/Seven days a week I got an appetite.”) It’s an escapist song more than anything else, and while it might be fun for a while, we’ve got enough devil-may-care songs on the radio as it is.

“Make It Sweet” isn’t a terrible song, but it less-than-novel production and less-than-caring attitude make it a lesser song than the last track Old Dominion opened an album cycle with. The “fun distraction song” lane in country music is pretty crowded right now, and without a deeper message to anchor it, this track is nothing but a brief sugar rush that you’ll forget three minutes after it ends. Hopefully the band switches up their leadoff-single playbook before their fourth album rolls around.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” instead.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Hotel Key”

Is it a shallow, inconsequential song about nothing? Yes…but at least it’s fun.

I’ve called out a bunch of artists whose output appears to be trending in the wrong direction, but Old Dominion is one of the few acts that seems to be getting better over time (then again, when you start with a tire fire like “Break Up With Him,” there’s really nowhere to go but up). “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a decent tune with a nice message, and while “Written In The Sand” didn’t thrill me upon first listen, it kinda-sorta grew on me as time went on. Now the group is back with “Hotel Key,” the third single from their Happy Endings album, and while it’s essentially a sequel to “Snapback,” it features sharper writing while still maintaining its  fun, lighthearted feel.

The production here is a near-exact copy of what we heard on “Snapback,” with a prominent electric guitar carrying the melody and a real drum set keeping time. Dig a bit deeper, however, and you find a few concessions to a more-traditional sound: The guitars feel a bit less slick and feature brighter tones with a bit more rollick, and the synthetic background tones on the chorus have been replaced with an actual organ. Regardless, however, the vibe of both songs is the same: Lighthearted, energetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. Rather than focus on the steamy, sultry side of a “happy ending,” the mix decides to own its role as a shallow summer song and takes a playful approach to the topic à la Garth and Midland, and the song stands out more as a result (and personally, I wish more wannabe sex jams would do this). It’s not a terribly unique or memorable mix, but at least it’s time well wasted.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey deserves a lot of credit for making this song work as well as it does, because the track does his no favors: It’s set a key or two too low for his vocals, causing him to bottom out at point during the verses, and the rapid-fire talk-singing nature of the lyrics really exposes how awkward and stilted his flow is. (He sounds much more comfortable on the choruses, where he’s allowed to stretch his range a bit and the rest of the band can help him out with their harmonies.) The key here is having enough charisma to sound believable as they revel in an old memory (the default reaction for most country singers is to lament the missed opportunity), and Ramsey has enough skill to get the job done despite the degree of difficulty. He doesn’t contribute anything unique to the sound, but he doesn’t screw it up and ruin the mood either.

The lyrics are where this song steps up and differentiates itself from “Snapback.” The narrator describes what is basically a one-night stand with a woman, but does so in a way that makes it feel less like a cheap hookup and more like a truly meaningful moment in the narrator’s life. There is no mention of “making out” or “making love,” and the only physical contact that’s even alluded to is when the pair “danced by the TV [they] never turned on.” (Also, in contrast to the “you’re so hot; let’s hook up” message of “Snapback,” here the introductions are already made and the woman is barely described at all.) Much more attention is given to the setting and the non-intercourse portions of the encounter: checking out three hours late, the way the woman sat on the bed and “talked about Austin and how she’d get back there someday” (an unintentional Blake Shelton reference?), and of course, the hotel key. The details are vivid and novel, and do a nice job painting a picture of the scene without diving into the R-rated specifics, accomplishing the amazing feat of producing a sex jam without any actual sex.

“Hotel Key” is a lightweight, uptempo summer song that has no designs are being anything more, but there’s also enough here in both the production and lyrics to withstand a deeper dissection without feeling too creepy or sleazy, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. If nothing else, the song avoids blunting Old Dominion’s trend towards respectability, and though it may not leave you with a lasting memory, it’ll at least leave you with a smile.

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