Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2022, Side A: Toby Keith, Justin Moore & Priscilla Block, Eli Young Band, Tyler Hubbard, Bailey Zimmerman)

It’s that time of year again folks: That magical month when we’ve got too many songs to review and not enough year left to review them. Only reviewed tracks are eligible for a coveted spot on my barely-anticipated year-end single rankings, so we’ve got no choice but to crank up the storm and and crank out a few lightning-round review sessions.

With that, this introduction has dragged on long enough already. Roll the tape!

Toby Keith, “Oklahoma Breakdown”

Okay, this thing is just sad. Keith is at least two decades too old to sing a Bro-Country-Lite song like this, and he sounds tired and even a little pathetic trying to pull it off (his mentioning of the other’s person parents pushes this song deep into cringe territory, and the writing indicates this is happening in the present tense). As for the story itself, it’s pretty basic even by the standards of Bro-Country: You get a nighttime ride down to the river, and then…you get a nighttime ride back from the river. (At least the alcohol is reduced to a few “get juiced” allusions.) The hook doesn’t seem to be connected to the story at all, and we don’t get any details about the river excursion (besides the fact that the truck is Fred’s, whoever the heck that is) that would actually draw us into the tale. At the end of the day, this is a badly-executed attempt at an overdone trope from a singer who should know better, and there’s no reason to give it the time of day.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Justin Moore & Priscilla Block, “You, Me, And Whiskey”

Honestly, I kind of feel bad for Moore: His last track got stuffed into a year-end lightning-round post too, and excited the country music community so little that it took ten months to get to #1 and never even cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Still, that’s better than anything Block has achieved thus far, with “My Bar” crashing and burning at #26 on the airplay chart and #50 on the Hot Country Songs chart. I know that collabs are the hottest trend right now, but I’m not sure where the idea to combine them on this song came from, because neither artists has much buzz and their chemistry here is passable at best (I don’t feel like their voices blend together all that well). The vibe here is too static for my tastes: Sure, the overly dark instrument tones and regular minor chords make sense when conveying the frustrations of too much work and not enough intimacy on the first verse, but using that same tone on the second verse and choruses make the track feel a bit too ominous, as if the sex that’s coming is an undesirable thing. (The slicker guitars and programmed beat don’t help matters, making the song feel clinical and businesslike instead of passionate and emotional.) Neither Moore nor Block bring any feeling to the table either: Their deliveries are stilted and didactic, telling us what’s going on but not allowing us to actually feel it. The writing feels a little undercooked here as well: It doesn’t offer a ton of opportunities to indicate passion (“your hands are all over me, “you’re already talkin’ dirty,” and that’s about it), some images feel a little forced (“sinkin’ to the bottom of them country songs” comes across as a bolted-on time-filler), and it doesn’t do enough to sell us on the idea of whiskey as a suitable catalyst (because given what we’re hearing from the sound and singer, as Travis Tritt might say, “the whiskey ain’t workin'” here). In the end, we’re left with yet another unsexy sex jam from a town that needed to get out of this business yesterday, and two artists who will probably get stuck in this cleanup round again next year.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Eli Young Band, “Love Talking”

This song popped up on Mediabase over six months ago, and while it got a preliminary grade from me, it didn’t stick around long enough to warrant writing a full review. It’s just as well: The EYB hasn’t been relevant in Nashville since 2018, and this track does nothing to change that. My biggest problem with this track is that I have no idea what it’s trying to say: Is it a roundabout way to say the speaker really loves their partner, do they actually regret expressing their feelings the night before, or do they fall somewhere in between? The production offers few clues, because it suffers from the same problem as Moore/Block’s song did: Its dark instrument tones and tendency to bury the instruments in audio effects gives the mix a cold, hard, unfeeling vibe, keeping the audience from getting a good emotional read on the track. Similarly, lead singer Mike Eli keeps his cards a bit too close to his vest, and while he occasionally dials up the intensity and volume of his delivery, his tone is so even-keel most of the time (even on the chorus!) that the question of what he actually feels about the whole ordeal remains a mystery. Perhaps this is the point—the narrator might be as in the dark as we are in terms of what to make of their predicament—but the writing also fails to give us a picture of what said predicament actually is! Did the pair go to bed together and wake up unsure about the decision? Did the other person walk away and force the narrator to sing to an answering machine? We’ve got absolutely no clue what’s going on here, and thus don’t have enough information to make any judgements, or really even care about the situation at all. The truth is that this is just not an interesting song to listen to, and whether or not the EYB will exist in mainstream Nashville much longer remains as unclear as this song’s story.

Rating: 5/10. Whatever.

Tyler Hubbard, “Dancin’ In The Country”

Just when you thought we were done with Florida Georgia Line forever, Tyler Hubbard appears to be reinventing himself as a solo artist (not exactly a surprise, given how little Brian Kelley actually contributed to that pair) for another run at country stardom. I called Keith’s track “Bro-Country-Lite” earlier, but this drivel is just Bro-Country minus the misogyny and the louder/heavier elements of the sound (the electric guitars aren’t as prominent or as loud, and the beats don’t feel as programmed or as deep), although admittedly there are some benefits to this change (I feel like a actual drums and slightly-faster tempo give this song more energy). Beyond that, however, this is the same schlock that was being dumped on us a decade ago: Same neon lights, same red dirt, same blue jeans, same token banjo, same pickup trucks, same name-drops (Alabama and Alan Jackson seem to have passed George Strait as the artists of the moment), and the same nighttime headlight party-in-a-field that we’ve been offered over and over and over again. Unsurprisingly, Hubbard’s back in his element at the Bro-in-chief, and he’s no more interesting or likable than he ever was in that role. The writing is mostly boilerplate and brings back all the “greatest hits” of the era (except for drinking, which is a bit surprising), but also mixes in some confusion for flavor (what the heck is a “watermelon summer” supposed to mean, and why is that line even here?). My sense is that Nashville is trying to find a version of the old Bro-Country formula that doesn’t offend our sensibilities, but if that’s the goal, my response is “keep trying,” because they aren’t there yet.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t waste your time with this one.

Bailey Zimmerman, “Rock And A Hard Place”

If there’s one good thing I can say about “Rock And A Hard Place,” it’s that it’s not “Fall In Love”, which is going to wind up very close to the bottom (if not at the bottom) of my song rankings this year. Zimmerman isn’t as dour or angry this time around (thank goodness), but he’s still got a bit of an attitude problem: The narrator is frustrated by the on-again, off-again nature of the relationship and how painful and draining it is, but he’s not actually interested in doing anything about it. He won’t walk away because “throwin’ in the towel takes some effort,” but he chooses just to “ride it out for better weather” instead of taking any proactive steps to make things better. (When he says “is there where it mends or it breaks?” you want to scream back “It doesn’t just mend! You have to do something to mend it!” (It brings to mind an old Chad Brock song, with Zimmerman being the guy talking about the farm instead of plowing the ground.) The other person isn’t much better with their apparent “marriage will solve everything” attitude, but this idea is given a whole two lines of airtime in the song (repeated later for a grand total of four) and is never elaborated on, making it feel completely unattached to the rest of the track and only included just to get the “rock and a hard place” hook to fit. To its credit, the production fits the song reasonably well: The overall negative vibe reflects the narrator’s stress level and irritation (and its relative lack of energy matches the narrator’s own slothfulness), and the instruments never get in the way of the vocals (which is important given how much explaining the narrator has to do). I wouldn’t call this a good song, but it might be the best of a weak field here, and it’s light-years ahead of Zimmerman’s last single, so at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time, but at least it won’t leave your ears bleeding.

Song Review: Priscilla Block, “My Bar”

The first artist I thought of when I heard this song was Niko Moon. That’s not a good thing.

Priscilla Block rode a burst of social media virality to a record deal back in 2020, but the radio wasn’t as thrilled with her work as TikTok was, and “Just About Over You” wound up with a mediocre #14 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart after over a year of climbing. The song, which covered the narrator’s reaction to seeing their ex at a bar, just didn’t resonate that much with listeners, and a sensible reaction would be to try something different, maybe something that showcases Block’s personality a bit more (“PMS”? “Thick Thighs”? “Peaked In High School”?). Instead, we get “My Bar,” which…covers the narrator’s reaction to seeing their ex at a bar? Seriously? Is the label trying to turn Block into a Moon-esque one trick pony? The narrator has a bit more attitude this time around, but otherwise this is the same darn song we just got from Block, and it’s no more interesting now than it was last time.

The production here is about as generic as it could possibly be, dominated by the same guitar-and-drum arrangement that the rest of Nashville is using. There’s a steel-guitar-sounding instrument floating around in the background, but otherwise these are the same freaking instruments with the same freaking tones and (lack of) texture that we always get, with absolutely nothing added to make the sound distinct or memorable. The regular minor chords and darker elements of the sound cast a pall over the song, making it feel less like a confident kiss-off and more like a petulant rant over a turf war, which really limits the enjoyment that the listener gets out of the track. The sound isn’t muscular enough to add some punch to the narrator’s demand, isn’t fun enough to enough the confrontation, and isn’t melancholy enough to make you sympathize with the narrator…so what exactly is the song supposed to be? The mix is nothing but a soundalike space-filler, seemingly pulled off the shelf just so the song wouldn’t be an acapella performance, and it holds the song back rather than pushing it forward.

Unfortunately, Block doesn’t give the audience any more to work with than the producer does. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of, but the main issue lies in the emotion (of lack thereof) in Block’s delivery. The verses are delivered with all the passion of an evening news anchor, the effort to project some attitude on the bridge is halfhearted at best, and when Block raises her voice and channels some emotion on the choruses, the feel is more indignant whining than righteous anger. Instead of scorning the ex who may or may not have come to the bar on purpose, the listener ends up thinking that Block is the one in the wrong for complaining about it, which is probably not what she intended. I feel like leaning in to at least one extreme would have been more effective: Get angry over the intrusion and emphasize how out of place they are, get sassy or snarky and lay out the ex’s transgressions for the world to see, or even just get kind of moody over the whole thing as she did on “Just About Over You.” Instead, we get this passive-aggressive, kinda-sorta annoyed approach from Block that simply doesn’t move the audience and convince them to keep listening.

The story here is that the narrator is hanging out at one of their longtime hangouts when their former partner walks in unexpectedly, and the narrator tells them to leave because “this is my bar.” The writers spend a lot of time establishing the narrator’s connection to the bar (they have the same drink in the same spot on the same night all the time), but they don’t give it much character, making it feel like a generic club that could be anyone’s bar. The hook is fairly weak, but the chorus opening is even weaker (“Don’t come walking in like you own it, I hate to break it to you, you don’t”), making the narrator’s complaints feel flimsy and overdramatic. Even if the narrator is a regular here, it doesn’t really bolster their case—you’re going to run into an ex everywhere if they’re local (even if they’re on “your side of town”), and they’ve got as much of a right to be there as anyone. (To the writers’ credit, there’s at least a little evidence presented that the ex’s presence is suspicious, but Block doesn’t emphasize it enough in her own performance to make the charges stick.) In the end, the story doesn’t bring anyone into the narrator’s camp, and doesn’t really convince anyone to pay attention at all.

“Just About Over You” was “just another song” when I reviewed it, and “My Bar” is pretty much a carbon copy of it—if anything, I’d say this song is actually a step backwards from its predecessor. The production is bland and boilerplate, the writing is weak and uninteresting, and Priscilla Block’s vocal performance is underwhelming and unconvincing. If there were lessons to be learned from Block’s debut disappointment and better songs to be released as a follow-up, Block and UMG Nashville didn’t seem to notice them as they essentially gave us the same darn song as before, with only a failed attempt as adding some attitude to try to bring the audience on board. It wasn’t enough, and Block’s career won’t survive too many more bad decisions like this one.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Song Review: Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You”

…And we’re back to boring again.

I called Kane Brown “arguably the first mainstream country performer to rise to prominence through social media,” but North Carolina native Priscilla Block has a much more interesting story to tell. Driven to TikTok by the pandemic, Block rose to prominence on the strength of her viral novelty hit “Thick Thighs,” and then exploded when a crowdfunded recording of “Just About Over You” reached #1, spurring UMG Nashville to add her to their roster and push the song to country radio. Success does not necessarily mean quality, however, and true to form, the label took a quick look at songs like “Thick Thighs” and “PMS” (which are at least interesting and demonstrate some decent songwriting chops) and decided to roll with “Just About Over You,” a boring, generic breakup song that adds to the glut of lost-love songs that are suddenly everywhere on the airwaves. It may have been the safe choice, but it was also the wrong choice.

The first mistake here is in the production, which is basically the same guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is using, except it’s then buried under a million coats of slick Nashville polish. (Seriously, did they seal all the mics in amber before the recording session?) The track opens with some restrained electric guitars and an underwater drum machine, then segues into a acoustic-guitar-driven section for the first verse, and finally brings it all together on the first chorus with some more-textured electric axes and real drums. (A piano adds some notes here and there throughout the track, but doesn’t add anything of note to the atmosphere.) The minor-chord-centered structure and darker instrument tones certainly give the track a serious tone, but not a terribly sad oneinstead, I’m left with the feeling that I’ve heard this song a million times before. The narrator may not have moved on, but the listener is more than ready to do so by the time this track is over.

Vocally, Block brings to mind a higher-pitched version of Miranda Lambert (especially on her other tracks), but she’s nowhere near Lambert’s level when it comes to song-selling. Part of this is the track’s fault, as its rapid-fire sections force Block to concentrate solely on getting the words out instead of putting sort of feeling behind them (she’s fine on the less-intense verses, but her tone gets really monotonous on the choruses). Her performance just doesn’t give me the sense that the narrator is really that disturbed by the reappearance of the ex, and in turn she isn’t able to share her emotions with the audience and convince them to sympathize with her plight (or to even care about it at all). In the end, there’s just nothing ear-catching or distinguishing about this performanceit just kind of exists, and that’s the absolute worst thing an official debut single can do.

The writing is a mixed bag, but there are at least some flashes of potential mixed in with the typical clichés. The overall story is you classic case of a narrator struggling to get over an ex, losing all of their progress the moment said ex comes into view (think Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again”), but the context is never fleshed out here. As catchy as references to doomscrolling and hoop earrings might be (and Sam Hunt already beat Block to the punch on the former reference), we’re never given any hint as to what led to the breakup in the first place (Lying? Cheating? Pandemic fatigue?). Heck, the other person doesn’t even act like there’s any bad blood between them and the narrator at all. With no sins to highlight, the audience starts questioning the breakup long before the narrator does (and they aren’t doing it because they’re drunk!). Beyond this, the scenes are pretty boilerplate: Tracking the other person’s vehicle, wishful images of the other person hanging out with the guys or another woman…it’s a fairly standard and mostly unoriginal lost-love track, which doesn’t do a whole lot for your Q rating when you’re trying to establish yourself.

“Just About Over You” is just another song, featuring the same old production, incomplete writing, and a “meh” performance from Priscilla Block. It’s a terrible choice for a debut single, and what’s most frustrating about this is that it didn’t have to be this way. I wouldn’t call a song like “Thick Thighs” great, but it’s definitely attention-grabbing, and seems like the kind of fun, self-aware song that could resonate with a larger audience (you know, just like it already did on TikTok). For my money, Nashville is playing things way too safe right now, and as a result we’re getting a bunch of boring, interchangeable material on the airwaves, the sort of stuff that isn’t conducive to breaking in a new artist. Usually I say “this artist needs to find stronger material fast,” but Block had that strong material in hand this timelabels like UMG just need the vision and the chutzpah to release it.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*