Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2022, Side B: Morgan Evans, Easton Corbin, Russell Dickerson, Kylie Morgan, Kelsea Ballerini)

This is it folks: The last train to Paradise Valley! With a ‘Top Games of 2022’ post likely coming Friday, it’s the last* chance for songs to make their case for next week’s 2022 single rankings (*sadly there’s always one or two late arrivals that mess up my schedule, but hopefully we’re done for the year).

Morgan Evans, “Over For You”

In theory, I should feel as bad for Evans as I did for Justin Moore, as both artists had their last singles relegated to the same year-end lightning round post. Instead, I pretty much forgot this dude existed, and since he hasn’t cracked the Top 40 since “Day Drunk” crashed and burned at #21 in 2019, can you blame me? It’s been a rocky road for Evans since them both musically and professionally, and his latest single “Over For You” seems to be a response to his recent divorce from Kelsea Ballerini. For its part, the production here is suitably sad, dominated by (you guessed it) a piano and supported by some background gutars, light-touch percussion, and repetitive background vocals. My main gripe, however, is the narrator’s attitude in the lyrics: They put the blame squarely on the other person, insinuating that it was their feelings that changed and that they’ve been going through the motions for quite some time (and eventually building to the “How long has it been over for you?” question on the hook). However, they completely ignore their own potential culpability in the matter: They claim that they still care and would have done anything foe their ex-partner (even “let go if you wanted me to”), but if this issue was a long time coming, why didn’t the narrator notice when things started going off the rails? How might their own actions led to their partner’s decision? Instead, it’s framed as a “you problem,” and Evans’s performance (which is dripping with both ignorance and indignance) doesn’t win him much sympathy here. In the end, he can’t make me feel that all that bad or him or interest me in listening to his tale of woe, especially in a genre that’s drowning in these ‘woe is me’ songs.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Easton Corbin, “I Can’t Decide”

Of course, Evans’s musical journey has been a smooth ride compared to Corbin’s: He was unceremoniously dropped from Mercury Records in 2018 after “A Girl Like You” took over a year just to get to #6, and he’s never really recovered from that (despite putting out some decent singles in the meantime). The ordeal has forced Corbin to conform to the Nashville meta just to get a second look, and thus we get derivative drivel like “I Can’t Decide.” This song isn’t just a laundry list, it’s a laundry list that’s so chock full of overused buzzwords that I’m surprised it wasn’t written by ChatGPT. The level of detail is decent, but the contrasts aren’t always sharp and it’s the same sort of unimaginative “country” schlock that we get from every other song in the genre: The drinking, the driving, the girl, the night, the jeans, etc. This issue extends to the production as well: The sound is defined by guitars, drums, and unnecessary minor chords that detract from the positive atmosphere the song wants to set. It goes even farther: The token banjo is ripped straight from the Bro-Country playbook, and the steel guitar is pushed to the background and given just enough airtime to justify the song’s Spotify tags. Corbin is the only reason to tune in here: He’s still got his trademark earnest charisma that really sells his affection for the other person, and I still contend that he’s a better vocalist that 90% of the artists in the meta today (admittedly the guitar tones have a hint of his signature sound to them as well). You should absolutely check out Corbin’s discography…but you’re free to ignore this one.

Rating: 5/10. No thanks.

Russell Dickerson, “God Gave Me A Girl”

Boyfriend country has given way to Ex-Boyfriend country in the last year or so, and acts that had built their brand on that saccharine sound such as Dickerson, Brett Young, and even Dan + Shay have been severely punished for it. (Parmalee is a kinda-sorta exception, but even their hits take a million freaking years to climb the charts.) Neither of Dickerson’s last two releases (“Home Sweet” and “She Likes It”) managed to crack the Top 10, and honestly I don’t hold out much hope for this song either. For one thing, the producer made some awful decisions here, burying the guitars and beat in washed-out audio effects and turning the mix into an amorphous wall of noise (the acoustic guitar and real drums are less encumbered and sound a bit more distinct, but they overwhelmed by the rest of this mess). The story is a bit of a tired trope as well (formerly-wild guy finds love and has their whole life changed), and as a Boyfriend veteran, Dickerson doesn’t wear the narrator’s mantle terribly well (this guy’s given us nothing but love songs since 2017; trying to say he was “all about that single life” feels more than a little disingenuous). To his credit, Dickerson knows how to sell a love song and is much more believable when he says he’s going to give this person “my last name” and “forever,” but there’s nothing here that distinguishes it from its Boyfriend brethren—there’s nothing personal here to give this song some real meaning. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not one I want to revisit once this review’s over either.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Kylie Morgan, “If He Wanted To He Would”

Morgan is an Oklahoma native who signed with UMG Nashville three years ago but is only now releasing a single to radio. She’s a bit of a Miranda Lambert clone vocally, and given the abysmal track record Nashville has had with debut singles lately, I think this song actually qualifies as a success. I like the how the song opens with a social-media reference (it’s something that rarely gets a mention on the radio, which instantly catches the listener’s ear), I like the writing’s straightforward delivery of the message (there’s a difference between casual feeling and a deep relationship, and the narrator’s friend is dealing with the former), and I like how Morgan delivers the song with enough authority and confidence to make her case with the audience. However, I’m not a huge fan of the production: The drums are way too loud in the mix, and the electric and steel guitars feel like background set pieces instead of truly anchoring the melody. I think Morgan could do a bit more with her performance as well: It lacks Lambert’s trademark attitude and sass, and it feels like you could really go big, show off some personality, and have some fun with a song like this. I’d stop short of calling this a good song, but it’s definitely an intriguing tune that shows off Morgan’s potential and makes me wonder what we might see from her in the future.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a listen or three to see what you think.

Kelsea Ballerini, “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN DOWN TOO)”

*sigh* Again with the all-caps titles? Still, this track is a clear upgrade from Ballerini’s previous (and unremarkable) single “HEARTFIRST,” showcasing solid performances from everyone involved. Don’t sleep on the heavy lifting the production does on this track. Sure, it’s got the rich, vibrant sound of a Chicks single and has a lot of musical diversity, featuring classic instruments (dobro, fiddle, mandolin, etc.) trading the lead role with expert precision, but the resulting light, breezy, and eternally-positive vibe does a lot to take the edge off of the writing, which features some…questionable behavior—robbing banks, killing husbands, lying under oath—and has to make sure the audience knows the narrator’s tongue is firmly place in their cheek. (Hey, if this sound can make murder palatable on “Goodbye Earl,” it can make this work too.) For Ballerini’s part, she captures the ride-or-die vibe of a devoted friend perfectly, and shows off the playful side to her personality that made “Hole In The Bottle” such a fun ride. Despite the writing’s penchant for crimes, we have to give it credit for keeping the ‘bad behavior’ thread going throughout the entire song without it ever feeling forced or cheesy, and it’s worth noting that in a sea of love songs, friendship songs tend to be few and far between, allowing the song to stand out in yet another dimension. This is a track that really deserved its own separate review (which I was planning to do until I realized how little time I had left), and it’s not only the class of the field here, it’s one of the better songs I’ve heard all year.

Rating: 7/10. Hurry up and check this one out while they’re still appealing the convictions.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (May 2022 Edition)

The charts are a pretty active place right now, and it’s getting hard to keep up with all the new arrivals in the Mediabase Top 50. Normally this would be a problem…except that much of what we’re getting isn’t worth keeping up with in the first place, so it’s time to once again speedrun through a few singles and see exactly why they’re so darn forgettable. We’re on the clock, so let’s get on with the proceedings and roll the tape…

Russell Dickerson ft. Jake Scott, “She Likes It”

Good grief, can Nashville just give it up with the mediocre sex jams already? While the writing here clears the bar of “not a complete train wreck” (there are some decent moments in the verses that suggest this relationship is more than a random hookup), it’s still an uninteresting foreplay narration at its core, and it gets absolutely no support from its compatriots. The production is the worst offender here: Who in the heck thought using a leaden beat, a choppy electric guitar, and nothing else was a good idea? Instead of creating a sensual atmosphere, the resulting mix feels like it barely exists and doesn’t create any vibe at all. The artists aren’t much help in this department either: Neither Dickerson nor Scott put any passion or energy behind their performances, and they fail to get anyone in the proper mood. (Also, Scott has absolutely no business being on this track. The man has zero name recognition in the genre and sounds almost identical to Dickerson, making his inclusion nothing but a painfully-obvious play for streaming numbers.) This is subpar even compared to other Nashville sex jams tire fires, and it belongs in the recycle bin.

Rating: 4/10. Nope.

Dillon Carmichael, “Son Of A”

I’m generally a Carmichael fan and I’ve been known to fanboy over obvious tearjerkers (RIP “Bye Mom”), but “Son Of A” is a bit too saccharine and cloying even for my tastes. It’s supposed to be a celebration of parenting and tough love, but it feels incomplete: The story is really slow to develop and doesn’t include enough detail to connect with the listener (for example, I spend most of the first verse wondering what the heck the kid was being punished for). The hook is underdeveloped and obvious to the point of being a little cringe, and the pivot to talking about two-parent families and “broken-home buddies” makes the song come across as unfocused, like it isn’t really sure what it should be saying. The production features some interesting pieces here, but it doesn’t really use some of them (there’s a fiddle buried here, but it’s barely noticeable), and while it does a decent job feeling reflective and building to a climax, there’s just something missing here to induce the listener to stay tuned in. Similarly, Carmichael is okay here, but his performance ultimately feels replaceable, and doesn’t do a great job selling the story. I’d be happy to see Carmichael find radio traction of any sort at this point, but I’d still be disappointed if this were the song radio embraced.

Rating: 5/10. Skip this one and stick with “Hot Beer” instead.

Caitlyn Smith, “Downtown Baby”

I know Mark Grondin at Spectrum Pulse has been hyping up Smith’s work (especially compared to labelmate Walker Hayes), but I just can’t find a reason to jump on her bandwagon. She’s certainly got some vocal talent (the phrase that comes to mind is “more-mature-sounding Sarah Buxton”), climbing the ladder here to show off some impressive range and sounding (relatively) smooth on the rapid-fire chorus, but she doesn’t do a whole lot to interest the listener in the story. Of course, this is primarily the story’s fault: It’s a late-night romp through the city checking all the usual boxes (the “K-pop karaoke” line is the only one that really catches your ear), and seems to be trying a bit too hard with clunky lines like calling the other person “a kaleidoscope of Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and John Wayne.” The production is exactly what you’d expect: A slick, synthetic guitar-and-drum mix (including Grady Smith’s favorite snap track), and while it captures the “urban” element of the song, it doesn’t capture the more-important “fun” or “romantic” elements that it needs. It’s the sort of song you’ll forget two minutes after you hear it, which it means it’s not the kind of song Smith needs at this (or perhaps any) point in her career.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Joe Nichols, “Good Day For Living”

Honestly, this song’s biggest sin is its timing: It focuses on the silver lining around the clouds of life, but when said clouds are this freaking thick, you can’t help but feel like the narrator is more than a little out of touch. From the whistling that opens the track to lines about things like concentrated orange juice and sleeping naked without AC, there’s a general lack of seriousness here that makes the song feel kind of pointless and unbelievable, and a line like “ain’t makin’ no worry no bigger then it is when it isn’t” feels tone deaf when the problem seems to be that we’re not making a big enough deal of what’s happening. (This is a problem I have with these songs in general: Sure, don’t let things get you down, but don’t delude yourself into complacency either.) It’s still Joe Nichols and he still sounds a good as he did twenty years ago, but even he can’t convince the listener to share in the narrator’s optimism. The sound is bright and upbeat, but perhaps a bit too much so, make the song feel fanciful and even a bit dismissive of the trouble that immediately spring to mind. We’ve already got enough songs encouraging people to live in the moment and forget about everything else; we don’t really need another, bad times or not.

Rating: 5/10. A good song for skippin’.

Kameron Marlowe, “Giving You Up”

Marlowe is a North Carolina native best known for a semi-successful run on The Voice in 2018, and he’s been riding this song for a looooong time: He released it independently back in 2019, and then released it as a radio single with Columbia last September. It’s yet another guy that’s angry at an ex over a breakup, and while it’s not as bad as others in this lane (at least it tries to justify the narrator’s feelings by indicating the ex was the one who a) ended things and b) is trying to start them up again), it’s no more compelling or interesting either. The hook here is weak and unoriginal (oh, you’re “giving you up” like smoking and drinking? Gee, I’ve never heard that one before), and Marlowe himself (who sounds like an off-brand Mitchell Tenpenny) makes the narrator feel less sympathetic by leaning on their anger instead of letting the audience share in their pain. The production is nothing to write home about, using a darker-but-generic guitar-and-drum mix to get its point across (and making a jarring transition from real drums in the intro to a drum machine on the first verse) and failing to do anything to make the song actually stand out. With this many miles on its odometer and a different song (“Steady Heart”) seemingly getting more buzz recently, don’t expect this one to stick around.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Song Review: Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet”

2020 may finally be history, but will 2021 be any better? Let’s find out…

Russell Dickerson’s record up to this point has been mixed: Technically he’s 4-for-4 with No. #1 singles since 2017, but they’ve oscillated between forgettable and slightly-above-average, and they’ve all taken forever to climb the charts. (His albums haven’t inspired much confidence either, with his current project Southern Symphony thus far peaking at a cringe-inducing #14.) Still, he seems to have found a niche as an inoffensive Boyfriend country singer that specializes in over-the-top love songs, and that’s pretty much what we get with his latest radio single “Home Sweet.” It’s essentially a clone of Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s “Happy Anywhere,” with a couple of irritating decisions that keep me from calling it a truly good song.

The production, like Dickerson’s track record, is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the arrangement features a bit more instrument diversity than your typical guitar-and-drum mix: We’ve got a mandolin-like instrument that opens the song along with Grady Smith’s favorite clap track, a “diet piano” that’s used to brighten the song rather than add weight and seriousness, and a rolling banjo that actually feels like a meaningful piece rather than a token addition. The result is a light, springy sound with some decent energy and momentum as establishes a happy, borderline-euphoric atmosphere that does a decent job supporting the song. The problem, however, is that the producer went way overboard with the echoey effects on this thing, and while this doesn’t cause much trouble on the sparser verses, the whole mess turns into a wall of noise when the guitars and drum set try to pump up the volume on the chorus, so much so that it starts to drown out Dickerson’s vocals as well. All in all, the sound does it job, but it’s like using bubble sort in production code: There has to be  a more efficient solution than this.

If you’ve heard one Dickerson song, you’ve pretty much heard them all: The man seems to do release nothing but love songs that try to stay on the sunny side of life, and he’s got a good handle on how to sell them. The song doesn’t present any real technical challenges (despite the brisk tempo, the lyrics never approach rapid-fire territory), but it does require a narrator to project a classic young-love attitude and and the unbridled optimism that defines it, which is exactly what Dickerson specializes in. With a bit of help from the spacious production (when it’s not overwhelming his voice, that is), Dickerson’s charisma allows the audience to get a sense of the narrator’s  unfiltered joy, which is more than a lot of artists could pull off (including Dickerson himself) in the last twelve months. Dickerson’s performance makes the speaker a more sympathetic and likeable character, and for a song like this, that’s about all you can ask for.

Lyrically, the narrator declares that home is just a mental construct defined by the love between themselves and their partner, and thus could be anywhere as long as they’re together. I have to admit, the “home sweet” hook sounds really stupid to methe second “home” was basically just chopped off to make the phrase fit/rhyme, and thus it always comes across as awkward and incomplete. What I do appreciate, however, are the vivid details provided for each scene, allowing the listener to visualize the honeymoon trip and the newly-purchased home full of cardboard boxes.  Providing vivid yet varied descriptions of “home” while consistently trumpeting the narrator’s newlywed optimism really drives home the song’s message and makes it feel more earnest and believable, despite the terrible hook. It’s a pretty straightforward tune that knows exactly what it need to do, and does it relatively well.

In the end, “Home Sweet” is a pretty okay song, mostly thanks to its upbeat nature and the way the sound, singer, and songwriters work together to project a positive outlook that feels believable (albeit a bit naive). It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s better than some of the bland tracks clogging up the radio right now. I have to admit, however, than I’m slightly concerned for Russell Dickerson’s future in the genre: He’s been a one-trick pony for the last couple of years, and I’d like to see him break out of his comfort zone and cover topics other than just how simple love songs. I’ll take this for now, but I’d like to see a bit more variety from him going forward.

Rating: 6/10. It’s a worth a few spins before the New Year’s optimism wears off.

Song Review: Russell Dickerson, “Love You Like I Used To”

If you’re going to pull a head fake, don’t do it halfway like this, because you’re audience won’t follow.

By the numbers, Russell Dickerson has carved out a respectable little holding in Music City, with his first three singles from his debut album Yours reaching #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart. As much as I liked “Every Little Thing,” however, the song spent most of 2019 crawling up the charts, throwing a wet blanket on Dickerson’s momentum and hype as 2020 approached. Sensing that the time had come to turn the page, Dickerson is back now with the presumed leadoff single from his sophomore project, “Love You Like I Used To.” It’s a strange song that tries a reverse Thomas Rhett by deking towards a sad song before pivoting back to generic Boyfriend-country territory, but the fake is handled so poorly that the audience doesn’t really follow along, and is left more confused than anything else when the song finishes.

Let’s start with the production, which is perhaps the main culprit behind the failed reverse. The song opens with a semi-bright acoustic guitar and some spacious synth tones, but the riffs and the unorthodox IV-I-V-vi chord structure give the mix an unsettled and ominous feel (and the drum machine doesn’t help matters), which doesn’t raise any eyebrows because it fits the potential sad story of the first verse. When the deke hits, however, all the producer does is add a few washed-out, toneless electric guitars that barely add to the volume level, let alone the feel of the track. Not even some brighter strings (maybe a mandolin?) and an amped-up bridge solo add any life to the song, which means that while the narrator is professing their everlasting happiness, the one-note mix feels overly dour in comparison and makes the listener seriously doubt the narrator’s sincerity. I’ve heard some poor sound/subject matter pairings before, but I haven’t heard a mix undercut the writing this badly in quite some time, and it completely kills the mood of what seems like it could have been a decent track in a vacuum.

Dickerson doesn’t do the writing any favors either, as in his attempt to project more seriousness and depth, he loses all of the expressiveness and emotion he showed off on “Every Little Thing.” It’s as if there’s a wall between Dickerson and the mic: The listener can sense that he’s trying to pour his heart and soul into the song, but it doesn’t come through on the tape, and his tone and range feel artificially constrained and surprisingly flat. This also means that he lacks the punch to counter the poor framing of the production, and gets dragged down by the lifeless sound behind him. You just don’t get any sense of happiness from Dickerson’s delivery, and the performance feels a bit hollow and unbelievable as a result. I get the sense that Dickerson is the sort of artist who needs a lot of help from the producer to get his point across, and as well as the combination worked on “Every Little Thing,” it doesn’t work at all here.

The writing is probably the best part about the song, even if it spends much of its time in generic, overcooked territory. The narrator declares that they “don’t love you like I used to,” but instead of the usual yarn about a love gone cold, the writers borrow some ideas from Brad Paisley’s “Then” and declare that their feelings are even stronger now than in the beginning of the relationship. It’s an okay hook with some decent execution and even a few hints of wit thrown in (“What we got ain’t got no ending, like a band of solid gold”), but it also get too clever by half at points (lines like “But I keep fallin’ all in higher than I’ve ever been” and “gets as good as it gets old” sacrifice clarity for wordplay). Otherwise, the song mostly sticks to the Boyfriend country playbook while also staying annoyingly abstract and devoid of detail (we learn nothing about the other person, the scenario, etc.). It’s okay, but it’s not terribly memorable or passionate, and the listener has forgotten the track thirty seconds after it ends.

“Love You Like I Used To” makes we wish Russell Dickerson would sing songs like he used to, because this sterile, lifeless track isn’t a good look for him. The writing tried to set up a trick shot, but the producer never got the message, and Dickerson can’t rise above the mess to convince the audience to pay attention. In the end, the song goes nowhere and is nothing more than radio filler, and it’s a serious step down from “Every Little Thing” or even “Yours,” which leaves me wishing that Dickerson would release better tracks like he used to.

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

Song Review: Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing”

This is the dumbest little silly song I’ve heard in quite some time. So why can’t I stop smiling?

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but avoiding the “sophomore slump” afterwards has proven to be a tall task for a lot of new artists. Russell Dickerson, however, managed to scale the Billboard airplay mountain once again (albeit slowly) with “Blue Tacoma,” a generic, poorly-produced driving song that he managed to will across the finish line. Dickerson is his own best advocate at this point, and he show it on his third single “Every Little Thing,” a pointless, nonsensical song that is nevertheless the most fun thing I’ve heard on the radio in months.

The production here is sure to make traditionalists cringe when they hear it, but the synergy it has with Dickerson is a huge step up from “Blue Tacoma.” It opens with a drum set borrowed from LANco’s “Born To Love You,” but quickly settles into it main groove of artificial snap percussion and lighthearted whistle/dobro riff, with something (banjo? ukelele? the dobro again?) methodically keeping time in the background. It’s all pretty light and restrained…until a set of heavy electric guitar stabs kick in on the chorus, and a brighter electric guitar jumps to provide some background support and a rocking solo. There is absolutely no way this should all work, and yet the mix manages to create a fun, carefree atmosphere that’s surprisingly catchy, overloading the listener’s happiness glands until they just have to get up and dance along. No, it’s not really romantic, but a playful vibe like this one is the next best thing for a love song, especially when it’s got this much energy behind it. I’m tempted to say the producer just lucked into this one after their subpar performance on “Blue Tacoma,” but hey, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Apparently Dickerson heard me when I said he “seems to lack that extra something to make me care about…such a overdone topic” in my last review, because he stepped up and brought it this time. He shows off an easy, effortless delivery that goes from high to low with no trouble at all, and his flow is solid from start to finish. The biggest thing, however, is just how much energy and enjoyment Dickerson brings to the table. The man sounds like he’s having an absolute blast on this track, and he just can’t wait to share his good fortune with the audience. Instead of being so serious about how deep his feelings are, he takes the fun, playful route to romance that’s not as prevalent on the radio, but can be super effective when executed properly (see: Midland’s “Make A Little”). In short, Dickerson found that “extra something” on this track, which can only mean good things for him going forward.

The lyrics are…hey, did I mention how great the production and vocals are here? It’s a good thing, because the lyrics are the most bizarre, random collection of sentences I’ve heard all year. The basic gist is that the narrator is head-over-heels in love with their partner, and they’re grasping at ways to explain just how deep their feelings are. However, the comparisons they use range from generic (“endless August summer,” “easy like Sunday morning,” “24-carat goodness”) to just plain weird (he compares the woman to Alabama, Seattle, and Sonoma?), and the choruses are beyond repetitive:

‘Cause I love every little, every little, every little thing about her love
Just a little, just little, just a little ain’t enough
Gotta get a, gotta get a, get a little more of all she does
I’m all hung up
‘Cause I love every little, every little, every little thing about her love

Seriously, did it really take three songwriters to put this together? It’s a good thing Dickerson and the producer laid the good feelings on think enough to make the listener say “Lyrics? Who cares about the lyrics?” because there isn’t a lot to care about here.

“Every Little Thing” is basically Russell Dickerson saying “To heck with it: I feel good, and I’m going to let the world know about it,” and amazingly, that was enough to make it the best of the three recent love songs I’ve reviewed in the past few days. Unlike Garth Brooks and Luke Combs, Dickerson and his producer discard any pretense of this being a serious song about serious emotions, make the song a rollicking good time full of energy and passion, and are better off for doing so. There are a lot of newer acts in country music that I’m not particularly thrilled with, but between this song and “Yours,” I’m surprisingly intrigued about Dickerson’s future potential.

Rating: 7/10. Give this a spin if you’re having a bad day. Heck, do it if you’re having a good day too!

Song Review: Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma”

Let this song be a lesson to all you young singers out there: Choose your producer carefully, because they can destroy you as quickly as anything else.

I actually didn’t mind Russell Dickerson’s debut single “Yours,” and apparently radio felt the same way, as the song wound up topping Billboard’s airplay chart back in January. Lately, however, it’s been the second single that determines whether an artist has staying power or not, and if Dickerson’s follow-up track “Blue Tacoma” is any indication, he’s in for a major sophomore slump. The song is yet another drum-machine-heavy “driving around with a girl” song that feels so run-of-the-mill and generic that it just rolls off listeners’ ears like water off a duck’s back, and can’t seem to hold my attention for more than about twenty seconds.

Most of what goes wrong with this track can be credited to poor production choices. I’ve heard enough Bro-toned songs like this that I can pretty much tell what’s coming that minute I hear the opening beat: An in-your-face drum machine that’s turned up way too loud for the mix, a token banjo that’s forced to carry the melody on the verses, and select electric guitar stabs on the chorus that give way to a bright-but-nondescript guitar solo. Even amongst similar songs, this mix feels exceptionally commonplace and even boring, to the point where it doesn’t even to generate the energy and momentum you’d expect from such a celebratory, uptempo track. Maybe these sorts of party-vibe song have finally reached a critical mass for me, but “Blue Tacoma” didn’t register for me all, and I found myself ignoring it in favor of scrolling through my other web browser tabs before the first verse had finished.

To his credit, Dickerson isn’t the problem here: He’s a strong technical singer (good range, solid flow) with an easy, earnest delivery, and he has enough charisma to sell the track and convince me that he’s found heaven on Earth with his partner. Unfortunately, where a veteran performer like Darius Rucker can take an unremarkable song and make it at least a little compelling, Dickerson seems to lack that extra something to make me care about a song on such an overdone topic. Whatever emotion he brings to bear is pretty much overruled by the subpar production, which keeps him from leaving his mark on the song. It’s yet another example of a promising singer getting derailed by bad production decisions (and very reminiscent of what happened to Carly Pearce on “Hide The Wine”), and something that could very well cost Dickerson all of his “Yours” momentum.

The song’s premise is pretty simple: The narrator is driving around California in a “Blue Tacoma” with the object of his affection, declaring that “if heaven is anywhere,” it’s right here. I’d throw the track into the same “Bro-Lite” category as Chris Young’s “Hangin’ On,” as the usual tropes are present but toned down: The narrator is drinking Sunkist rather than Crown Royal, the pair is driving in the daytime rather than the nighttime, the name-dropped song is by Shania Twain rather than the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, etc. Even so, however, on paper the lyrics feel like they should have enough emotion and personality to move the listener by themselves. The problem is that they as overwhelmed by the production as Dickerson himself, and are further hampered by the song’s structure (the rapid-fire sections keep the words from getting the time and space they need to let their emotional content sink in to the listener’s mind.) As it is, the lyrics flow in on ear and out the other without leaving a trace, instead serving as a prime example of the destructive power of a drum machine.

I’m not sure “Blue Tacoma” could have been a great (or even good) song, but it could have easily been a lot more memorable or interesting had the producer not decided to dress it up like a Florida Georgia Line track.  How costly a decision this turns out to be for Russell Dickerson remains to be seen, but it makes him blend in more than stand out, and that’s a major problem for a newer artist.

Rating: 5/10. Why bother? You won’t remember hearing it anyway.

Song Review: Russell Dickerson, “Yours”

If I could sum up Russell Dickerson in a sentence, I’d say that he does Sam Hunt better than Sam Hunt does.

Dickerson is a Tennesse-based artist who has been kicking around Nashville as since 2010, but only recently scored a major-label deal with the newly-formed Triple Tigers label. “Yours” was actually released independently all the way back in 2015, and had already racked up thirty million Spotify streams and been declared one of the best new wedding songs of 2016 before its official release to country radio back in April. While the song is an obvious play for both the contemporary-country and wedding-song crowds, it’s also easy to see the song’s appeals after a few spins.

The production here is exactly what you’d expect out of Nashville these days. The song opens with a low, moody piano backed by a restrained electric guitar and steel guitar, then slowly builds energy and momentum by adding instruments as the song progresses (first a drum machine halfway through the first verse, then some real drums after the first chorus, and then finally a cranked-up electric guitar for a solo on the bridge). The mix does a nice job accentuating the song’s message by using darker tones and keys while the narrator details his past on the verses, and then shifting to a brighter, more-celebratory tone as the focus shifts to the present on the choruses. It’s a nice blend of modern and traditional sounds that keeps the synthetic elements in a supporting role while featuring just enough polish to remain easy on the ears.

Vocally, Dickerson is basically Sam Hunt with a slightly-smoother voice and without all the annoying talk-singing. He seems a bit more comfortable in his upper range, but he’s capable enough in his lower registers, and his flow on some of the faster-paced lyrics is pretty impressive. His biggest asset, however, is the earnestness of his delivery—he comes across as believable and sells the song incredibly well. The song also complements Dickerson’s voice well, as the lower-ranged verses are somber and reflective (which keep him from overextending his voice), while the choruses let him climb the ladder to exert a bit more vocal power. He may not be the strongest vocalist in the genre, but he’s got the vocal charisma to make a song like this feel heartfelt without sounded too corny.

The songwriting here is surprisingly strong, even despite its overarching (and overdone) theme of “my life sucked before you, but it’s awesome now because of you.” The images here are specific, vivid, and mostly unique, such as with the opening lines “I was a boat stuck in a bottle/That never got the chance to touch the sea.” The lyrics also reflect the current anti-objectification trend in the genre: The song focuses on feelings rather than appearances, and cleverly flips around the typical ownership dynamic in its hook (instead of “you’re mine,” the proclamation is “I’m yours”). The lack of gender language here is also interesting, as the song never makes a “she/her/girl/woman” reference about the narrator’s partner, and thus broadens its appeal by potentially applying to anyone. While the song is a bit one-sided (the feelings of the narrator’s partner are never mentioned, and the narrator never talks about becoming a better person for their partner), Dickerson’s delivery and vocal charisma keep the song from ever feeling shallow or self-serving.

Overall, “Yours” is an impressive debut and a great choice for a first single, featuring a mixture of sharp writing, a strong delivery, and production that doesn’t get in the way. It’s the kind of song that draws people to it even if they’re not at a romantic stage in their life, and I’m very interested in seeing how this fares on mainstream radio and where Dickerson chooses to go from here.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a few spins and see how it feels.