Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (August 2021 Edition)

The alternative title: “How Many 5/10 scores can Kyle give out at one time?”

My limited weekly posting schedule means that keeping up with new singles on the radio can be a struggle, and while I was hoping that my last lightning round post would help me keep pace, the rate of new singles (especially those from bigger-name artists that aren’t announced in Country Aircheck ahead of time and use the radio’s express lane to rack up big first-week numbers) has mitigated whatever advantage I thought I had. (The blog’s split focus on music and gaming puts me further behind too, but gosh darn it sometimes you have to talk about the latest Pokémon news or rant about Nintendo’s will-they-or-won’t-they DLC support strategy.)

The good news is that we aren’t dealing with the garbage that we ran into last round, but the bad news is there’s a lot of mediocrity being pushed on the airwaves right now. I’m not always keen to waste 800+ words on a song that could be summed up with a single “Meh,” so let’s see if we can knock these out quickly, shall we?

(Editor’s Note: There’s one notable omission from this list, but we’re going to need a full review to talk about Morgan Wallen…)

Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love”

You know that old line about putting lipstick on a pig? The ukelele and organ may give the production a slight island vibe, but at the end of the day this is yet another cheesy Boyfriend country ballad from a duo that only seems to release these sorts of songs (seriously, it feels like I’ve reviewed this drivel five times already over the last few years). Some of the more over-the-top declarations in the writing (like getting a tattoo of the other person’s name) make the song feel slightly creepy, and the “steal my love” framing of the track seems weirdly awkward to me (when contrasted with falling skies and unraveling worlds, artists usually say their love will never falter rather than never be stolen). Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are no more interesting or romantic than they’ve ever been, and after re-plowing this ground so often, the listener is left wondering “is that really all you’ve got?” Basically, this song is a pandering-to-the-base move that won’t change anyone’s opinion of the duo: If you like them, you’ll like this one; if they bore you as much as they bore me, you’ll forget it exists in a month.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO”

I’d seen and heard a lot of hype for this song, so I was surprised to discover just how much it didn’t move me when I finally heard it. Part of it is the poor production choices, resulting in a song that too sounds too slick (that synthesized guitar on the bridge solo gives the song a strangely psychedelic vibe that doesn’t complement the story at all) and not moody enough for the subject matter—check out Montgomery Gentry’s “Speed” and note just how dark that song sounds in comparison. (Adding the fiddle sample from McGraw’s “Where The Green Grass Grows,” was an interesting idea, but its limited use means it clashes with the rest of the arrangement and feels tacked on and out of place.) The writing falls flat as well, as it relies too heavily on generic country tropes (yep, we’re back to aimless cruising and making out on tailgates) and spends way too long giving us pointless details about the truck that add nothing to the song. (Even the accident vignette doesn’t land like it did in Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” mostly because it’s quickly glossed over and doesn’t give us a glimpse of the other person’s personality.) McGraw doesn’t show much personality either; his delivery is awfully clinical and matter-of-fact for a guy who misses their partner so much that they have to sell their truck to forget them. I think there might have a been a good song in here somewhere, but poor execution from everyone involved dooms this track to irrelevance.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth its listing price.

Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts”

A more appropriate title for this one would have been “Tame Hearts.” Despite ostensibly being an ode to “the wild cards and all of the wild hearts just like mine,” there’s nothing terribly wild (or interesting) about Urban’s latest release. The production acts like it’s trying to build up to something on the first verse, but it just settles into a standard midtempo, mid-volume routine on the chorus, squandering whatever momentum it had generated. The second verse is just a mess: Whoever decided to cram a million extra syllables into it and make Urban talk-sing his way through it need to be sent back to English class (seriously, who decided to use “tail-of-a-dragon” as a adjective? What does that even mean?). That whole thing could have been trimmed down and sung normally to much greater effect instead of breaking up the flow of the song trying to fit it a few pointless extra words. For his part, Urban doesn’t do a great job selling the narrator’s role despite the unorthodox swings he’s taken on the production side lately (admittedly this would be hard for any mainstream performer; you really need an outsider/”outlaw” persona à la Eric Church to pull it off), and he doesn’t bring enough feeling in his delivery to stick the landing. In the end, the song winds up being an underwhelming celebration of bold dreamers, and just kind of exists.

Rating: 5/10. Whether you’re dreaming big or not, you have better ways to spend your time.

Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”

This is a track that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. The lyrics try to tell the story of a pair of exes that can’t seem to let each other go, but the primary focus seems to be the constant rendezvous and the sentiment that this isn’t actually what the couple wants only gets a few lines of lip service. The production leans on plentiful minor chords and darker instruments tones to indicate that the relationship is not ideal, but the quicker tempo and busy, spacious choruses (and especially the lively guitar on the bridge solo) over-infuse the song with energy and push the focus away from the conflict and towards the lovemaking (it reminds me more of Thomas Rhett & Maren Morris’s “Craving You” than something like Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown,” despite the latter being closer thematically). Brown himself seems to be just along for the ride: His narrator clearly prefers that the relationship be on rather than off, but he seems to consider himself completely powerless in the matter and subject to the whims of the alcohol and the other person.(which simply isn’t true; he can always cut things off completely or at least broach the subject of getting back together more permanently). I’m not sure what to make of this song, but it’s certainly caught my attention and given me something to think about, which is more than I can say for the most of these other tracks.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it strikes you.

Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty”

Chalk this one up as yet another unimpressive debut single from an artist that just rolled off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line. The production is mostly the standard guitar-and-drum mix everyone relies on (there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s relegated to background support for the entire song), and while it sets a suitably reverent tone to support the writing, the general vibe isn’t all that romantic, and it doesn’t do enough to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the story. It’s just as well, however, because you’ve already heard this story a hundred times: The narrator’s partner doesn’t believe that they’re pretty, and the narrator spends the entire song insisting that they are. It’s cut from the same Boyfriend country cloth that “Steal My Love” is, and it’s actually less interesting than Dan + Shay’s single because it tries to hard to blend in instead of stand out. For Barnes’s part, his voice reminds me a little bit of Neal McCoy, but his delivery lacks the emotion and charisma to really connect with the audience and let them share in his feelings. This thing was barely on the Mediabase chart long enough to say so, and it’s not hard to see why.

Rating: 5/10. Better luck next time, I guess.

Dylan Scott, “New Truck”

Can someone tell me why we’re still trying to make Dylan Scott a thing? I mean, did “Nobody” take the hint after “Nobody” took sixteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1? To add insult to injury, this is the exact same song as “7500 OBO,” and given Tim McGraw’s long track record and serious radio clout, this thing is pretty much dead on arrival now. The irony is that while neither song is any good, I think I like Scott’s take on the memory-haunted truck idea better: The details are a bit more novel (finding lost hair ties and chapstick), and the production doesn’t feel quite as slick (the drum machine isn’t as prominent here). Unforutnately, the improvements are relative but not substantial, and the song still relies on the same old generic memories to haunt Scott’s narrator (and Scott’s performance is nothing special either). I’d buy this truck over McGraw’s, but I’m not really in the market for either of them.

Rating: 5/10. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left”

Oh joy, another attempted sex jam from a genre that should know better by now. To its credit, the production at least attempts to change up the formula by leaning on spacious electric guitars that match the starry night sky of the cover art and give the song a psychedelic vibe (unlike McGraw’s tune, it kind of suits the mood here), but it doesn’t capture the depth or the recklessness of the sentiment within the writing. Said writing is little more than a bunch of intercourse euphemisms, and there’s nothing here that differentiates this encounter from a garden-variety hookup (there’s passion, but no substance, and I wish there a bit more explanation behind the feelings involved). For her part, Cam does a decent job infusing the some with emotion, but I still wouldn’t call this track terribly sensual or romantic—you can hear the passion in her delivery, but she isn’t quite able to transmit that feeling to the audience. All in all, this is probably the closest that country music has come to a sex jam in a while, but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two—maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did.

Song Review: Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided”

Currents events giveth, and current events taketh away.

When Tim McGraw released his last single “I Called Mama,” it felt like an accidentally perfect fit for the moment, capturing the individual response to the collective grief we were facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While he had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (it peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart), the song scored a lofty position on my best-of-2020 list, and further cemented McGraw’s positive legacy in the genre (he’ll always have to own “Truck Yeah,” though).

Now, McGraw is back with another socially-conscious single geared for the moment, teaming up with Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard to release “Undivided,” a song that feels a bit more calculated and purposeful in the wake of President-Elect Joe Biden’s call “to reunite America — to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The song itself, however, is surprisingly clumsy in its messaging, and in the wake of far-right domestic terrorists storming the Capitol and the hollow, disingenuous calls for unity from Republican politicians as a means of saving face and avoiding consequences, the song comes across as naive and even a little out of touch. If we’re going to laud McGraw for meeting the last moment, we have to acknowledge that he and Hubbard failed to meet this one.

The production here is a bit tricky to unpack, as it’s a light and breezy arrangement that creates a  hopeful and optimistic atmosphere that accentuates the song’s message, but it doesn’t really give the topic the weight it deserves. The primary melody drivers here are an acoustic guitar and mandolin, and while Grady Smith’s favorite clap track helps open the track, it’s quickly replaced by a full drum set by the first chorus. (Some electric guitars are here too, but outside of the bridge solo, they’re generally minimized and left in the background.) On one hand, the bright instrument tones and kinda-sorta-brisk tempo gives the tune a surprising amount of energy, the slow buildup of the arrangement over time helps the track gain momentum as it goes along, and the positive atmosphere it creates helps encourage the listener to go along with the message. However, this emphasis on creating good vibes makes it feel like the song is trying to gloss over the serious issues that are dividing us (the lyrics do the song no favors in this regard either). Rather than trying to strike a balance between reckoning with these difficult issues and expressing faith that they can be resolved, the sound is all about the latter and mostly ignores the former. In short, what we get here is necessary, but it’s not really sufficient for a topic like this.

For their part, neither McGraw nor Hubbard are terribly effective at pushing their message of unity across. Neither artist encounters any techincal issues with the track (the song’s range is fairly constrained, and the flow is actually relaxed despite the kinda-sorta-brisk tempo), but this is a song that requires a lot of charm and salesmanship from the performers to make the wong work (after all, you’re trying to convince divided groups to come together, and there’s a reason or four that they’re divided). We’ll talk about how the lyrics and context work against this in a second, but McGraw’s surprisingly even-keel delivery feels too sterile and lacks the passion or urgency to really move skeptical listeners to action. (Hubbard’s performance is even worse, featuring casual “yep” and “that’s right” shoutouts and generally coming across as too laid-back to be taken seriously.) With the different camps so far apart and deeply entrenched in their positions, an artist really needs to bring their A game if they want to move the audience, and neither singer hits the mark here.

And then we get to the lyrics, which try to convince the listener that it’s finally time to come together in peace and brotherhood “’til this country that we love’s undivided.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I have several problems with the writing itself:

  • The song is way too scattershot, and doesn’t have a coherent message beyond “love everyone.” It starts with an entire verse dedicated to middle-school bullying, then devolves into a rapid-fire round of topics that are barely mentioned before being tossed aside (religion! race! politics! …job vs. jail?). The listener never gets a sense of the importance of these topics because they’re never expanded upon (which becomes a bigger issue when the statements themselves are confusing: When Hubbard says “why’s it gotta be all white or all black,” is he decrying the “with us or against us” mentality, or is he trying to make a statement about race?). The listener may be left with a “we can do it!” message, but they may not be sure what they’re trying to do.
  • Don’t go looking for any detail or nuance here, because there’s none to be found—the song is fully reliant on the listener filling in the blanks with their own experience. Even in the middle-school anecdote, so many details are left out that it’s hard to make sense of the story: What was Billy picked on for? What happened to him as a result of the abuse? What the narrator’s role in the tale besides being a not-so-innocent bystander? There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting listeners bring their own experiences to a song (although I wish fewer songs forced them to do so), but one of the main problems we have right now is that so many of us simply don’t have the necessary experience to properly fill in the blanks. A straight white male like myself, for example, has no idea what it’s like to be Black, gay, or female in America, and thus will struggle to imagine what it’s like to live under the constant threat of discrimination or abuse. Inviting us to “try on someone’s shoes” is fine, but the song needs to do more to fill in its likely-clueless audience about what those shoes feel like, and give us all a sense of what it’s like to be someone else.
  • The only explicit nod to politics is when McGraw says “I’m tired of looking left or right,” but make no mistake: Politics is perhaps the chief divider of the nation right now, and if the country is going to come together, we’re going to have to address the  political angle. This is where the song really falls flat: It takes two to tango, and after seeing a mob storm the Capitol to overthrow the results of a democratic election, nobody on either side is in the mood to compromise and come together. Even worse, the people that inflamed and enabled this movement with their lies and misinformation are now the ones whimpering for unity to avoid paying the price, making this song (fair or not) ring a bit hollow by association. Bridging this gap is going to take a lot of work, and all this song has to offer is a little cheerleading.
  • But wait, doesn’t this track offer some solutions for getting out of this mess? Sure, but all we get is the typical “love conquers all” and “God will fix it” cop-outs, as well as a brief call to try to see someone else’s perspective that is never expanded upon and quickly forgotten. Only the greatest of singers can make this schtick stick (see: Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton), and as we’ve already discussed, McGraw and Hubbard failed to stick the landing this time around.

Put it all together, and you’re left with a platitude-filled word salad that fails to sell its message to its audience.

I was conflicted on “Undivided” before I started this review, and I remain conflicted over 1200 words later. Calling for people to put aside their differences and come together is a decent core message and a workable starting point, but neither the production nor the writers nor Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard seem to treat the differences we’re confronting with the seriousness they deserve. Coming together after years of anger, injustice, and bitter partisanship is not going to be a walk in the park, and this song just papers over the problems we’re facing instead of actually confronting them. We do need to come together, but instead of offering empty words calling for love and understanding, let’s identify the problems behind the divide and take concrete steps to address them. Talk is cheap—let’s put our money where our mouth is, and show the world (and each other) that at long last, we mean business.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen or two to try to convince yourself you can make a difference, and then put it aside and go actually make a difference.

Song Review: Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama”

Did it really take Tim freaking McGraw to get us a country song that actually fit the moment?

It’s been said that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” McGraw knows this arc all too well: He went from being one of the most consistent hitmakers at the turn of the millennium to releasing trend-hopping drivel like “Felt Good On My Lips” and “Truck Yeah” and having his material described as “auditory Xanax.” In the last few years, however, McGraw has attempted to embark on a redemptive arc, using his music to make important statements and push people to become better (things like “Humble and Kind” and his duet with Faith Hill “Speak To A Girl”) While his attempts have been haphazard and not terribly successful up to this point (“Neon Church” and “Thought About You” certainly deserved that Xanax label), his new single “I Called Mama” is not only his best effort on this front since 2004’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” it’s a song that seems to have found its moment in the wake of a global pandemic that has now killed nearly 80,000 Americans. Instead of encouraging us to ignore the world around by drinking ourselves into oblivion, this track leans into the gravity of the moment (even if it’s a bit unintentional) and encourages us to focus on the things that really matter in life, and does so with an earnest, reflective touch that puts it above even Thanos’s “Six Feet Apart” as a song about post-COVID life.

Thankfully, whoever produced this song realized that the best thing they could do is stay the heck out of the way of the writing, and instead brought a restrained acoustic approach to the booth that creates a warm, comforting atmosphere that helps support and enhance the vocals. The song opens with an organ and a banjo (the first non-token five-string I’ve heard in months) backed by a few spacious background synth tones, and leans on an acoustic guitar to help guide the melody across the verses. The choruses bring some conventional electric axes into the mix, but they’re buried deep in the background and are heavily restricted to avoid upsetting the volume balance, and instead a steel guitar is brought in to provide some solid accents and a decent bridge solo. (The drums are real, but much like the electric guitars, they’re de-emphasized and never grab your attention.) The result is a calm and soothing vibe that invites the listener into the track, one that organically builds momentum over time and projects both seriousness and optimism with its brighter tones and businesslike approach. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the sound and subject matter of a track mesh this well, and for all the griping I’ve done on mediocre mixes over the last month, I have to tip my hat here, because this is some nice work.

I haven’t been terribly impressed with McGraw’s vocal work lately, but he brings his experience to bear and really sticks the landing this time. The song gets a huge assist for this: It’s set up perfectly for an older artist, which minimal range, flow, and power demands and a reliance on the artist’s charisma and charm to sell the story. You don’t last as long as McGraw has without being able to own the narrator’s role, and he uses an understated approach to accomplish his task here: Instead of turning on the waterworks and making this a tearjerker, he holds back a bit to convey a sense of shock at the initial loss of his friend, and he keeps his focus on his behavior as if he’s just trying to stay functional in the wake of a tragedy. The result is an interesting one: You don’t really feel McGraw’s sadness, but you feel that he feels the sadness and that he wants to recommit to the things in life that are really important, and that distance allows the song to maintain a positive feel and avoid obscuring the message with emotion. It’s a surprisingly subtle touch that I wasn’t expecting from McGraw, but it’s one that I can appreciate.

The story of a premature death and a priority shuffling in its wake is nothing new in country music (the song that immediately jumps to mind is Billy Dean’s “Only Here For A Little While”), but the way the song is framed is what makes the writing stand out here: Instead of turning the moment into an anthemic call to action like Dean, the writers here focus on the impact on the individual, and take a just-the-facts, one-step-at-a-time approach: The narrator picks up some items at the store, sits down to reflect and play music by a river, and eventually call their mother. The level of detail is high enough during this sequence to place the listener on the river bank and let them listen in to the call (hearing the parent’s smile is probably the highlight), helping us to share in the narrator’s state of mind. The song implores the listener to avoid procrastinating when it comes to people, but it does so without coming across as preachy or dictatorialinstead, it takes a “show, don’t tell” approach by demonstrating the benefits of its suggestion through the narrator’s improved frame of mind. Maybe I’m still recovering from all these nihilistic party songs that are clogging up the genre right now, but it’s nice to hear a song in which things actually matter for a change.

I didn’t expect “I Called Mama” to be any more than a bunch of vague, empty platitudes like much of Tim McGraw’s recent work, but it turned out to be a well-constructed, well-executed treatise on priority recalibration at a time when we’re all stuck at home going through the same process. Even though we’re not all directly affected by the losses around us, we’ve all got a strong sense of the gravity of these times (…okay, judging by the size of the party my neighbor threw this weekend, only most of us have a strong sense), and we’re all trying to answer the same questions: How do we keep moving forward? What should our new “normal” look like? Through tasteful production and a strong vocal performance, McGraw and the writers are advocating for the KISS principle, telling us to take small steps in the right direction and focus on the people that matter to us, all the while projecting a quiet confidence that the narrator, and the audience, will eventually get through this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few long-overdue emails I need to send.

Rating: 9/10. Don’t miss this one, but you know what? Call your parents first.

Song Review: Tim McGraw, “Thought About Who? You”

There’s “effectively vague,” and then there’s “what the heck is he talking about?”

Tim McGraw’s long and storied career has started to earn him numerous name-drops from newer artists, but his singles today resemble bottle rockets: They start fast and burn bright, but quickly fizzle out and disappear. From “Speak To A Girl” (#19 peak) to “The Rest Of Our Life” (#25) to “Neon Church” (#20), McGraw’s quick strikes seem to reveal only fool’s gold (especially “Neon Church,” which debuted just three short months ago and is already history). McGraw’s latest attempt to break his streak of mediocrity is “Thought About You,” a reflective, optimistic song that tries so hard to be a “choose your own adventure” story that it lacks any foundation or purpose. It’s overly reliant on the user to find a “you” to think about and give the song meaning, and if you don’t have one, there’s nothing here for you.

I swear, the opening to the this song sounds like the backing track of a big tech company’s optimistic “looking to the future” TV spot, with its atmospheric background swells and bright, skittering notes from…a keyboard? A percussion instrument? I really can’t tell, but instead of Google telling us about its latest way to change the world, a keyboard and a set of stringed instruments jump in (a sitar-esque acoustic guitar in the foreground, a really psychedelic electric one in the background, and a second acoustic doing its best ticking-clock impression) to give the song a spacious (and oversanitized) feel and contemplative vibe. More instruments are tossed in over time (some more electric guitars, a steel guitar, a drum set, and what sounds like a MIDI instrument dropping a riff on the chorus), but the bright, optimistic feel remains, and while it comes across as a bit messy and cacophonous at times, it never seems to get in the way of the lyrics (for as often as I’ve heard producers screw up volume balances, this one deserves credit for getting it right). There’s some decent energy and momentum here, but for all its instruments and positivity, there’s just something missing here, something that would really grab the listener and demand their attention. It’s a decent mix, but it fades into the background so much that you barely notice it by the end of the track.

Thankfully, McGraw rebounds from his weak performance on “Neon Church” to post a solid effort here, although it’s no more memorable than its predecessor. He sounds more powerful and less labored this time around, and the song limits the amount of times it stretches his range (only the “you-ooh-oohs” following the second chorus do it, and they sound clipped and rough, as if McGraw can only hit that note for a microsecond before faltering). It’s not peak-era McGraw, but it’s serviceable for the track (in fact, his aging voice is a great fit for a wizened, experienced narrator) and shows that his charisma hasn’t deserted him quite yet, although I’m admittedly not really drawn into the story by his performance. (He’s believable, but not terribly interesting.) Overall, it’s a good-but-not-great performance, which means that the other pieces of the track need to hold up their end of the bargain.

The writing, unfortunately, doesn’t hold up the end of any  bargain, as it’s got a hole in it “big enough to drive a truck through.” The narrator describes a couple of generic scenes (mother and child, kids off to the beach, etc.), and declares that he “thought about you” in the moment. Set aside the fact that some of these scenes are decidedly less than heartwarming (the “beachgoers with Coronas” scene felt especially out of place) or that the narrator thought about some many things during the chorus that he basically thought about everything, and we’re left with one big question: Who the $%^& is “you”? A parent? A child? A friend? A significant other? Jerry Seinfeld? Not only does the song not tell us who the narrator is talking about, they cover so much ground in the choruses that we don’t even get a hint of who it is. (Some sort of holy spirit felt like the only logical fit by the end, but “God” was explicitly ruled out when the narrator thought about them specifically.) My guess is that the writers were trying to leave “you” as vague as possible to left the listener fill in the gap with someone they knew (and thus bring in their own emotions and memories in case they didn’t hit any of the song’s generic vignettes), but the lyrics are so scattershot and unguided that they don’t even bring other people to mind! With a hole that big left unfilled, the writing pretty much collapses under its own weight, and leaves the audience feeling bored instead of moved. A track like this can work (see Collin Raye’s “I Think About You”), but it needs a lot more scaffolding and setup than it gets here.

“Thought About You” is one of those tracks that needs a lot of help from the listener to really take off, and when it doesn’t get it, it just falls flat. McGraw set the stage and his producer sets the mood, but if the lyrics don’t bring anyone out from behind the curtain, the audience just sits around wondering why the show isn’t starting. It’s just another song filling time on the radio, and I doubt I’ll be thinking about much in another month or so.

Rating: 5/10. There are better ways to spend your time.

Song Review: Tim McGraw, “Neon Church”

If Tim McGraw really needs a “Neon Church,” he should play a song that actually sounds like something you’d hear in one.

For an artist pushing fifty, McGraw’s continued success in the 2010s (twelve Top Tens?) has been nothing short of amazing, although the quality of said hits has been all over the map, ranging from strong, thoughtful fare like “Diamond Rings And Old Barstools” to mindless schlock like “Truck Yeah.” Last year, however, McGraw ran smack into the wall that is country music’s allergy to female artists, as a pair of duets with wife and fellow superstar Faith Hill (“Speak To A Girl,” “The Rest Of Our Life”) were confined to mediocre airplay peaks (#19 and #25, respectively). Now, McGraw returns to the airwaves with “Neon Church,” his first solo single since 2016’s “How I’ll Always Be,” and frankly, it’s about as disingenuous an ode to an old-school barroom that’s you’ll hear today. With its awkward production and uninspired writing, this song rolls off of the listener’s ears like water off a duck’s back, and doesn’t give them a good reason to pay attention.

Most of my problems with this song stem from the bizarre sound choices made by the producer. In a vacuum, this isn’t a bad mix: It’s got an electric guitar-driven melody (which gets more prominent over time and peaks with an in-your-face bridge solo), a mix of synthetic and real percussion (the song transitions from the former to the latter as it goes along), and a constant undercurrent of church organs in the background, giving the song a strong spiritual feel with some real passion behind it. However, the mix is a terrible fit for the subject matter, as this sort of spacious, arena-ready sound is the absolute last thing you’d expect to hear in the sort of “neon church” the narrator claims to laud. A true barroom song, like Garth Brooks’s “All Day Long,” needs a true barroom sound: Real instruments, a rougher (and ideally acoustic) foundation, and way more steel guitar than the stabs hidden in the background of “Neon Church.” In contrast, the clean, conventional mix we get here feels hollow rather than hallow, and leaves the listener questioning the singer’s devotion to that which he praises.

From a vocal perspective, this was a surprisingly weak performance from McGraw on nearly every level. His delivery was labored and occasionally hoarse (my mind drew some unflattering comparisons to Kip Moore), his flow faltered and fell behind the beat at points during the chorus, and worst of all, the earnest charisma that has sustained McGraw’s career for nearly three decades completely deserts him here, and he fails not only in transmitting the narrator’s pain to the audience, but in even convincing the audience that the tale is worth paying attention to. (While the production does him no favors, a veteran like McGraw should either be able to work around it or work with the producer to fix the problem.) I wasn’t terribly impressed with McGraw’s work on his recent duets with Hill, but his subpar performance here really makes me wonder if his long, storied career has finally reached its expiration date.

Country singers have been lionizing old-school bars as havens of healing for decades now, and while “Neon Church” attempts to put a new spin on the topic by comparing the bar to a house of worship (aren’t these basically polar opposites?), the end result is no more interesting than any other song on the subject. The writing never addresses the major contrast between the two locations (one offers temporary relief, the other tries to provide permanent relief), and even combining their imagery (getting baptized in smoke, having bartenders preach, and yes, the incredibly original phrase “honky-tonk angels”) doesn’t make the scenes feel any more lifelike or authentic. Finally, there’s so little attention paid to why the narrator is so downcast (one line about “gettin’ over you” is all we get) that the listener struggles to emphasize with them, and just wonders why it’s worth listening to their plight in the first place.

Is there a good song somewhere inside “Neon Church”? Maybe, but it needs a lot more support than Tim McGraw and the production give it here.  As it is, it’s just another song on the radio, and while McGraw has done a fantastic job keeping up with the times since his early-90s debut, Father Time remains undefeated (though it’s rumored he lost a preseason match to Willie Nelson), and it’s worth wondering if McGraw’s career has finally reached the end of the line.

Rating: 5/10. There are better way to spend your time.

Song Review: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, “The Rest Of Our Life”

Having Tim McGraw and Faith Hill sing a song written by Ed Sheeran? Not a bad idea. Having Tim McGraw try to do an Ed Sheeran impression on said song? Very bad idea.

Despite being two of country music’s most-reliable hitmakers in the 1990s and 2000s, these days McGraw and Hill are fighting an uphill battle against age and gender bias to remain relevant on country radio. “Speak To A Girl,” the pair’s first song from their upcoming duets album The Rest Of Our Life, hit country radio like a lightning bolt earlier this year, making an impressive Top 20 debut…and then crashed back to earth nearly as fast, winding up with a mediocre #19 airplay peak (although it did reach the Top Ten on the Hot Country Charts). Now, the duo are preparing another chart charge with the album’s title track “The Rest Of Our Lives,” a bland, generic wedding song that pushes both singers (especially McGraw) into uncomfortable territory and falls completely flat as a result.

The production here is primarily piano-driven, with a restrained drum set keeping time and a few other instruments (an acoustic guitar, a steel guitar, an organ, and even a quiet string section) providing some background atmosphere. It’s a brightly-toned, spacious-sounding mix, and although it uses a ton of minor chords, they actually fit the song well by adding some gravitas to the lyrics and hammering home the point that the couples’ feelings are real and their motives are serious. It’s the sort of sound tailor-made for a newlywed couple’s first dance, whereas something like Blake Shelton’s “I’ll Name The Dogs” would be a better fit for the post-ceremony reception. Honestly, I’d call the production the best part of the track.

The vocals, on the other hand, have to be the worst part of the track. The track has a nasty habit of pushing McGraw right to the limit of his upper range (and occasionally into a falsetto), and he sounds really uncomfortable up there, as his voice loses all its tone and power and becomes painfully thin. (I felt like McGraw was trying—and failing—to mimic Sheeran’s delivery style, and that was even before I discovered that Sheeran was a co-writer!) While this only happens on the choruses and bridge, it completely kills his usual vocal chemistry with Hill, and the producers randomly decided to top it all off with some annoying vocal effects. In Hill’s case, while she sounds better than her husband in general, her flow on the verses is a little choppy, and the quiet nature of the song robs her of her usual vocal power. Basically, this song is a terrible fit for the pair, and despite their best efforts, it’s that lack of comfort that comes across to the listener rather than any romantic sentiments.

Speaking of romantic sentiments…the writing is just about what you’d expect from a lovey-dovey wedding song. Outside of suggesting a few baby names, there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard before: We’ll love each other forever, our feelings will remain strong regardless of how old and ugly we get, etc.) These kinds of songs get by on the emotion they inspire rather than the wittiness of the lyrics, and unfortunately the painful awkwardness of the vocals overwhelms the subdued production and keeps the song from setting the proper tone. “I’ll Name The Dogs” may lack the polish and the serious sentiment of “The Rest Of Our Life,” but it’s an easier listen and does a better job connecting with its listeners.

Overall, “The Rest Of Our Life” is probably a good song, but not for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Whatever emotions are created by the lyrics and production and completely squashed by the couple’s mediocre vocal performance. McGraw & Hill would have been better off giving this track back to Ed Sheeran and finding a love song that truly suits their style.

Rating: 5/10. If you’re not getting married in the next few months, it’s not worth your time. If you are, there are better songs to put on your playlist (I recommend Clint & Lisa Hartman Black’s “When I Said I Do”).

Song Review: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, “Speak To A Girl”

While I applaud Tim McGraw and Faith Hill for taking a stand against misogyny, I can’t help but feel like their message is about three years too late for country music.

The country genre has always had a problem with both a lack of female representation and a tendency to objectify female characters in songs, but this problem hit a new low during the Bro-Country era, as women were often depicted as nothing more than hip-shaking hotties whose existed only for the pleasure of their male counterparts. While McGraw hasn’t exactly been an innocent bystander during all this (Exhibits A & B: “Looking’ For That Girl” and “Southern Girl”), he’s now decided to educate his contemporaries on proper social etiquette by pairing with wife and fellow country superstar Faith Hill (who hasn’t headlined a charting single since 2012) for “Speak To A Girl,” the leadoff single for the pair’s upcoming joint album. It’s an ambitious and well-intentioned project, but it doesn’t feel like it reaches its full potential.

Production-wise, the song is framed as an old-school R&B power ballad, as if it was brought here by a time traveler from the 1970s. The mix is sparse and restrained, driven mostly by what sounds like an organ, with some guitars and real drums sprinkled in the background. The song sets a slow-groove tempo early, but unlike most power ballads it remains unusually quiet as the song progresses, never rising to match the intensity of the vocals (and thus placing the responsibility of building up and releasing energy solely on the singers). While the mix is easy on the ears, I would have liked to hear the sound rise up and match the intensity of the vocals, and not leave McGraw and Hill to do the heavy lifting by themselves.

Vocally, McGraw and Hill seem to be trying to adapt their style to the R&B vibe of the song, and as a result they sound very different on “Speak To A Girl” than they do on their other material. Hill, whose trademark sound is  her big, powerful voice, adopts a quieter, breathy tone on her verses, and the song restricts to the lower range of her voice. On the flip side, McGraw attempts to take on the role of a soulful crooner, venturing into his higher range (and nearly pulling out his falsetto a time or two) than he normally does. The results aren’t terrible, but it does feel like both artists stray a bit too far from their comfort zone, and that their vocals lack the power and authority that they normally have. It makes me wonder if the song’s key should have been adjusted to put the singers in more comfortable positions.

Lyrically, this song attempts to explain how men should actually treat a woman, in contrast to the methods and language seen in music and pop culture today. It’s a worthy topic that deserves addressing, but the lyrics fall short here in two key areas.

  • The songwriting here feels pretty lazy, with repetitive phrases like “say what you mean and mean everything that you’re saying” and “That’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl.” Some of the phrases also seem dated or out of place: The line about respecting your momma doesn’t really fit with the rest of the song’s premise, and saying someone “wants Aretha [Franklin]” doesn’t mean anything if the listener doesn’t have the required background knowledge (Franklin had a huge hit in 1967 with the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”).
  • More concerning is the lack of actual direction the song gives about how to speak to a woman, instead offering vague statements about treating her right, being her friend, and letting her see the real you. All of these are true statements, of course, but if you’re targeting people who were raised on Bro-Country language and attitudes, you’re going to have to spell things out a bit clearer (just like Aretha Franklin did!) and offer some more specific recommendations.

Overall, “Speak To A Girl” is an okay song that makes some important (and long-overdue) points, but it has some major issues that keep it from making the impact it wants to. McGraw and Hill get some points here for trying (and to be fair, they’re not really the source of the song’s problems), but given the potential of a song like this, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the end result.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering here.