Song Review: Parker Denning, “To Be Loved By ABBY”

Okay, this is a trend we need to put an end to quickly before it spreads.

Country music has had a bit of an anger management problem over the last few years, and to be fair there is plenty of stuff to be angry about in the world: For example, Eric Church demanded that country music get back to telling the stories of the downtrodden, and Ashley McBryde wasn’t happy to find someone fooling around with her father. The problem, however, is there are a lot of things that are not worth getting angry about, such as when Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Robert Counts scream about not getting enough respect, or when Tucker Beathard whines about how his ex doesn’t miss him enough. It comes across as petty, immature, and just plain dumb, and that’s why when I first heard Travis Denning’s “ABBY” on satellite radio last year, my first thought was “Please tell me this piece of junk never never never gets pushed to conventional radio.” Unfortunately, the bad news dropped last month, and thus I’ve spent the last month putting off reviewing the track hoping that it failed to crack the Mediabase chart (so much so that I wrote a massive Tenta Brella how-to guide rather than acknowledge this drivel).

Unfortunately, it seems that Parker McCollum (who I’ve also spent the last three months avoiding) has now breached the Mediabase Top 50, which means I’m obligated to discuss and rate his latest single “To Be Loved By You” for my Pulse posts. After hearing the song, however, I realized that this and “ABBY” are pretty much the same track, as they both feature a guy throwing a tantrum over a woman who just won’t do what they want. While the two singers draw different conclusions (McCollum goes all in, Denning walks away), they both have the same insufferable attitude that repulses the listener and makes them actively root for the narrator to crash and burn. These songs, along with the entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind they showcase, need to be deposited in the nearest garbage can.

My contract states that I’m obligated to discuss the production on these tracks, so let’s get this out of the way quickly: Both tracks rely on the same tired guitar-and-drum formula that most of Nashville is using these days. Denning’s track opts for some slicker guitars and effected, synthetic-sounding percussion on the verses (the keyboard is also more organ-sounding, and is actually noticeable at times unlike on McCollum’s track), but the choruses sound like they were recorded in the exact same studio with the exact same band. The tempo and tone of both tracks are eerily similar, and both mixes are completely flavorless, devoid of punch, and completely dependent on volume for any energy they can muster. In other words, this sound is so stock that it should copyrighted by Getty Images—it’s an awkward-fitting default option that does little beyond fill the space between the vocals.

Vocally, Denning and McCollum are some of the latest creations to roll off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line, and neither acquits themselves well here at all. Denning remains a derivative of the Tyler Hubbard coaching tree, and while he actually puts some feeling behind the song this time (as opposed to the lifeless “Where That Beer’s Been”), that feeling is primarily contempt, and he winds up sounding completely obnoxious and unsympathetic as he tries to justify his breakup and ultimately makes the failed relationship sound like his fault. (If this song were a game of Among Us, he would have been voted out immediately for sounding so sus.) McCollum, on the other hand, is a Beathard clone who comes across as completely clueless as he complains about the other person rejecting his advances and swears that he’s all in on a relationship that just keeps falling apart, leaving the audience begging for him to take a freaking hint and leave the other person alone. There are no technical issues with either performance, but both artists showcase exactly zero charm or charisma, leading the listener to root for both of them to receive karmic justice and wind up completely miserable. In other words, these aren’t the sort of tracks you want to drop if you’re trying to expand your fanbase, because you’ll wind up doing the opposite.

But Kyle, I hear you say, you can’t claim these tracks are the same when the writing is so different! It’s true that the narrator in are very different positions: Denning is giving up on a relationship, while McCollum is trying to start one and keep it afloat. The problem is that both stories are underpinned by the same selfish, entitled way of thinking:

  • In the case of “To Be Loved By You,” the narrator has unilaterally decided that the relationship will work, and can’t seem to figure out why the other person reacts so poorly to his advances. Bruh, have you ever considered the fact that she’s just not that into you? If you’re wondering “Why do you sleep alone when I know you don’t like it?”, it’s probably because they think that sleeping with you would be worse! When you ask “Will it kill you to tell me the truth?”, my response is “Are you blind?” If they’re “always angry,” “always quiet,” and are “pissed off, hanging up the telephone,” that’s your answer right there: They’d like you to go away, and the sooner the better. It takes two to make a relationship work, and if one person isn’t interested, it doesn’t matter what you think. You need to stop acting like a creep and move on.
  • In the case of “ABBY,” my biggest issue is that Denning’s narrator never actually makes the case for his departure, and instead tried to pin all the blame on his ex. He’s as free to walk away as the woman in McCollum’s track is, but doing so by telling his ex they they suck and he’s going to find someone way better is incredibly off-putting and childish. The whole song just reeks of immaturity: The primary issue seems to be that the other person isn’t a fan of Denning’s Bro-Country-esque beer/truck/party lifestyle, and the narrator spends much of the song fantasizing about a imaginary waifu “Abby” (“anybody but you,” an acronym that isn’t nearly as clever as the writers think) who will love everything about him and never ever ask him to change or grow up. The narrator tries to turn the blame back onto the ex, but the charges simply don’t stick: The few mentions of “drama” are never elaborated on, and since when is driving a Honda grounds for a breakup? This guy needs to stop acting like a baby and just slink back into the shadows quietly.

“To Be Loved By You” and “ABBY” are just plain bad, and if I had to choose to hear one over the other, I’d pick Door #3 and just stick a power drill in my ear. Both tracks feature the same bland, unengaging sound, the same annoying vocal performance, and above all the same ignorant belief that the world revolves around them and that everyone else should just bend to their will and be happy about it. The world doesn’t work that way, however, and if Parker McCollum and Travis Denning want to be more than ankle-biters in a Nashville pond that’s already overflowing with artists like them, they need to take a hard look in the mirror, resolve to better themselves, and then strive to do so at every opportunity. If they instead choose to keep shoveling out junk like these tracks…well, I’d rather listen to the freaking Chug Jug song.

Rating: 3/10 for both of them. Get that garbage outta here!

Song Review: Travis Denning, “Where That Beer’s Been”

Some songs are dumb fun, but others are just dumb. Guess which category this thing falls in?

The suits over at UMG Nashville have been trying to force Travis Denning down our throats for a while now, and it hasn’t working out very well so far. “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” only made it to #32 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and while “After A Few” did eventually reach #1, it took a mind-boggling sixty-five weeks on the chart to do so (I reviewed this thing back in January…of 2019). It’s pretty clear that no one in clamoring for this dude to have a roster spot in Nashville,  and you know what that means: It’s time for some trend-hopping? …Except I’m not sure that “Where That Beer’s Been,” Denning second offering off of his Beer’s Better Cold EP, even qualifies as a Cobronavirus song: Similar to “David Ashley Parker…”, this a pointless reflection on a random inanimate object  (in this case, a beer) that is neither fun nor compelling nor even terribly informative. (I know we’ve been focusing a lot on supply chains during this pandemic, but they don’t make for much of a song.) This drivel is nothing but a waste of the listener’s time.

The production here reminds me a lot of Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” with its off-the-wall combination of a rollicking electric guitar and a cold, methodical drum machine (both songs also eventually real drums into the mix). Unfortunately, the differences between the two all work against “Where That Beer’s Been”: The tempo is slower, the guitar tone is slightly darker, and the percussion is much more obviously synthetic (the initial hi-hats in Corbin’s song at least sound real, whereas here the skittering beat is too sharp and regular, and *sigh* Grady Smith’s favorite snap track is here too). The result is that the mix’s vibe is far too serious for its subject matter, and it just plods along from start to finish. The eventual addition of real drums doesn’t help matters, as it only turns the mix into the same old guitar-and-drum arrangement that everyone else uses, making it sound like every other song on the radio instead of making it stand out from the pack. In short, it’s a generic, ill-fitting, and generally unimpressive effort that bores the listener rather than drawing them in.

Vocally, Denning is starting to sound like an off-brand Morgan Wallen to me (which is not good given that Wallen himself is an off-brand Tyler Hubbard), and Denning’s attempt at making this story sound interesting is a complete disaster. He manages to clear the low technical bar the song sets, but his dispassionate reading of the lyrics makes it feel like he’s just going through the motions on this song (if it weren’t for him screaming out the last line of the bridge, I’d question whether the man had a pulse at all). Playing the role of a guy who likes beer should be the easiest job in the world, but Denning’s flat, lifeless delivery only adds to the overwhelming sense of irrelevance surrounding the track. (For as little as he seems to care about the beer, he might as well be drinking orange juice or seltzer water.) If even he can’t be convinced to care about this song, than why should the audience? The result is that everyone has either fallen asleep or changed the station before the song is halfway over.

The writing ponders how the beer that’s now before the narrator arrived at this point before declaring “I don’t know where that beer’s been, but I know where it’s going.” Frankly, this thing is a total failure on so many levels:

  • First of all, there’s absolutely zero context given to what’s going onwe end up knowing more about the beer than the narrator! Typical Cobronavirus songs provide no reason for their imbibing outside of partying of nihilistic escapism, but this song doesn’t even give us that: The narrator is going to drink this beer, and then they’re going to have another one. There’s no party, no lost love, no tuning out the worldheck, there’s no feeling here at all! Hearing this dude talk about drinking a beer is like watching grass grow or paint dry, and the lyrics give us absolutely no reason to care.
  • There’s detail here, but it’s just a multiple-choice test about supply chain logistics: Where could the beer have been made? How was it transported? Where was it stored? Who cares!? These musings do nothing to make the song interesting and just waste the listener’s time.
  • Even a boring story could be told in an interesting fashion, but there’s no wit or creativity here either. The hook feels like a rejected dad joke, and that’s the close as the song ever gets to being clever. It’s basically a bad Dick-and-Jane story:

See Dick.
See beer.
Where did beer come from?
See Dick drink beer.
The end.

Quite simply, this is a story that just isn’t worth telling, and whoever wrote it needs to be sent back to school to learn how to write a real song.

For all its flaws, “Where That Beer’s Been” fails because it doesn’t answer a simple question: Why should someone listen to this song? It doesn’t pump you up, it doesn’t impart any life lessons, it doesn’t try to connect with the listener, it doesn’t take a stand…it doesn’t do anything. All we get is some lukewarm, awkward production, a useless quiz on beer production and distribution, and a performance from Travis Denning that tells us that he’s as ready to dump this song as we are. This song simply doesn’t justify its existence, and doesn’t even rise to the level of radio filler. I don’t know where this song’s been, but I know where it’s going: Into the trash can where it belongs.

Rating: 3/10. Why? Just…why?

Song Review: Travis Denning, “After A Few”

Sorry Travis Denning, but “After A Few” listens, I’m still not feeling it.

Denning tried to establish his identity by using a fake one in “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs,” but country radio wasn’t impressed, and the song limped to a disappointing #32 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, Denning is trying to show a darker, more serious side on his followup single “After A Few,” but he still seems to be suffering from an identity crisis: The track is a dark, uninteresting tune that just doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its peers (in fact, it feels like a carbon copy of Easton Corbin’s “Clockwork”), leaving the audience feeling pretty “meh” and indicating that Denning is still looking for his niche in the genre.

The song opens with the same electric guitar, drum set, and dark, foreboding vibe that everyone else is leaning on these days, and outside of an organ that pops up in the background of the second verse, that’s pretty much all you get. Sure, the electric guitar has a bit more texture this time around, and the melancholy atmosphere actually suits the tone of the writing for a change, but it just doesn’t have the edge or energy to exploit its negative energy, and ends up sounding like everything else I’ve reviewed lately. In other words, it features the exact same problems I called out on “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs,” and even though this track has a bit more to say than Matt Stell, Dylan Schneider, or Denning’s last single did, the sound just doesn’t do enough to engage the listener and entice them to pay attention.

I have to say, Morgan Wallen sounds pretty decent on this track for a guy who didn’t actually perform on it! For someone still fighting for name recognition like Denning, however, such a spot-on imitation of Wallen’s tone and rasp can only lead to unfortunate outcomes (especially since Wallen is an off-brand derivative of Tyler Hubbard himself). Denning’s range is okay here, but his flow sounds a bit rushed at fuzzy at times (he has particular trouble enunciating the word “should”), and while I’m sure he’s all hot and bothered about the way he and his ex can’t seem to make a clean break, he doesn’t exhibit the charisma to actually make me care about it. A stronger singer could have made this sort of topic more interesting (for example, Brett Young does a solid job on “Back On The Wagon”), but Denning shows no more aptitude for serious songs than he does for odes to fake IDs. I said last time that “Denning demonstrates enough chops to make me think he might have a future in this league,” but he certainly doesn’t demonstrate them here.

The writing here tells the tale of a relationship that just won’t die, as the narrator gripes about how “after a few” libations or ballads, they always wind up in bed with their ex and wondering what went wrong. The whole “weak narrator who’s powerless to stop things from happening” tale is not the most novel topic in the world (in addition to Corbin and Young’s songs, Cole Swindell went to that well twice recently with “Stay Downtown” and “Break Up In The End”), and “After A Few” is one of the weaker examples of the trope. For example, while Corbin and Swindell paint themselves as helpless victims of the other person’s charm and desire, Denning freely admits to being the instigator in this case, and even declares that he “probably shouldn’t” have made the first move. How am I supposed to feel bad for the guy when he’s the one causing the problem?  In addition, the lyrics couldn’t be any more vague and generic if they tried (drinks, songs, sex, etc.), and the “bar to bed” story progression is as predictable as it is boring. All I ask is something to make this feel fresh: An unexpected detail, a clever turn of phrase, anything! But no, we get an aggressively bland bag of words that neither Denning nor his producer are motivated to elevate.

I’m not sure what statement Travis Denning is trying to make with “After A Few,” but the one it makes is “Nothing to see here!” It’s the same old story backed by the same old sound and a replaceable vocal performance, and I don’t see it making any more of an impact that “David Ashley Parker…” did. I’m not sure how many chances Denning will get to make his mark on country music, but after a few songs like this, people’s patience starts to run out.

Rating: 5/10. You’ll forget it “after a few” songs.

Song Review: Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs”

Wow, this genre is really running out of decent song ideas, huh?

Travis Denning is a Georgia native who kicked around Nashville for several years before inking a deal with UMG Nashville in 2017. Like Abby Anderson, it took nearly a year for Denning’s label to release his official debut single, and then took another three months before “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” made enough noise on the charts to catch my attention. It’s yet another song in a long line of nostalgia-themed tunes that have dropped this year, but this one feels like a unintentional parody, as Denning delivers what feels like a genuinely earnest ode to…a freaking fake ID. It’s not interesting, it’s not fun, and it’s not a smart choice for a debut single.

The production here feels is a generic, run-of-the-mill mix driven primarily by electric guitars. It opens innocuously enough, leaning on an acoustic guitar and a spacious percussion line that brings to mind some of Dierks Bentley’s recent work, but these elements disappear by the first chorus, replaced by the same old in-your-face drum set and electric axes. It’s got a decent amount of energy, and it sets a nice reflective mood without the underlying bittersweetness that often underscores these tracks, but there’s nothing in the mix that really makes the track stand out. As a result, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this song a hundred times before, even with the novel lyrics. It blends in way too well with the rest of the songs on the radio, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to establish yourself as an artist.

Vocally, Denning sounds like a blend of Luke Combs and Rodney Atkins, and if there’s one thing that stands out about his delivery, it’s his surprising amount of charisma. The track really doesn’t test his range or flow all that much, but it’s the emotion and earnestness that really struck me: The dude sings about a small piece of plastic with the same sort of feeling that Luke Bryan saves for a lost summer fling and Blake Shelton reserves for his hometown. I can’t get over just how serious and believable Denning feels on this track, which winds up biting him in the rear when the listener realizes exactly what he’s talking about. The listener’s reaction is less “Ah, those were the days” and more “You feel that strongly about a fake ID? Seriously?” Denning demonstrates enough chops to make me think he might have a future in this league, but he needs to find stronger material covering more interesting topics first.

In my recent Jason Aldean review, I noted that just because a topic wasn’t novel, it didn’t mean it was a bad song. “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” is the flip side of this coin: Just because a topic is novel doesn’t necessarily make the song any good. I’ve heard lot of songs about inanimate objects over the years (cars, cups, chairs, toothbrushes, etc.), but this is the first one I’d heard devoted to a fake ID and the life it let the narrator lead. Most songs centered around a simple object use it as a touchstone for the memories of the places it took them, but the images are far too vague and generic for the listener to really connect with them. There’s a fair bit of detail here, but it’s misplaced: We’re given every little bit of information from the ID itself, but little about the people and places the ID takes him. (Also, that “every time I shot, I scored” line felt a little slimy.) The writing isn’t personal enough to be memorable, and it’s sung too seriously to be silly-fun à la “Red Solo Cup,” so we’re left with a track that isn’t much of anything, least of all memorable.

Overall, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” is a signal that the nostalgia trend in country music has officially jumped the shark. The writing felt weak, the production felt meh, and all of Travis Denning’s talents are basically wasted. It’s a poor single choice, much less a debut single choice, and it harms Denning’s career chances more than it helps them.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.