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

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

Walker Hayes, “AA”

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

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

Brett Young, “You Didn’t”

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

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

Old Dominion, “No Hard Feelings”

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

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

Ingrid Andress & Sam Hunt, “Wishful Drinking”

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

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

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like”

I was really hoping the future of country music would sound a lot better than this.

Radio has long been the dominant force in country music, but the balance of power has shifted over the last two decades with the rise of streaming services and social media platforms, allowing artists to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers, connect more directly with listeners, and find new paths to success within the genre. Some artists (most notably Kane Brown) have used this momentum to push radio to get on board their hype trains, and the latest artist to attempt the trick is Walker Hayes, a half-decent writer and terrible vocalist who used massive streaming numbers and a viral TikTok dance craze to crack the Top 50 on Mediabase with his latest single “Fancy Like” before the song was officially released to radio. (The song charted on the Hot 100 several weeks ago, making it the rare country song that Mark Grondin reviewed before I did.) Unfortunately, there’s no correlation between quality and popularity, and while this is slightly better than, say, “You Broke Up With Me,” the track is a weak, poorly-executed effort that doesn’t stand up against even mediocre competition.

The production is pretty much you’d expect from a Walker Hayes song, which means it’s a generic mix that doesn’t fit with its subject matter at all. At its core, this is nothing more than the same old guitar-and-drum arrangement that everyone in Nashville depends, and…yeah, that’s pretty much it. The instruments themselves have a different feel than Hayes’s prior work, but it’s not a change for the better: The electric guitar has a rougher feel the slick axes he usually leans on, but it winds up giving the song a raunchy, overly-sexual feel that doesn’t fit the song well at all, and the percussion (which doesn’t sound at blatantly synthetic as it usually does, although the low beats on the chorus feel out of place and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track makes an appearance) lacks any punch and only serves to fill space between the lyrics. For everything that’s here (there’s an acoustic guitar and a bunch of repetitive background shouts tossed in as well), the mix’s biggest failure is that it doesn’t establish much of a presence in the song as a whole—outside of the slimy electric guitar riffs, the instruments are barely noticeable and never register in the listener’s mind. This, in turn, puts all the focus on Hayes and the lyrics, which is probably the worst thing a producer could do when neither stand up against scrutiny (more on this later). If ever there was a time to overproduce a song, this was it, and standing by and letting Hayes go unchecked on this track was a serious dereliction of duty.

If I could give Hayes any advice, I would counsel him to take a vow of silence and focus on his songwriting, because the man is absolutely horrible behind the mic. Let’s set aside his technical issues for a moment (seriously, the man has zero tone or range with his voice) and focus on his biggest faux pas: The attitude with which he approaches this song. The lyrics try to sing the praises of a woman with simple tastes and pleasures, and any respectable artist would join the chorus by displaying their awe and admiration for this person. Hayes, unfortunately, comes across as both sleazy and self-satisfied in his delivery, shifting the focus to his own luck/happiness and reducing the woman to a sex object that “wanna dip me like them fries in her Frosty” (as the quote suggests, the lyrics deserve their shame of the blame too). I don’t know if this is the product of malice or incompetence, but the result is that Hayes sounds like an unlikable meatheaded Bro who isn’t remotely pleasant to listen to, and the audience tunes him out before he reaches the second chorus.

I’ve both praised and disparaged Hayes’s writing up to this point, so where does this song fall? Frankly, this is far from his best work, as his story about a partner who isn’t into the trappings of luxury lacks a point and a punch line. The hook is nothing more than a dad joke: The narrator claims that sometimes he’s “gotta spoil my baby with an upgrade” that’s “fancy like”…something that’s not actually any fancier than what he described (and in the case of Applebee’s over Wendy’s, is something I would personally consider a downgrade). The second verse tries to expand on the concept with some generic comparisons (houses, cars), but the repeat of the original chorus then feels awkward and out of place, and should have been modified to match the verse (maybe a Jeep ride to a log cabin?). Lines like “bougie like Natty in the styrofoam” sound like they’re trying a little too hard to be casual (“how do you do, fellow kids?”), and lines like the “dip me like them fries” don’t do anything by amp up the song’s sleaze factor. The whole thing feels like it could have used a few more drafts being heading to the studio, because it just sounds like a narrator gloating to the listener over their low-maintenance partner, and it winds up being more annoying than amusing.

“Fancy Like” is a failure at nearly every level, from its disappearing soundalike production to its rambling, pointless writing to Walker Hayes’s atrocious vocals. Its only redeeming trait is that it’s not quite as aggravating as some of Hayes’s previous releases or some of the worst tracks we’ve heard this year, and that doesn’t make it any less painful to sit through. I’m all for opening new channels for people to discover music and giving artists more and different paths to success, but a bad song is a bad song no matter how viral it is, and no amount of silly dancing on social media can change that. Hayes either needs to step up his game or step away from the game, because you can only torment your audience like this for so long before you get tossed out of the genre for good.

Rating: 3/10. Ignore this drivel and listen to Darius Rucker sing Hayes under the table instead:

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “Don’t Let Her”

Apparently the best way to improve a Walker Hayes song is to remove all of the Walker Hayes from it.

Hayes has a bad habit of foisting slick, sleazy tracks onto the public (see: “You Broke Up With Me,” “90s Country”) and talk-singing his way through them like he’s doing a bad Sam Hunt impression. However, when he stops trying to hit on people and comes up with a decent story like on “Craig,” he’s surprising tolerable  as an artist, though he’s generally still a long ways from being any good. After the hit-or-mostly-miss album Boom. ran its course, however, Hayes spent some time poring over Thomas Rhett’s playbook, and has returned with a new single “Don’t Let Her” that’s (I can’t believe I’m saying this) genuinely heartfelt and endearing. Yes, there’s a fair bit of the old Hayes formula left over in the sound and delivery, but overall this is a huge step forward for one of the genre’s most polarizing artists.

The production is nothing to write home and is far more slick and sterile than it should be, but at least it sets a suitable mood and doesn’t get in the way too much. Most of the song is handled by a simple R&B-styled guitar and a drum loop (although some real drums ump in starting on the first chorus). There are some strings and synth tones that pop up in the background on the chorus and bridge, but for the most part this is a sparse, relaxed arrangement that keeps the focus on the writing without ever dragging or leaking energy. The instrument tones are generally bright here, countering the clinical feel of the drum loop and creating a relentlessly-positive atmosphere that helps the narrator shift the focus from the tragedy of their death to the greatness of their partner. No, it’s not the warmest or most sentimental mixes, but it does the job well enough to let the writing shine through.

Hayes is…well, he is what he is at this point, which is to say he’s not the most charming or charismatic vocalist in the universe (in fact, he’s one of the least effective singers I’ve heard). Just like with the production, however, Hayes does just enough to avoid getting or the way and keeps his half-talking delivery in check enough to let his songwriting do the talking. As usual, his voice has absolutely no tone and he just has to cram extra syllables into places where they don’t fit, but overall his flow is tolerable and he’s good enough of a storyteller that he’s able to avoid his usual creepy pitfalls and make his tale feel sentimental and earnest. (The writing deserves a lot of the credit here, which we’ll discuss later.) Despite his past turns as a vindictive ex or a leering should-be-an-ex, his Rhett-like fawning over and devotion to his wife are surprisingly believable, and for once he’s able to allow the listener to share in his affection. Again, it’s not the greatest performance is the world, but it’s good for what it is, and it’s a lot better than it had any right to be.

Just like on “Craig,” the writing is the real star here. The narrator finds themselves pondering what might happen if they died and left their partner alone in the world. It’s not a terribly novel idea (see: Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes” or Darryl Worley’s “If Something Should Happen”), but instead of overloading on the sappy sentiment and focusing on the morbid truth of the situation, the song composes a letter to their partner’s next lover, describing all their quirks and offering advice on how to best love them. It’s the crazy details that really make this song, from the honey in the coffee (instead of the alcohol everyone else sings about) to the strict grammar rules to their love of “The Office.” Lines like “Don’t ever say she’s acting just like her mother” and those that advise this lover-to-be-named-later how to address the woman’s insecurities about her body make the characters feel more three-dimensional and thus make the song feel more real and impactful. (Also, with the narrator being dead and mostly not present in the subject matter, Hayes is somewhat blocked from letting his usual slimy persona ruin the sentiment of the track, although describing his partner not finding love again as “a waste” feels a little iffy to me.) By fleshing out this incredible character that is the woman they love, Hayes writes a song that really feels like it could be adapted to the audience: Even if the details don’t all match, enough connect to make people smile and think about the special someone in their own life.

“Don’t Let Her” is easily the best song I’ve heard from Walker Hayes, and might actually be one of the best song I’ve heard all year. Even with all of Hayes’s vocal flaws and his same-old, same-old arrangement, the lyrics are strong enough to lift the whole things and make it an enjoyable listen. While I have no doubt that Hayes will revert to his usual annoying self on his next single, but I will definitely take this one for now.

Rating: 7/10. This one’s even more unbelievable than my 7/10 on “Simple.” 

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “90s Country”

Country music celebrates its past in the weirdest ways…

I cut Walker Hayes some slack on his last “Craig,” as it was fairly well-written and had a lot of heart behind it. Country radio, however, was less forgiving, as the song barely made the top sixty on Billboard’s airplay chart (oh sure, they gave plenty of airtime to the tire fire that was “You Broke Up With Me,” but now they have more-refined tastes). For his second album, Hayes and his label have decided to try to split the difference between his last two singles with “90s Country,” a slick Metro-Bro tune that declares his love to someone while name dropping every country single released in the 1990s along the way. Whiled I’d give Hayes an A for effort (I can only get so annoyed at a song that manages to pull off a Ken Mellons reference), the execution gets a bright red F, as the track winds up being more of a tribute to the sleaziest of Bro-Country than anything released during the 90s.

When a song claims to pay tribute to a style of music, the first question I ask is “Well, does it at least sound like what it’s paying tribute to?” The answer here, just as it was for Tim McGraw and Lauren Alaina, is “no.” While the 1990s had more variation in its sound than people like to admit, today it’s associated with the fiddle-and-steel-driven neotraditional sound, which served as a callback to the classic country sound of the past. This mix, in contrast, sets the tone with a slick acoustic guitar and a prominent drum machine, and while it eventually mixes in a dobro, keyboard, and some real drums, it’s a far cry from the rollicking electric guitars and crying steel guitars that defined the neotraditional movement. (There’s something that kind of sounds like a fiddle here, but it’s limited to short post-chorus riffs.) The drum machine here seems to be a double-edged sword: It’s the loudest thing in the mix, and while it sets a nice tempo and gives the song a catchy groove, it also gives the lyrics an extra coating of slime they didn’t need while singlehandedly draining away any 90s feel the track hoped to have. The writing here might be sharp enough to serve two purposes, but the production can only back one of them effectively, and it’s the wrong one.

Did I call Kip Moore “hand-down the worst vocalist in country music” last year? Because the more I hear Hayes attempt to sing, the more I question that statement. Forget having any actual tone or power to his voice; the man barely has enough breath to make it through some of the lines in this song (his gasps for air are a lot more noticeable and numerous than most artists). Likewise, his charisma is essentially nonexistent, and while elevating writing like this would be a tall task for anyone, Hayes actually makes the song sound more creepy than it would by itself. He’s got decent flow and a competent falsetto, but he’s completely incapable of making this drivel feel romantic or classy.

I think the writing is simultaneously the best and worst part of this song. On the surface, I’m actually really impressed by how well the 90s songs are weaved into the story, and they go a bit deeper than the typical George Strait & Alan Jackson references you hear all the time (Mellons, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shenandoah, etc.). Unfortunately, the story they’re woven into is a cookie-cutter “love” song that’s as grimy as anything you might have heard during the Bro-Country era. What really irks me about this song is how the lyrics take fun, playful references from the 90s and twist them into lewd, creepy innuendo. Where Jackson honorably respected   his date’s wishes when she declined to have sex, the narrator here proclaims that they “ain’t settling for no burger and no grape snow cone.” Where Kenny Chesney’s song was about a literal tractor, the hook gets reduced to a sophomoric dick joke here. When Tim McGraw said “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it,” he was covering the entire scope of his relationship, not just the sex the narrator focuses on here. This isn’t a tribute to neotraditional songs, it’s a mockery of them, and as cleverly as the song is assembled, Hayes and his co-writers should be ashamed of what they’ve wrought.

In the end, “90s Country” accomplishes exactly zero of what it set out to do. It’s both a sleazy, below-average love song and the exact opposite of a tribute to the music of the neotraditional era, and is equal parts synthetic and pathetic. If Walker Hayes wants his name to be dropped in the inevitable “2010s Country” song in two decades, he needs to shape up and step up, fast.

Rating: 3/10. Go listen to some actual 90s country instead, like this:

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “Craig”

I guess even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

Walker Hayes made a really bad first impression in country music: His debut single “You Broke Up With Me” was one of the worst of the year (and not even country radio, which is very receptive to debut singles no matter how terrible they are, would let it past #10 on Billboard’s airplay chart), and his eventual debut album Boom was ripped to shreds by nearly every media outlet in the business (I recommend The Musical Divide’s review). Amidst all of this (rightly deserved) criticism, however, one common thread that emerged was that “Craig” actually had some redeeming qualities and was easily the least-worst song on Boom. Apparently Hayes and his management team got the message loud and clear, because they’re now pushing “Craig” as his newest single, hoping to make everyone forget the abomination that was Hayes’s debut. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I have to admit: The story here is strong enough to overcome Hayes’s abysmal vocal performance and make this track not just listenable, but even a little meaningful too.

The production on this track isn’t great or even good, but there’s enough here to keep it from distracting/detracting from the song’s message. The song opens with exactly the instruments you’d expect (a piano to signal “this is a serious song!” and a drum machine because that’s just how Hayes rolls), but the percussion is dialed back enough to keep it from getting too obnoxious, and the piano is used about as well as I’ve heard anyone do it since Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl.” The bright tones are mixed with a similarly-minded organ (and some choir-like post-chorus vocals) to give the song a gospel flair (which matches the prevalent religious imagery within song), and some low methodical notes are added near the climax to indicate the seriousness of what was about to happen. The result is a mix that feels moving and spiritual (or at least approximates that feeling), and complements the song’s message without getting in its way. It’s a mix that feels more like a Brett Young song than a Sam Hunt one, and that’s a major improvement.

And then we get to Walker Hayes himself…and ugh, he sounds even worse here than  on “You Broke Up With Me.” The talk-singing returns from his debut single, be he actually manages to sound even more toneless and off-key on this track. To talk about Hayes’s range would imply that he actually has range, and the way his voice loses all volume and becomes tissue-paper thin when he tries to go high on the choruses demonstrates that this is not the case. Likewise, his flow on the unstructured lyrics is passable at best and downright annoying at worst, and it also feels unnecessary, with the song’s structure giving me the feeling that he could have at least tried to sing this conventionally if he had wanted to. Thankfully, coming across as a goofy, hard-luck bro is a natural fit for Hayes (heck, it’s probably the only fit), allowing him to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. It’s a low bar, and frankly you could put anyone else in the front of the mic—you, me, a mime—and they would have done a better job. It’s a testament to the song’s strength that it can feature this sort of awfulness yet still merit a second listen.

The lyrics tell the story of Hayes’s relationship with his friend “Craig,” and how Craig actually went out a bought him a minivan in his time of need. (Gosh, I wish I had friends like that. 🙂 ) The biggest and most notable change from Hayes’s debut is that unlike the smug jerk from “You Broke Up With Me,” the narrator here is actually likable and sympathetic, someone you want to see succeed. Overall. the tale is actually a cute story with a decent hook, and the way it uses seatbelts as a connecting theme was actually kind of clever. Finally, while the writing felt more rap-like than anything else with its lack of structure, there was enough detail and personality in the writing and emotion in the delivery to make a connection to the listener (unlike Chris Stapleton’s “Millionaire”). It’s a memorable, impactful, even though it’s delivered in the most-ear-splitting way possible.

I still don’t think Walker Hayes has much of a future in country music, and he’s still on my list of artists who need to be booted out of Nashville. A good story backed with a suitable sound, however, can still get you a long way, and “Craig” is the sort of song that might earn Hayes a second look from listeners who blanched at “You Broke Up With Me.” Three chords and the truth is ideal, but a synthetic beat and a talk-sung truth works sometimes too.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen or two.

Song Review: Walker Hayes, “You Broke Up With Me”

Okay, I think Nashville is just trolling me with its releases now.

Walker Hayes in an Alabama native who has been kicking around Nashville for over a decade now, releasing songs every three years or so that were roundly ignored by the genre. He seems to have found some momentum in 2017, however, as he signed with Monument Records back in January and released “You Broke Up With Me” back in June. I’ve never heard any of Hayes’s earlier material, but if it’s as bad as this track, I didn’t miss much.

The production here is minimal, with an acoustic guitar driving the melody and a drum machine keeping time. (There’s also a whistle that mimics the acoustic guitar’s riff through most of the song, and while whoever did it is a terrible whistler, it blends into the background inoffensively.) An electric guitar floats around in the background, and a real drum set comes in to add some punch to the end of the chorus, but otherwise it’s a quiet mix that doesn’t generate a lot of energy. It uses bright tones to try to establish a happy, carefree atmosphere, but it fails because it gets overshadowed by the vocals, which is a big problem in this case.

Simply put, Hayes’s delivery on “You Broke Up With Me” is one of the worst I’ve heard this year. He can’t quite decide whether to sing or rap the song, so he tries to split the difference and winds up sounding flat, monotone, and completely lifeless. He sounds slightly better on the second half of the choruses when he gets into his upper range, suggesting that the song needed to be kicked up a key or two to get Hayes’s out of his awful lower register. His flow is passable, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be even remotely believable on this song—when he says “for real babe, ain’t tryin’ rub it your face,” it sounds instead like that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. He may be having a good time, but he fails to pass those good feelings on to his listeners.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a man who runs into his ex and declares that her pain and lamenting aren’t going to harsh his mellow and ruin his good time. Despite a few clever turns of phrase (“you made your bed and didn’t want me in it”), the story comes off as a smug, self-serving speech from an unsympathetic narrator. It eschews talking about how the woman’s leaving made the man feel, instead focusing on the sleazy party atmosphere the man now find himself in. In contrast to a song like Drew Baldridge’s “Rebound,” Hayes’s you-can’t-come-back proclamations come off as very mean-spirited and vindictive, giving the listener the impression he’s enjoying lording his freedom over his ex a bit too much. Combine this with Hayes’s shoddy vocals and the weak production, and you’ve got a supposed-to-be-fun party track that’s no fun to listen to at all.

Overall, “You Broke Up With Me” is a failure on nearly every level: The production is limp, the writing is questionable, and Hayes’s performance hits your ears like sandpaper. It’s not a pleasant song to listen to at all, and I don’t see it hanging around very long on country radio.

Rating: 3/10. Avoid this one.