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Category Archives: Single Reviews

Joanna Smith – “We Can’t Be Friends”

Songwriters:  Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Shelley Skidmore

In a market which often pressures artists to offer superficially uplifting lyrical fare – be it a Martina McBride-esque power ballad or an ode to beer and tailgates – it’s refreshing to hear a new artist who’s not afraid to do a little achin’.  For those unacquainted, Joanna Smith has released two singles to country radio in the past two years, with 2010’s “Gettin’ Married” and 2011’s “Georgia Mud” topping out at #55 and #57 respectively.

Her upcoming single “We Can’t Be Friends” makes for her third stab at the charts, and definitely her best effort so far.  “We Can’t Be Friends” is a beautiful, detailed lyric that addresses the post-breakup healing process from an angle that has not been used in recent memory.  Smith’s narrator firmly, but sadly insists that the only way to move on is to end contact, with maintaining a casual friendship not being a possibility, because she knows that even the slightest encounter will be enough to cause old feelings to rise to the surface once again.  “It’s not that I don’t love you,” she assures – “It’s that I love you way too much.”  Such naked, sincere honesty, not to mention smart, clear-eyed insight, is something that country radio could definitely use a good strong shot of.

That said, the song’s impact could have been bolstered had Smith managed to bring a greater sense of presence to the song, and perhaps imposed herself upon the lyric through some unique, personal vocal touches.  Of course, Smith is still a new artist, and this is a skill that she may very well be able to hone over time.  The important thing, however, is that she doesn’t get in the way of the song, but lets the lyric pull the weight in connecting with the listener, which makes “Friends” a quietly compelling record nonetheless.

Her previous singles hinted at a well of untapped potential, but “We Can’t Be Friends” strongly suggests that Joanna Smith just might have the talent and the taste to be a formidable artistic force in the country music industry – one who could shape up to be a most welcome presence in the country music mainstream, should country radio give her the time of day.  Either way, “We Can’t Be Friends” definitely makes one want to hear more from this bright young talent.

JOANNA’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Dierks Bentley – “Tip It On Back”

Songwriters:  Ross Copperman, Tully Kennedy, Jon Nite

There’s nothing wrong with a good party song.  They can be quite enjoyable.  But they’re also very prone to being done to death after a while.  When three of the four singles from your current album are all party songs that sound more or less the same, you’ve got a problem.

“Tip It On Back” offers nothing new that we haven’t already heard many times from Dierks Bentley.  It’s the same old book with a brand new cover.  It’s a little more grating than “5-1-5-0,” but not quite as punch-yourself-in-the-face bad as “Am I the Only.”  It’s near the same notch on the scale as “Sideways,” minus the cringe-worthy barroom singalong.  The hook is mediocre and forgettable.  The melody is flat and monotonous.  The production is chunky and flavorless.

At the very least, “Tip It On Back” will serve as Bentley’s placeholder on radio playlists until he gets something better out, but he can do much better than this, and he has so many times.  Here’s hoping he can find/write some better material soon, and do some branching out in theme and content.  Dierks Bentley is too talented to be pigeonholing himself like this.

DIERKS’ SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 15, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Songwriters:  Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Johan Shellback

McKayla Maroney says this better than I could:

By now it should hardly come as a surprise that Taylor Swift’s songs sound pop, but it’s easy to be almost taken aback by how fiercely un-country this song is, banjo in the country mix notwithstanding.  As a pop song, it could be worse – at least in terms of structure.  It boasts a sparse production and a strong melodic hook that makes a memorable impression, particularly in the chorus.  It will fit in comfortably on Top 40 playlists between toe-tapping hits by Katy Perry and Hot Chelle Rae.

There’s just no way around the fact that this is a huge step backward for Swift in terms of lyrical construction.  This song could be seen as everything Taylor Swift’s detractors detest about her wrapped up into a neat little package, with the juvenile aspect of her persona being played up to the point that it borders on self-parody.  While the “What!?” hook sounds cute at first, the “ooh ooh oohs” and the snipey spoken word portions are grating upon arrival.  As a whole, the lyric is one-dimensional, unimaginative, and – while I hate to use everbody’s favorite Swift perjorative – yes, this is very immature.  Swift has done this kind of song many times before, and she’s done it with much more perspective, insight, and cleverness than she shows here.  Considering she’s getting into her twenties now, it would be nice to see some forward artistic progression.

There are things that “Never Ever” gets right, but they’re not enough to offset all that it gets wrong.  While there’s a potentially good catchy pop song buried in here somewhere, it ultimately ends up getting smothered in cheese.  If this represents the direction of Swift’s upcoming album Red, then perhaps we would be better off joining Swift’s ex in listening to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”

TAYLOR’S SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 14, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Lady Antebellum – “Wanted You More”

The following article is a guest contribution by Jonathan Keefe of Slant Magazine and Country Universe

Songwriters:  Matt Billingslea, Dennis Edwards, Jason “Slim” Gambill, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Jonathan Long, Hillary Scott

“Wanted You More” epitomizes what happens when popular music stops being about art and starts being about a focus-grouped product. It’s a song that credits an astonishing seven writers – including the three members of Lady Antebellum – yet manages to have no trace whatsoever of individual experience, emotion, or insight.

If any one of Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, or Hillary Scott had looked to his or her phone and said, “Siri, can you write a song?” the result would have a more definitive and more definitively human point-of-view than what they and their cadre of hired-gun co-writers came up with here.

Utterly soulless stuff, “Wanted You More” doesn’t contain a single line or phrase to establish why its particular story is unique or, barring that, why it’s a story worth telling at all. Which, fine, not every song has to have an original premise or narrative. But Lady Antebellum, as has become their wont, show absolutely no initiative when it comes to expressing their banal ideas or to telling their tired stories in ways that make those ideas and stories theirs.

All a verse like, “All the words unspoken/Promises broken/I cried for so long/Wasted too much time/Should have seen the signs,” accomplishes is rearranging a bunch of clichés that could have been pulled randomly from a hat, for all their disregard for having a sense of purpose or intent. Anyone with a rhyming dictionary could have put “Wanted You More” together, and Lady Antebellum have rather quickly devolved into an act defined by that kind of anonymity.

They just seem terrified by the idea of imposing themselves. Even the song’s hook (“I guess I just wanted you more”) is phrased conditionally. Scott and Kelley are singing about a failed relationship – and, in Scott’s case, singing about it a quarter-pitch sharp the entire time – with all the urgency of someone who can’t decide what to watch on TV. “I guess I’ll watch this re-run of Chopped/Since nothing else is on,” would have as much impact as a hook for a song because it would, at the bare minimum, express some sort of intention.

With nothing of any consequence to get worked up about, it’s no wonder that Lady A’s production and performances are so tepid. The songs on their self-titled debut may have wanted for originality, but at least the arrangements on those songs had some spark and the trio sang their material with real conviction and presence.  But “Wanted You More” sounds interchangeable with the “easy listening” Adult Contemporary of the early 90s. It wouldn’t sound out-of-place between deadly dull minor hits like Richard Marx’s “Hazard” or Karla Bonoff’s “Standing Right Next to Me” on a playlist for a dentist’s office or, perhaps more fittingly, a sleep clinic.

Whatever potential they may have once displayed, Lady Antebellum have turned into the most insubstantial, flat-out boring act in popular music. “Wanted You More” doesn’t even have the gumption of a “Hashtag Truck Yeah” or a “Corn Star” to be actively offensive or awful: It just finds Lady A at their most nothing yet.

LADY A’S SCORE:  2
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Guest Contributions, Single Reviews

 

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Toby Keith – “I Like Girls That Drink Beer”

Songwriters:  Toby Keith, Bobby Pinson

At first glance, I was not expecting this to be good.  Far from it – I was expecting a throwaway ditty built around its title, with the verses being totally blah.  Instead, we get an authentic, humorous ode to the working class, with a fiddle and steel-enhanced production that wouldn’t sound out of place among the awesome country music of the nineties.

The clash between the liftestyles of the city girl and the country boy is hardly new, but Keith offers a take that doesn’t feel like a halfhearted rehash, but that doesn’t take itself too seriously either.  Keith pulls off all the right stops for a good fun country boy ditty, from a jaunty, catchy melody to clever lines about “your country club that ain’t really country.”  Some might look down on the country folk, but Keith responds, not through hollow chest-pounding “country good – city bad” declarations, but rather by simply demonstrating that he’s comfortable in his own skin – not to mention by actually singing instead of just shouting.

Toby Keith might not be breaking new ground with this release, but he’s got song structure and entertainment value nailed down.  I have a feeling I just might be buying that upcoming new Toby Keith album.

TOBY’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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David Nail – “Someone Like You”

Songwriters:  Adele Adkins, Dan Wilson

David Nail is a great singer.  “Someone Like You” is a great song.  It logically follows that a solid record would result.

Is it better than Adele’s original Grammy-winning pop hit version?  No.  That would be setting the bar mighty high.  Nail doesn’t take substantial creative liberties with Adele’s song either, not bothering to shoehorn in any fiddle or steel, but keeping it as a simple piano ballad very much in the vein of the original.  And who knows, maybe that’s the way to go – too much of an overhaul could have wound up a disaster.

The crucial point is that Nail renders Adele’s lyric with nuance and sincere emotion, adapting the song to his own vocal style without mimicking any aspects of Adele’s delivery (though it does feel slightly jarring to hear “…you’re married now” sung in an American accent).  He doesn’t over-sing the song, which is probably the biggest mistake one could make.  His performance is colored with deep shades of regret similar to that which made Adele’s performance of the song connect with such a wide audience.

Nail has released his version of “Someone Like You” as a music video, and has included his recording of it on his recently released 1979 EP.  As of now, the track has not been released to radio.  But if David Nail were to be the vehicle for such a fine song to find its way onto country airwaves, I would raise no complaint.

DAVID’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Jake Owen – “The One That Got Away”

Songwriters:  Jake Owen, Jimmy Ritchey, Dallas Davidson

It would be all too easy to call out the new Jake Owen single for the fact that it doesn’t sound remotely like country music in any form, but the song exemplifies a much greater loss in modern country music – the fact that country storytelling has gone almost entirely by the wayside.

“The One That Got Away” is an unorginal song that tells an unoriginal story with an unoriginal hook.  Two teenage lovers share a summer fling for three months before parting ways, after which the guy wishes he had the girl back.  That’s my summary of the song’s story, but you don’t learn anything more from the song itself than from the preceding summary.  The song’s characterizations are so wafer-thin that it feels an account of two nameless and faceless individuals, while the song’s hook amounts to nothing more than a trite phrase that Owen doesn’t use in any novel way.  The loose narrative consists of vague paint-by-number summertime images that have been many times before, and that don’t enhance the story beyond the black-and-white template, making for a song consistently uninteresting in content.

The song’s greatest and most substantial failure is that it makes no significant attempt to connect with the listener on an emotional basis.  Nothing about the story feels urgent or revelatory, and nothing about the delivery feels impassioned or sincere.  That just leaves one wondering why the song even needed to exist in the first place.

If you want a really great song about the love ‘that got away,’ one you could go for is George Strait’s “I’d Like to Have That One Back.”  It’s way better.

JAKE’S SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Her & Kings County – “Family Tree”

Can you say polarizing?  The new single offering from Her & Kings County is bold, in-your-face, shamelessly campy, and almost sure to simultaneously elicit grins from some listeners, and grimaces from others.  “Family Tree” bursts out of the gate with hand claps, banjo picking, and – wait for it – rapping, all the while displaying a love-us-or-hate-us abandon not heard since Laura Bell Bundy rode the airwaves.

Here’s my ten-cent take:  If you’re going to be crazy, you should do it like you mean it.  Seriously – I would take the self-aware stupidity of Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” over the unintentional genre parody of the “countrier than thou” generation any day.  In a market when half of the singles on country radio practically scream “Like me!  Like me!  Like me!” it’s refreshing to hear an act that honestly sounds like they just don’t care.

“Family Tree” simply radiates more personality and good-natured, light-hearted fun than just about anything else on country radio.  If this is what it takes to break the monotony on radio playlists, there will be no complaints here.

HER & KINGS COUNTY’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Pistol Annies – “Takin’ Pills”

Songwriters:  Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley

The new Pistol Annies single and video release serves up a tasty helping of swaggering country fun, along with a lyrical account of a girl group’s life on the road, and a streak of self-deprecating wit to boot.

They’re “not trying to get rich;” they’re “just trying to get by… playing for tips on a Saturday night.”  The witty, lightly catchy chorus sums up the nitty-gritty ins and outs of traveling with the band – “We owe four hundred dollars to the boys in the band/ Gas light’s blinkin’ on a broke-down van/ Livin’ on truck stop burgers and fries/ Crossin’ our fingers for a vacancy sign….”

Sly, playful grins shine through each Annie’s performance as they rotate lead vocals, introducing one another by home state and bad habit of choice.  There’s one from Tennessee who “likes to pop her pain pills for every little ache” (“Hippie Annie” Monroe), one from Kentucky who “ain’t gonna smile ’til she lights up her lucky” (“Holler Annie” Presley) and a “rootin’ tootin’ pistol from the Lone Star State” who “mixes up a double at the break of every day” (“Lone Star Annie” Lambert).  The winning title hook finds the girls musing “Who in the hell is gonna pay these bills?  One’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, one’s takin’ pills.”

The roadhouse country-rock arrangement is no less jaunty and fun than the Annies’ inspired performances as they poke good-natured fun at their own images.  It’s refreshing indeed to hear a single characterized by such color and personality – possessing a sense of humor along with a sense of self-awareness.  That makes “Takin’ Pills” both an instantly memorable and effortlessly likeable effort.  More, please.

PISTOL ANNIES’ SCORE:  9
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Jason Aldean – “Take a Little Ride”

If Jason Aldean is going to be the face of country music in 2012, then is it too much to ask that he come up with something original?  Or something that sounds good?  Or that actually feels country?  Or, God forbid, all of the above?

“Take a Little Ride,” the kickoff single from Aldean’s forthcoming fifth studio album is so rote, and so been-there-done-that that it’s depressing.  It aspires to be nothing more than a soundalike of Aldean’s preceding parade of rafter-rattling country-rockers, “Johnny Cash,” “She’s Country,” “Crazy Town,” “My Kinda Party,” and the like.  Needless to say, it studiously adheres to every imagery ingredient (cut-off jeans, tailgates, etc.) in the recipe for a half-baked country radio hit.

The only noteworthy differences include a tacked-on sex metaphor that doesn’t feel clever or original in any meaningful way, along with the fact that Jason’s star is now big enough to eliminate the need for obligatory, genre-pandering sprinkling of country instrumentation.  It will be a big hit, but that’s hardly surprising, since it’s clear that such lame recycled mediocrity is what passes for a country hit these days.

JASON’S SCORE:  2
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Single Reviews

 
 
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