Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Toby Keith, "Trailerhood"

Toby Keith has never been one to take himself too seriously.  His current single "Trailerhood," from his upcoming album of the same title, doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is:  dumb fun.  The problem is that the song is a little too much dumb, and not enough fun.

As its title suggests, "Trailerhood" is a description of life in a trailer park (something that a successful country music artist would no doubt be familiar with). It has a pleasant and bouncy rhythm, but the lyrics just don't go anywhere.  The first verse describes a neighbor sitting out in the sun by his pool and drinking beer - Been there, seen that.  The second verse is about gambling - okayyy...  The chorus merely declares that "There's something going on out in the Trailerhood."  Nothing that the verses describe is particularly noteworthy, funny, or in any way out of the ordinary.  The song is not so much "bad" as it is pointless.  There's just nothing here to make one want to raise the volume, let alone hit "REPEAT."

I'm not against novelty songs.  Brad Paisley has given us a few good ones (and a few not-so-good ones).  But in the case of "Trailerhood," it just isn't witty or clever enough to be worth anything.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

HEAR IT:  (Live acoustic version)
To hear the studio version, click the "Cool New Music" link.

Monday, June 28, 2010

No Justice, "Love Song"

Meet the band that just might be the Lone Star State’s best-kept secret. No Justice has already gained a loyal fan following in Texas, and has shared the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Jack Ingram, and Dierks Bentley. On July 6, they will release their national debut album 2nd Avenue. The kickoff single is called “Love Song.”

Don’t be fooled by the title. “Love Song” definitely is not. It is a well-written song about an encounter with an ex-lover, in which the man in the song suggests that they rekindle their romance. The first verse describes the circumstances surrounding the breakup, with the narrator explaining how his pride got the best of him, and 'what he felt were things that he couldn't say.' In the second verse, he says he has learned his lesson, and vows to be a better man. Lead singer Steve Rice flat-out sells the vocal delivery in a sultry “come-on” type of performance that is full of character. He doesn’t just sing the words and hit the notes, but he also demonstrates strong interpretive abilities.

The heavy country-rock production may be difficult for some country purists to digest. Granted, it is a bit hard to imagine a single like this being played next to Alan Jackson and George Strait. But when you consider how country music has evolved in the past decades, it may not seem so out of place after all.

I’m just glad that this isn’t another stereotypical country-boy anthem or a frivolous summer party tune. It may be a rather unconventional form of country music, but “Love Song” is still a rock-solid choice for a single.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Little Big Town, "Little White Church"

Where on earth did this come from? Little Big Town has been in a commercial slump. I thought their career was virtually over! And then, all of the sudden, I see them climbing back up the charts with the coolest song I’ve heard this summer!

“Little White Church” is the first single from LBT’s upcoming fourth album The Reason Why. By now, you’ve probably heard it a few times, but let’s consider what makes it such an awesome single. The song is backed by an instrumental line-up that is deceptively simple, yet still interesting, consisting of fast-paced acoustic strumming with electric guitar riffs tastefully inserted. The hand clapping in the pre-chorus is icing on the cake. Finish it off with a spunky and authoritative lead vocal from Karen Fairchild, enhanced by LBT’s signature four-part harmonies that have been sorely missed on country radio.

The song already sounds awesome enough, but when you take a look at the lyrics, you see that they actually aren’t half bad. The female narrator admonishes her lover for not taking their relationship seriously. She tells him to take her “down to the little white church” and marry her. Otherwise, their relationship will end. Thus, the band has produced a song that, besides being insidiously catchy and fun, has a positive message about commitment in a relationship. (I wonder if Miranda Lambert has been playing this song for Blake Shelton lately) For some extra spice, they sprinkle in clever lines such as “I might be cheap, but I ain’t free” and “No more chicken and gravy/ Ain’t gonna have your baby…” Zing! Let him have it, girl!

A crazy-awesome Southern-flavored backwoods romp like this one might be just what country radio needs to get out of this period of utter dullness. It’s hard to guess how high this song will peak on the charts, considering LBT’s inconsistent chart performance history, but an ambitious single such as this has potential to be the biggest hit of the band’s career.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Friday, June 25, 2010

Eric Church, "Smoke a Little Smoke"

This is one artist who perplexes me to no end.  He professes to be a modern-day member of the outlaw movement - part of a distinctive class of artists who aren't afraid to buck the trends and break the rules.  Yet, much of his output has been dominated by contrived, cliche-ridden country-rock fluff.  But his current single, "Smoke a Little Smoke," manages to seperate itself from his more stereotypical songs.  The production style is not country, but at least it doesn't annoy me by halfheartedly pretending to be country.

The song's narrator is a man who, after a bad breakup, just aimlessly sits around abusing drugs and alcohol.  Eric even hints at the use of illegal drugs ("Dig down deep, find my stash..."), so this song is definitely not squeaky clean.  The song's lyrics are somewhat repetitive, and not particularly interesting.  But what is interesting is the way the production mirrors the lyrics - the musicians sound like they're high on something!  "Smoke a Little Smoke" is full of snaky guitar riffs that disinctly set it apart from any other song on the radio.

This may not be the best song to hit country radio this year, but hey, I have to give Eric a few creativity points.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Julianne Hough, "Is That So Wrong"

She's back! Julianne Hough's 2008 debut met with marginal success, yielding the minor Top 20 hit "That Song In My Head," and earning her a fan-voted ACM Award for Top New Artist. But she never quite gained a firm hold on radio, as she and her label had hoped. Now she's taking another shot at radio success with the first single from her upcoming second album.
"Is That So Wrong" is an emotional ballad that was influenced by Julianne's recent breakup with fellow country star Chuck Wicks. The song's narrator is a woman who has just gone through a difficult breakup, and is eager to pursue a new relationship. The lyrics are decent, but not outstanding.
Since Julianne's debut album was criticized for having "dated" production, her new producer Dann Huff gives her new single a more modernized pop-country sound. The song is backed by electric guitar and percussion, with the occasional twang of a steel guitar. If you were a fan of the 90s-style country sound of her first album, as I was, you might find her new sound rather difficult to digest. But believe me - it grows on you.
One listen to this song is enough to tell you that Julianne's pipes are still in fine repair. She delivers the song's verses in a deeply emotional aching and pleading tone, which is easily the single's most positive quality. With a solid single such as this, Julianne Hough just might be able to waltz her way into the Country Top 10.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Steel Magnolia, "Just By Being You (Halo and Wings)"

"If My Heart Had Windows"; "Forever and Ever, Amen"; "You're Still the One"; "It's Your Love"; "I Could Not Ask for More" - Country music is one genre that boasts some of the greatest love songs ever heard. Unfortunately, Steel Magnolia's current single has no place among the aforementioned classics.

Joshua Scott Jones and Meaghan Linsey have talent coming out their ears - there's no denying that. Their rich and soulful vocals won over the judges on CMT's Can You Duet, and they won the show's second season as a result. The problem with Steel Magnolia is that they tend to go for style over substance. Though their performances are almost always entertaining, we have yet to hear them release a song with truly impressive lyrics. They try to go for the romance with their current single "Just By Being You (Halo and Wings)," but this song is hardly worth the efforts of such a talented duo.

Being the heartless and tactless critic that I am, I took off my halo and wings a long time ago. Here's the problem: "Halo and Wings" sounds like a plagiarizing of a Hallmark card. It's chalked full of romantic-sounding platitudes: 'Let's run away together!' 'I love you just the way you are!' 'You don't have to be invincible!' 'You don't have to be perfect!' 'Just say my name!' The song message can be summed up as one desperate plea: "Play me on the radio! I'm inoffensive!"

If Josh and Meaghan were bent on recording this song, it should have been album filler, because it is a weak choice for a radio single. It may become a hit anyway, but only because Steel Magnolia is still riding the wave of "Keep On Lovin' You." The only thing this song has potential for is to be one more cheesy love song that everybody loves to hate. And that's assuming that anybody even remembers this song fifteen years from now.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ray Stephenson, "Farmboy"

Enter another member of the "countrier-than-thou" generation - TwangTown Records newcomer Ray Stephenson. His debut single, "Farmboy," is as country as a turnip green. The charming sound of the fiddle and banjo are a welcome relief from the twang-free pop that is often marketed as country.

But underneath all those fiddles, "Farmboy" is merely a paper thin declaration of being an "F-A-R-M-B-O-Y." The first verse, describing hard work on a farm, is almost identical to Rodney Atkins' "Farmer's Daughter." The lyrics pull out all the stops for a country hit - (1) Mention drinking water from a hose (2) Give the family dogs a shout-out (3) Namecheck a legend - in this case Robert Earl Keen (3) Drool over hot country girls... Shall I continue?

Top it all off with a lackluster vocal performance that struggles to stay on key. The result is an unoriginal surefire hit delivered by a semi-competent vocalist. "Farmboy" has the added misfortune of being associated with the stampede of stereotypical country-boy anthems that country radio often plays to death. When a song has weaknesses like that, all the fiddles and banjos in the world are not enough to save it.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mary Chapin Carpenter, "I Put My Ring Back On"

"I Put My Ring Back On" was the first single from Mary Chapin Carpenter's recently-released album The Age of Miracles. It did not enter the country charts, so most of you probably never got to hear it.

The lyrics describe the healing of a troubled marital relationship. In the heat of a dispute, the song's narrator has removed her wedding ring and thrown it down... "down, down, down." But she eventually puts her ring back on, realizing that "here with you is where I belong." She realistically acknowledges that their relationship is still far from perfect, and that love and marriage are still just as difficult as ever, but she is prepared to continue facing those difficulties without giving up.

These lyrics make for a heartwarming make-up song, bolstered by a pleasant lilting melody, that puts a smile on your face. The simple folk-pop production is not distinctly country, but that's because Mary Chapin Carpenter is no longer trying to squeeze herself into the mold of a typical "country singer." She is now recording on an independant label, and is no longer a mainstream country hitmaker, so there's really no need. One of Mary's admirable traits is that she has always allowed her lyrics and vocals to speak for themselves - she does not have to rely on catchy hooks to grab the listener's attention. Her new music retains these traits in full.

This song does not sound at all like the music currently heard on country radio, but it some ways, it's better. I definitely would have enjoyed hearing this one on radio. Check it out.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Katie Armiger, "Leaving Home"

Katie Armiger's previous single, "Kiss Me Now," peaked at #55 on the country singles chart. That might not sound impressive, but after cranking out one single after another for three years, it was her first single to enter the chart in the first place. Katie now takes another shot at the Top 40 with "Leaving Home."
I think there's a reason why Cold River Records is trying so hard to get Katie noticed. Just listen to her performance on this track! She can flat-out sing a country-pop song. Even at the young age of 18, her powerhouse vocals have already earned her comparisons to the likes of Sara Evans and Martina McBride. Her vocal delivery on "Leaving Home" is outstandingly nuanced and expressive. She raises her pitch when she sings "We might be miles apart/ I'll carry you in my heart," which makes the performance even more interesting and pleasant to hear.
While the song's lyrics are definitely age appropriate, they do fall in the generic range as they describe a young woman leaving home to chase her dreams and find her place in the world. The piano-driven instrumentation sounds good at the beginning of the song, but as the song continues, the production morphs into a slightly overblown combination of string sections and over-zealous drumming.
But despite the song's minor weaknesses, Katie's showstopping vocals hold the song together and make it a broadly enjoyable listen.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Randy Rogers Band, "Too Late for Goodbye"

These guys have been trying to crack the Top 40 ever since 2005, and so far they have met with repeated failures. Will the Randy Rogers Band's current single, "Too Late for Goodbye," give them their long-awaited breakthrough?

Though this tune has decent production, featuring some nifty work on the guitar and fiddle, the song seems clumsily written. The song's lyrics attempt to describe the impending end of a relationship. In the song, the narrator's once-significant other is giving him the "We need some time apart" routine, but he tells her that it's too late to save their relationship. Frankly, I can't tell how the declaration "It's too late for goodbye" is supposed to drive that point home - it makes little sense. Why does he say that "it's too late for goodbye" when it seems that he is about to say just that - "goodbye"? Randy goes on to assert that "It's too late/ It's all gone/ You had your chance/ You took too long," among other things. In the end, the song comes off as a rambling tirade with no real direction to it. He tops it all off with a pointless cliche ("Let me beat you to the punch").

Though the lyrics are not impressive, it's mainly the vocal performance that does the song in. When Randy sings lines such as "After all the hell you put me through," he should actually sound like he has been put through hell, but his weak delivery does not fully convey the song's emotions. The performance is not convincing, and it ultimately falls flat.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

To hear this song, click the "Cool New Music" link in the "More Cool Sites" link list.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Band Perry, "If I Die Young"

After gaining a modest amount of airplay with the cute-but-frivolous "Hip to My Heart," the Perry siblings are back with their follow-up single - a melancholy ballad about young death and the shortness of life.

On the positive side, the production is pure perfection.  "If I Die Young" mixes a pop-like melody with an arrangement that is heavy on fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, backed by a gentle drum beat that is just soft enough to underscore the track without being a distractions.  Kimberly Perry's vocal performance is full of nuance and emotion.

If I were judging vocals and production alone, this song would easily be a ten.  Unfortunately, however, there are a few lyrical loose ends.  The song begins with the narrator expressing her burial wishes, then it moves on to images of a mother burying her baby, and ends with comments on how people are often not fully appreciated until they are gone.  Though the song is full of poetic lines that are all interesting, and any one of them would make a great song on its own, there is no narrative binding them all together.  The song's ultimate point remains unclear.  Nevertheless, writer Kimberly Perry demonstrates remarkable potential as a songwriter, since she displays a knack for crafting verses that pack a great deal of emotional punch.  In addition, the spectacular production makes this easily one of the best-sounding singles of 2010.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Monday, June 7, 2010

Bomshel, "Just Fine"

Turn on your radio. Listen as "Just Fine" opens with a blazing fiddle intro. Dive for the volume knob when your ears are barraged with the sound of cacophonous, bass-heavy production. Raise your eyebrow in confusion as you try to make sense of the lyrics. Now, change the radio station, as the song has now hopelessly derailed.

Bomshel has been through a lot in the past few years. After having to replace original member Buffy Lawson, they have finally been able to release an album without it getting shelved, but have only achieved spotty success at radio. Members Kelley Shepard and Kristy Osmunson have talent and potential that cannot be denied, but their music has often suffered from poor production, not to mention the annoying habit of pandering to the tastes of female country radio listeners.

Their current single, "Just Fine," is possibly their biggest bust yet. The song's lyrics are nothing but a giant pile of cliches, and the storyline goes absolutely nowhere. Kelley and Kristy are barely audible over the loud and gimmicky country-rock production. The production is so overblown that the song is not even fun to listen to.

Due to the weak lyrics and poor production, the only hope for the song is the spunk and sass in the girls' performance, but that's still not enough to save it. "Just Fine" remains one big mess. For Bomshel, it's only the latest in a string of disappointing singles.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

LeAnn Rimes, "Swingin'"

This seems like an odd time for LeAnn to be releasing a covers album, and not just because she released one back in 1999. As much as it pains me to admit it, LeAnn has clearly lost the upper hand in the slugfest of blonde bombshells struggling for country radio domination. She barely missed hitting number one in 2006 with "Something's Gotta Give," but she has not re-entered the Top 10 since then (Though she nearly did so with 2007's "Nothin' Better to Do"). At this point in her career, it's important for LeAnn's new music to get as much attention as possible if she wants to get back into the spotlight. Covers albums are generally not very effective at drawing attention, since many people tend to dismiss them as uninteresting. But LeAnn has made it clear that Lady and Gentlemen is no ordinary covers album. It is entirely composed of classic country love songs, most of which are from the 80s, and all of which were originally recorded by men. In covering these songs, LeAnn is not necessarily doing them by the book, but rather she is putting her own unique twist on each one.

The album's first single is LeAnn's version of "Swingin'," a shamelessly flirty John Anderson hit from 1983. It is starkly different from the original. Not surprisingly, she had to tweak the lyrics so that they would make sense when sung by a woman. Instead of singing about Charlotte Johnson, LeAnn sings about Charlie Johnson. The production takes on an entirely new style. Gone are the horns and organs from John Anderson's original country-pop version, having been replaced with the pedal steel. Producer Vince Gill does some fancy guitar work on LeAnn's version, which spices it up a bit. LeAnn even increases the song's tempo, spitting out the verses in a rapid-fire delivery.

LeAnn's take on "Swingin'" is definitely no pointless copy of the original. But now, here's the million-dollar question: Does it work? It works like a charm! Some of John Anderson's fans may be put off at hearing LeAnn mess with one of their old favorites, but she does a bang-up job on it. LeAnn and her producer put a unique, original, and totally fun new twist on a familiar classic. But what really brings the track to life is LeAnn's peppy, energetic, and flirtatious vocals. I know that John Anderson's fans will slaughter me if I say that LeAnn's version is better than the original, but it comes pretty darn close, to say the least. If the rest of Lady and Gentlemen is as clever and interesting as the first single, then this is one covers album that is definitely worth checking out.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Justin Moore, "How I Got to Be This Way"

When I heard the opening line of Justin Moore's current single - "I rolled my Daddy's truck off the Dicksonville curve/ After drinkin' my fifth beer" - my first thought was, "Oh dear, where is this song going?" But the lyrics took a turn in the right direction. The song's narrator describes the many mistakes he made in his young manhood, from letting himself be deceived by a dishonest man to breaking a young girl's heart to running up too fast behind a horse and getting kicked. The chorus is flat-out and honest: "Yeah, I've done some pretty stupid things, but hey/ I'm a little bit harder/ And a whole lot smarter/ That's how I got to be this way."

I can't give Justin extra points for poetic language, but this song is likely better off without it. Such blunt simplicity is not always easy to pull of, but it works in this instance. "How I Got to Be This Way" is a straightforward piece about how the mistakes we've all made and the hardships we've endured have shaped our character and turned us into the people we are today. Justin sums up the song's message by saying "That's what it takes to make a man out of a kid." All of us have done a few stupid things in our life (I remember almost getting kicked by a horse once!), so anyone can relate to this song.

The biggest problem with this song is that it suffers from unnecessarily loud production, as well as a rather uninteresting melody.  While this song is based on a worthy concept, the execution is definitely not perfect.

Up to this point, Justin's songs have ranged from average to just plain awful, and while this single is not spectacular, it is a marked improvement over "Backwoods," and at least a small step in the right direction.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Patty Loveless, "Drive"

Patty's new song "Drive," which she wrote along with her producer/husband Emory Gordy, Jr., is a charity single meant to raise awareness of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the disease that her older sister Dottie succumbed to at the age of 48.
When the purpose of a song is to draw attention to a debilitating disease, I would often expect the artist to deliver a melodramatic tragedy. Thank you, Patty, for not doing that. On the contrary, "Drive" is a fun, upbeat, and positive number. The lyrics urge the listener to enjoy life's moments to the fullest. Granted, there are a few vague lines that are not particularly special ("Live life/ Breathe it in/ Don't stop; don't quit... Breate deep and drive") However, it is noteworthy that the lyrics mention breathing a number of times, and COPD is a disease that greatly hinders one's ability to breathe. Thus, the lyrics seem to have a hidden message declaring that everyone should be able to 'Live life and breathe it in.' The song could be heard as a description of the kind of life that COPD sufferers should be able to enjoy.
As usual, it is impossible to find fault in Patty's vocal performance. Her voice is still just as beautiful as ever, and her delivery is full of energy and enthusiasm. She sounds like she's having a blast singing this song. The style of this song is catchy country-pop, similar to the sound of "That's the Kind of Mood I'm In," Patty's equally-catchy hit from ten years ago. While Patty's recent work in the traditional country and bluegrass fields was excellent, it is still enjoyable to once again hear her do something more in the vein of mainstream country music. This could be a fun song to listen to while jogging, having a barbecue, or say, driving.
Now don't get your hopes up too high - "Drive" is not quite at the same standard of excellence as Patty's past hits. Furthermore, it is unlikely to find its way to country radio. But Patty's main goal here is to draw attention to COPD, and to give us a fun and catchy song to rock out to, and she succeeds on both accounts.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)