Thursday, July 29, 2010

Josh Gracin, "Cover Girl"

Country radio has not been kind to this American Idol graduate lately.  Josh Gracin had his most recent Top 10 entry in 2007 with "We Weren't Crazy," but his two subsequent singles missed the Top 30, and his three most recent singles failed to chart.  Josh needs a hit, and he needs one bad.  Why the cold shoulder from country radio?  It seems Josh could only think of one reason:  His music did not sound awful enough.  But rest assured - it sure does now.

Josh's new single, "Cover Girl" is littered with clashing percussion and wailing electric guitars that are heard throughout the song.  I'm not just talking about a little guitar solo in the bridge - I mean throughout the song.  Josh cranks up the loudness in a totally obnoxious and blatantly non-country performance.  If I heard this song on my local country station, I would probably think that it had switched formats.  The production only seems to be missing one thing, and that's the sound of Carrie Underwood digging her key into the side of a pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive.

Because the terrible production was so hard to get past, I had to find an acoustic version in order to properly scrutinize the song's lyrics.  The disappointingly generic lyrics are basically a sick version of Sammy Kershaw's "She Don't Know She's Beautiful," only stripped of all the fiddles and all the sincerity.  The narrator is drooling over how beautiful his woman is, but he only comes off as a playboy.  Many of the lines (like "Show me what your mama gave you") are just plain ugly.

This trainwreck of a song sounds like everything else on country radio - only worse.  I think country radio is going to need a way better reason to care about Josh Gracin again.  Listen at your own risk.

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

To hear this song, click the "Cool New Music" link.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sugarland, "Stuck Like Glue"

It's been almost a whole year since we've last heard from Sugarland, but they're back with a bang.  The first single from their upcoming album The Incredible Machine, is a sweet and sugary slice of pop-country that lives up to its title in full.  One listen to "Stuck Like Glue," and it will be stuck in your head like glue.  It's been playing in my head on endless loop ever since I first heard it yesterday.

The lyrics are a simple declaration of undying passion set against pleasantly sparse acoustic-based production.  Add some accordion, mandolin, hand-clapping, and finger-snapping, and we have a recipe for irresistible catchiness.  Lead singer Jennifer Nettles sells the Georgia twang as she delivers infectious lines such as "Stuck on you, wuh-oh-wuh-oh, stuck like glue/ You and me, baby, we're stuck like glue."

When she reaches the bridge of the song, Jennifer goes a little nuts and shifts into reggae rap mode.  I'm sure that will scare away a few traditionalists.  I initially had to ask myself, "Do I like this or do I hate this?"  But, seriously, have we ever heard reggae rap in a country song before?  Not even Kenny Chesney has done it.  It adds a great deal of character to the song, and you can tell that Jennifer is having a blast with it.  My decision has been made:  I like it.

Listen to "Stuck Like Glue" and hear a duo who is not afraid to push genre boundaries, break the rules of country radio, and show limitless creative expression.  That's worth some big points on the 1-to-10.

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



I conducted a survey of my readers to find out what the popular opinion was on having a reggae breakdown in a country song, and 38 readers responded to the poll.

What do you think of the reggae rap in Sugarland's "Stuck Like Glue"?
65% - Stupid and annoying
34% - Cool and catchy

Maybe country music just isn't ready for this yet.  Thanks to everyone who participated!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Chris Young, "Voices"

"Voices" was originally released as the first single from Chris Young's current album, The Man I Want to Be, only to tank in the lower reaches of the Top 40.  Two back-to-back number-one hits later, the label has re-released the song to give it a second shot at the charts, since it now seems that Chris Young has become one of Nashville's hot properties.

Like many of Chris Young's songs, "Voices" has a sound that is unmistakably country, further bolstered by strong vocals.  The lyrics describe how one man has been shaped by the words of wisdom passed on to him by his elders.  The song makes a pun out of the concept as the narrator says that he "hears voices all the time" - implying mental retardation.  That touch of cleverness doesn't have to detract from the song's appeal, but it is slightly overdone on this song, as it forms the main concept of the first verse.

When the chorus kicks in, Chris gives us a summary of all the little bits of advice he has been given:  "Work that job, but don't work your life away."  "Drop some cash in the offering plate on Sunday."  Each chorus is different, with different words of advice included - a nice touch.  Unfortunately, the jumble of typical advice does sound a bit cliched.  But to Chris's credit, the sincerity is still evident, and he does come off as introspective and respectful.  He ties everything together in the bridge, declaring that he is thankful for such voices, because they have made him who he is today.

"Voices" is definitely far from perfect.  The concept could have been better executed.  Still,  the song does have some strong points that should not be ignored.  Considering the song's positive qualities, as well as Chris's high popularity on country radio, I would guess that I'll probably be hearing "Voices" all the time.  If it doesn't become a hit this time around, I suppose his label will keep re-releasing it until it does.

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


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Joe Nichols, "The Shape I'm In"

It's always enjoyable to hear an artist's fresh new take on a classic theme of country music.  Sara Evans' stellar hit "Cheatin'" was a classic example of this type of song (and it easily would have been a perfect 10, had I reviewed it).  Joe Nichols' new song, "The Shape I'm In," while not quite at the same high standard as "Cheatin'," falls into a similar category. 

This song puts a twist on the classic country theme of heartbreak and loss.  The narrator is a man who is rallying himself after a difficult break-up.  The lyrics strain to be optimistic, but it's obvious that this man is not yet ready to stop being miserable.  He admits that he's "gettin' better at barely gettin' by," and he's 'doin' all right for the shape he's in.'  Lyrically speaking, this is one of Joe's strongest songs yet.

The production is a bit rough.  At times, the combination of wailing harmonicas and bluesy guitar riffs sound cluttered.  But it's not enough to ruin the song, which still boasts solid lyrics and strong vocals.

As a singer, it sounds like Joe Nichols is in pretty dang good shape.

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


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Train, "Hey, Soul Sister"

You're probably wondering "Why in the world is this guy reviewing a Train song on a country music blog site?"  The better question is, "Why is a Train song being shipped to country radio?"

I suppose this is a new trend - remixing pop and rock songs and sending them to country radio.  Hey, it worked for Uncle Kracker!  Since "Hey, Soul Sister" has already become a massive international pop hit, I can see this only as a ploy to make as much money from the song as humanly possible.  Do the guys in Train even like country music?

However, the country mix of "Hey, Soul Sister" does sound significantly better than many of the other pop-rock songs that have crept onto country radio (Such as Uncle Kracker's "Smile" and Kid Rock's "All Summer Long").  BNA Records goes all out in trying to make this a country song.  The label shamelessly adds a banjo line with prominent fiddle and steel riffs on top of the song's signature ukelele.  They don't just add a few barely audible steel guitar fills, as was the case with "Smile."  Furthermore, the song's melody seems to suit country music surprisingly well, which keeps the country mix from having a cheesy and contrived sound.  In a way, it almost sounds natural.  Thus, the country version of "Hey, Soul Sister" is elevated by the fact that is sounds way more country than any of its crossover predecessors.

But all those fiddles and banjos cannot disguise the fact that "Hey, Soul Sister" remains a catchy pop song.  Just look at the lyrics.  From "Your lipstick stains on the front lobe of my left side brain" to the namecheck of Madonna, many of the lines are downright ridiculous.  Country lyrics need to make more sense that this.  Even if a country song doesn't have a profound message, it at least has to make sense.

"Hey, Soul Sister is not quite worthy of being called a country song.  But, depending on your tastes, this new country mix may be worthy of being called a guilty pleasure.

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

To hear this song, click the "Cool New Music" link.

I conducted a poll of my blog readers to find out what the popular opinion was on the country version of "Hey, Soul Sister."  I received 32 votes.

Would you like to hear the country version of "Hey, Soul Sister" played on country radio?

46% - No!  That's not a country song.
37% - Yes!  I love it!
15% - Fine with me.  I don't really care.

It seems the general consensus is that this song is not welcome on country radio.  Thanks to everyone who participated in the survey!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jessie James, "Boys In the Summer"

Why do people keep calling Jessie James a country-pop singer?  Why do her songs keep getting shipped to country radio (which, thankfully, has not had the audacity to play them)?  To me, Jessie James sounds like a pure Top 40 pop diva without a country bone in her body.  I'm going to have a hard time taking her seriously as a country singer.  Her new single "Boys In the Summer" is a sugary piece of poptastic ear candy that is clearly asking to be blared at high volume at pool parties. 

I will let the lyrics speak for themselves:

"Yeah, yeah! Boys look so much hotter in the summer
Yeah, yeah! Take your shirt off in the water
Pull me under
Ooh!  I must be dreamin'
Ooh!  You got me singin'
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...!"

The gushy lyrics are as fluffy as cotton candy, and they sag under thick bubblegum-pop production.  I'm trying hard to hate it, but it does have a few redeeming qualities.  The song has a catchy earworm of a melody, and the vocal performance is full of spunk.  But that's not worth a significant number of points.  I'm sure that teenage girls will be singing along at the top of their lungs, but older audiences and male audiences may still remain unconverted after Jessie utters her last "Yeah, yeah!"

Jessie, you're cute, and you might make a decent pop star.  But for now, keep it off my country radio.

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


Friday, July 16, 2010

Kenny Chesney, "The Boys of Fall"

After having to tolerate Kenny's lackluster performance of "Ain't Back Yet," I was ready to hate this one.  The first single from his upcoming album Hemingway's Whiskey is about playing high school football.  But it goes deeper than you might expect.

The songwriting is surprisingly well-executed.  The song comes from the point of view of a man who visits the field where he once sported a jersey, and has a flood of memories come rushing back.  It describes the small-town hype surrounding each game, and touches on the character traits that a good player had to have.  The imagery in the verses paints vivid pictures of the narrator's memories and experiences.  One of the song's most appealing aspects is its portrayal of the camaraderie between the members of a team.  Thus, this nostalgic look into the past turns out to be very engaging.

Finish it off with a solid lead vocal, and we've got a keeper.  Kenny delivers a believable and convincing performance, making it easy to see him in the role of the song's main character.  These days, each new Kenny Chesney song is practically guaranteed a spot in the Top 10, but in this case, that spot is well-deserved.

SPOILER ALERT:  This song does NOT turn into a party on the beach by the time it ends.  That's a nice change of pace.

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


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Darius Rucker, "Come Back Song"/ Thompson Square, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not"

It's a crying shame when we hear the most unique and talented voices wasted on the most dull and uninspired material.  This seems to happen now more than ever, as country radio often favors the typical and predictable over the unique and interesting.

When Darius Rucker left Hootie and Blowfish behind to set out on a country music career, he had originally planned on recording hardcore country shuffles and ballads.  Oh, what might have been!  Unfortunately, he had to dumb it down considerably in order for his music to be acceptable to country radio.  Thus, he adopted a clean and polished contemporary sound coupled with all of the lyrical themes favored by current country radio.  The result has been music that sounds pleasant enough and is commercially viable, but that is not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

"Come Back Song," the first single from Darius's upcoming second album, follows in the same vein as the music of his debut album.  As the title suggests, it's about a man begging his former lover to return to him.  Only one line in the song that is at all clever:  "You're on the feel-good side of leaving/ And I'm the backside of a mule."  Beyond that, the song fails to make any lasting impression.  It may satisfy fans of Darius's debut, but it is unlikely to win him any new fans.  It's enough to make you say "Oh, that's nice" while it's playing on the radio, and then forget all about it as soon as it's over.

The same could be said of the current single from new Stoney Creek Records duo Thompson Square.  They've got good voices, charisma, personality, and undeniable chemistry (What would you expect?  They're husband and wife!) Their debut single, "Let's Fight," fizzled on the charts, but it was a much more engaging song than this.  "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not" is a simple story of a developing romance.  They could have taken that concept and run a little further with it instead of giving us something so bland and un-surprising.  It's simple - boy meets girl; boy falls in love; boy proposes; they get married - The End.  Oh, and every time the chorus rolls around, the girl asks, "Are you gonna kiss me or not?"  I don't think this song has much of a chance at radio, considering that they're a new act from a minor label, and their first single didn't do well.  If I were a radio programmer, I don't think there's anything here that would stop me from passing over this song in favor of Carrie Underwood's current release.

If either of these songs come on the radio, I may sit through them without changing the station, but neither one is likely to have me singing along or losing myself in the music.  I can only hope that Darius Rucker will stop playing it safe, and start showing greater artistic ambition.  If Thompson Square can find material that's on the same level with their talent, they might be able to make a fan out of me yet.  Both artists have potential to do much, so it's disappointing that they seem to be aiming for so little.

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


To hear, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not," click the "Cool New Music" link.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reba McEntire, "Turn On the Radio"

(My 50th review!  How cool is that?)

Few people were more thrilled than I was to see Reba make such a successful comeback in the past year.  She has recently enjoyed the longest-running number-one single of her career ("Consider Me Gone"), and followed it up with another Top 10 smash ("I Keep On Lovin' You").  Now it seems she has suddenly become afraid that country radio is about to toss her out for good (Granted, they rarely play new music from ladies who are in their fifties).  Thus, Reba's next career move is to forgo a meaningful set of lyrics, crank up the loudness to ridiculous proportions, essentially sacrifice all artistic merit, and release... this.

The most obvious problem is that "Turn On the Radio" is horrifically over-produced - riddled with obnoxious rock and roll guitar riffs set against a deafening beat.  The first few opening notes were enough to make me cringe.  Reba's voice was made to sing pure country music.  To pull off a modern pop-rock song is simply beyond her ability.

The lyrics begin by chewing out an ex-lover for his two-timing ways, and then the song quickly veers into a girly pop version of Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now?!"  It's basically one big brag over the fact that there's only one way this rotten guy will ever hear from this girl again, and it's when he hears her on the radio.  The lyrics and production are both substandard, and neither one redeems the other.

Country radio seems to favor more youthful artists, so it seems that Reba is combating this by trying to seem younger than she really is. (She even sings about texting and Twitter, which is just silly) The result is a very unconvincing Carrie Underwood impression.  I will acknowledge that part of the reason for Reba's continued success is her willingness to adapt her style to changing times.  But now she's adapting to the point of compromising the quality of her music.

Now, I love me some Reba, but this is just not her.  This song is an embarrassment for a legendary lady who has given us classics like "You Lie" and "Whoever's In New England."  Even her more recent output has been of a far higher standard than this.  I hope she returns to her tried-and-true artistic formula, and begins making truly great music once again.  Then I can just pretend that this song never existed.

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


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Stealing Angels, "He Better Be Dead"

If you've heard anything about this group, then you've probably heard who they're related to.  Tayla Lynn has a grandmother named Loretta, Jennifer Wayne had a grandfather named John, and Caroline Cutbirth is a descendant of Daniel Boone.  Any group that is fronted by Loretta's granddaughter must be either extremely talented or extremely overrated.  Fortunately, the former seems to be true in this case.  Tayla's distinct voice bear a slight resemblance to Grandma Loretta's, and her performance is brimming with spunk.

But while the group definitely has potential, the material they choose to sing falls slightly short of matching up with their talent.  On the bright side, "He Better Be Dead" is full of attitude.  The song's narrator is angered over the fact that her lover has failed to call her, even after her repeated attempts at texting him.  Throughout the song she describes a variety of acceptable excuses for his ignoring her.  Such excuses include being dead, being held at gunpoint, having been kidnapped, and car hanging over the edge of a cliff.  The lyrics soar over excellent bluegrass-influenced production - the work of renowned producer Paul Worley, who has produced artists such as Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, and others.

The lyrics do have a few rough spots, however.  The opening line - "I texted him 21 times and still my phone don't ring" - really needs to go.  It detracts from the lyrics by making the narrator seem like a clingy and obsessive flake who has an over-active imagination.  That makes it harder to take the narrator seriously.  I suppose the songwriters might have thought that a texting reference would give the song a modern edge, but it hurts the song rather than helping it.  Besides, if you really have something important to say to your significant other, don't text and wait for him to call - just call!  That line would have been easier to forgive had it not been repeated at the end of the song (only by then the number of ignored text messages has risen to 22).

The song is not quite a perfect gem, and it probably won't be the one song that this group is remembered for, should their career go anywhere.  But it is still a decent introduction to a talented group, and I look forward to hearing what else these girls have to offer.

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


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Miranda Lambert, "Only Prettier"

We've heard Miranda's softer side with "The House That Built Me," but get ready - Sassy Miranda is back!  "Only Prettier," the fourth single from her album Revolution is a witty and humorous commentary on the culture clash between high-class socialites and down-home country girls.  Miranda just seems to roll her eyes at her stick-thin peers.  She attempts to mask her dislike of them, and puts on a pretense of making peace.  She declares, "We're just like you," but her true feelings come out when she slyly adds "only prettier."  I have to give Miranda credit for wisely avoiding the use of country cliches, which elevates this song far above many similar songs that deal with Southern life and culture.

This is a clever track, but it is weighed down by one glaring problem - cluttered production.  This single is so darn loud that it hurts my ears.  Though it begins with quirky guitar intro, it quickly derails into a mess of headbanging percussion and guitars.  It just goes BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!  It doesn't stop!  The steel guitar licks are still there, but they are nearly drowned out.  It's a crying shame that a great song like this doesn't sound as good as it could have. 

Fortunately, the single is redeemed by the sharp lyrics and infectious vocals.  "Only Prettier" is overall solid material, but that production... whoa, it's going to take some getting used to.

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


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

George Strait, "The Breath You Take"

I thought I might try to cushion the blow of this bad review by saying that I have the utmost respect for King George.  Many of his signature hits from "Carrying Your Love with Me" to "All My Ex's Live In Texas" have represented some of the finest moments in country music.  George has released many a song that was deserving of a perfect ten.  But if you were hoping that his new single would be of the same standard as his best-known classics, then be prepared for a crushing disappointment.

Ever heard the saying "Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away"?  "The Breath You Take" is basically that saying set to music.  He stretches the saying out long enough to form the chorus of the song ("Life's not the breath you take, the breathing in and out..." and so on).  Would you believe that this song was written by none other than Dean Dillon, the respected songwriter behind numerous George Strait hits, as well as other classics such as Vern Gosdin's "Set 'Em Up Joe" and Pam Tillis's "Spilled Perfume"?  Surely Dean Dillon and his co-writers can do better than morphing a tired old adage into a country song.  While it's definitely a nice saying, it's a saying that we've all heard countless times before.  When you attempt to craft a song around it, the song ends up sounding like one that we've heard countless times before.

The saying is translated into a typical "three-act play" country song.
ACT 1:  Dad attends son's baseball game.  Son says "I thought you had a plane to catch."  Dad says "Life's not the breath you take... it's the moments that take your breath away."
ACT 2:  Son grows up and becomes a father.  Dad comes to hospital for the birth of his son's child.  Son says "You didn't have to come."  Dad says "Life's not the breath you take... it's the moments that..." okay, you get it.
ACT 3:  The baby girl is born.  At this point, the songwriters must have realized how uninteresting the song was, so they try to make up for it by killing off the dad in the third verse.

The song would likely be more moving if, during each special moment that the dad is there for, he spoke to his son from the heart rather than quoting an old saying.  It almost sounds awkward and strange to hear the dad constantly quoting this saying in everyday conversation.

I know I will probably be crucified for giving George Strait a negative review, but the review wouldn't be any better if this song were recorded by Rascal Flatts or Carrie Underwood.  I'm not going to give George Strait a free pass just because he's George Strait, and I'm not going to pretend that this song is anything more than what it is.  The truth is that this song is simply not fit for a king.

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


Sunday, July 4, 2010

John Rich, "Country Done Come to Town"

Big and Rich are still on hiatus, so John Rich is now getting ready to release some new solo material.  After achieving marginal success with his Son of a Preacher Man album, John will soon be releasing an extended play entitled Rich Rocks.

One listen to the EP's debut single is enough to tell you how fitting the title is.  Indeed, "Country Done Come to Town," and it done brought some rock and roll with it.  This is one of those hell-raising country-rock anthems that was a trademark of Big and Rich.  But on the bright side, the country is at least almost as audible as the rock.  The prominent fiddle is a nice touch, and it barely avoids being drowned out by the heavy beat and the guitar riffs.  Thus, to John's credit, the song does not sound "fingernails-on-chalkboard" awful. (I hate to think about what this song would sound like if given the Jason Aldean treatment)

But the cold hard truth is that there's nothing on this track that we haven't heard a million times before, both on country radio in general, and on past Big and Rich albums.  The "I'm so country" claim lost credibility a long time ago.  This is poor timing for the release of another such song.  John should be branching out into different themes with his solo releases, rather than constantly returning to this tired formula.  Overall, "Country Done Come to Town" ends up sounding like a cheap rehash of "Comin' to Your City.  And that song wasn't even worth rehashing in the first place.

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

(WARNING:  This is an ultra-cheesy video which mainly features scantily-clad bikini babes and more fake boobs than a Dolly Parton look-alike contest, though the George Jones and Gretchen Wilson cameos are an interesting touch)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Danny Gokey, "I Will Not Say Goodbye"

It's hard to take seriously an artist whose main country influences are Racal Flatts, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift.  The debut country single of American Idol grad Danny Gokey was listenable, but entirely forgettable.  Fortunately, the follow-up single is a bit of an improvement.

A good singer is still a good singer, regardless of what genre he chooses.  Danny Gokey is definitely a talented vocalist.  He displays an ability to connect with the audience on an emotional basis.  The lyrics of "I Will Not Say Goodbye" are a vivid description of the onslaught of emotions that one experiences after having lost a loved one in death.  The song is given added meaning by the fact that Danny lost his wife Sophia back in 2008.  Thus, he's singing about feelings that he can relate to.

The song's production complements Danny's vocals without overwhelming them.  However, the single does sound a little bit like a carbon copy of Rascal Flatts, except that the vocals less nasal, and the overall product is not nearly as annoying.

Country music doesn't quite seem like a natural fit for Danny, who seems better suited to Christian and gospel music.  But he's singing deeply emotional songs that he as well as others can relate to, and that's what country music is all about.

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