Sunday, August 29, 2010

Burns and Poe, "How Long Is Long Enough"

Whenever I think of Burns and Poe, I still think of that atrocious Dallas Cowboys tribute song that I can't get out of my head.  But after giving us a good look at their cheesy and annoying side, the guy from Trick Pony and the bass player from Dierks Bentley's band are showing a more serious side with their new single "How Long Is Long Enough."

Michelle Poe assumes the role of lead vocalist on a ballad that tackles the tried-and-true theme of rebounding from a difficult breakup.  The first verse is a bit of a throwaway, but the second verse succeeds in capturing our interest.  In the second verse, the female narrator describes an instance in which she drives down to a singles bar in hopes of meeting someone new.  However, she ends up sitting in the parking lot for an hour without ever going in.  Her description of this scenario effectively portrays her situation while conveying her emotions at the same time.  She wonders how long it will take for her broken heart to heal, and for her to have the courage to give her heart to someone new.  By the time the bridge comes around, she has concluded that "only time will tell [her] when."

The mournful chorus is elevated by backup vocals from Keith Burns, as well as a simple and uncluttered arrangement that allows the two vocalists to take center stage.  It's enough to make you nostalgic for the 90s all over again.  Burns and Poe have largely been ignored by country radio up to this point, but with this excellent single, they have fully arrested my attention and made me eager to hear what else they have in store.  Who knows?  Maybe this time country radio will be on board as well.

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

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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ashley Gearing, "What You Think About Us"

Before I tear this song apart, let me reiterate the fact that I have no standing prejudice against pop-country - an increasingly popular sub-genre that seems to alienate as many listeners as it attracts.  True, I do generally prefer country music that actually sounds like country music.  But it is possible to make a good pop-country record if you know how to do it.

Remember Shania Twain?  She set the gold standard for any female artist wishing to attempt pop-country.  She injected massive amounts of charming personality into her vocals, while never sacrificing lyrical content, and never allowing the production to overwhelm her.  In addition, she always sounded self-assured and confident in what she did.  Sadly, the new single from Ashley Gearing lacks these traits, and misses the mark for good pop-country.

Just in case you don't remember Ashley Gearing, let me refresh your memory.  She scraped the bottom of the Top 40 back in 2003 with "Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You," at the age of 11.  Subsequent radio offerings have consistently failed to make a dent on the charts.  The now-19-year-old starlet is back with a new single that successfully avoids the sin of being "too country."  The problem is that she tries to sound pop, but doesn't quite know how to do it.  "What You Think About Us" immediately gets off to a rough start with auto-tuned "hey-yeah-aaah-eh" background vocals, and it's all downhill from there.  I'd be wasting my breath if I criticized the fact that there is no hint of country flavoring.  The problem is that the percussion-heavy arrangement, littered with thrashing rock and roll guitars, sounds watered-down and generic.  Besides that, Ashley is forced to shout in order to be heard, making this a greatly overwhelming listen.

The lyrical concept was at least one that was worth a try - that of a young woman's desire to learn if her feelings for her significant other are reciprocated.  But when the first verse began with "I know how you feel about driving fast blasting the radio/ Red sox, re-runs on TiVo," Ashley had lost me by the time she got to "Tell me what you think about us."

Ashley has a good voice, and potential to be a decent artist.  But she's been doused in so much pop sugar that it's nearly impossible to take her seriously.

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, "As She's Walking Away"

The new effort from the Zac Brown Band might seem a bit formulaic at first.  It's a scene set in a bar, and it could fall under the "wise man's advice" song category that Lee Brice has been beating further into the ground with "Love Like Crazy."

But take a closer listen.  It tells a story, and the story has a simple message:  "Don't be falling in love as she's walking away."  Zac Brown takes on the role of a man who trips all over himself in an attempt to engage an attractive woman in conversation.  At that point, a wise man sitting next to him (who sounds a lot like Alan Jackson - because he is) offers Zac a bit of advice.  "Don't let regret get in the way of the dreams you have to chase.... Don't be falling in love as she's walking away."  He encourages this young man to take the initiative in getting to know a woman, and not to be held back by fear of failure.

The band's harmonies set against a simple fiddle-driven arrangement is a sonic treat.  But what really makes this song work is the fact that each duet partner fills a well-defined role in the song.  It doesn't sound at all like Alan's voice was tacked on in order to increase radio popularity.  Instead, it sounds like the song couldn't work without him.  The sense of interplay between the vocalists is of great interest.  The way they converse with one another makes it seem as if the story is playing out right before our very eyes.

"As She's Walking Away" is quite possibly the finest single we've yet heard from the Zac Brown Band, and it's worthy addition to Alan Jackson's illustrious catalog as well.

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

Luke Bryan, "Someone Else Calling You Baby"

Though he was formerly a Nashville newcomer struggling to be noticed, Luke Bryan seems to approaching top-drawer status after the two-week-number-one success of his recent smash "Rain Is a Good Thing."  His follow-up single, "Someone Else Calling You Baby," is unlikely to damage his relationship with country radio, but it is not likely to win him any new fans either.

What made "Rain Is a Good Thing" work so well as a single?  Quirky, clever lyrics!  Character-infused vocals!  Ridiculously catchy fiddle-laden production!  The song reached out from the radio and grabbed us, and it was nearly impossible to resist.

Therein lies the main weakness of "Someone Else Calling You Baby" - Nothing about it hooks me like "Rain Is a Good Thing" did.  It's only real potential is to be mildly entertaining between radio commercials.  Though it is helped by tasteful production and solid vocals, it is ultimately done in by a bland and generic method of storytelling.  Luke's character has seen his woman with another man, and he begs to know if she is cheating.  He says that he does not want to be "in the dark," but the situations described make it seem painfully obvious that his woman is indeed cheating on him.  The lyrics are straightforward, making no attempts at poetic language, story twists, or anything that could separate it from the countless other cheating songs in the country genre.

This is not necessarily a bad single.  It's just uninteresting.  That's a big disappointment from such a promising artist who has already shown that he can do much better.

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jamey Johnson, "Playing the Part"

At a very early point in his career, Jamey Johnson has already been hailed as the savior of traditional country music.  On the surface, his music surely sounds more country than the usual country-pop and country-rock populating country radio.  But the critical point in making such a determination is whether the songs themselves are strong enough to stand the test of time, and whether the artist's performance can elevate them to their full potential.

The theme of "Playing the Part" (Country boy meets the city) is not new, and Jamey's take fails to breathe new life into the familiar concept.  A country boy has traveled to L.A. to chase his dream of becoming a Hollywood star.  But at some point, he becomes dissatisfied with his new life, and is consumed with feelings of self-blame.  We are left to wonder why.  What went wrong?  The story fails hold our interest for the sad lack of detail and construction.

Jamey's producers dress up the stale lyrics with upbeat production that sounds reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter's classic earworm "Shut Up and Kiss Me."  The arrangement is built on a traditional country base with moderate rock influence.  The problem is that the steady, bouncy rhythm is awkwardly juxtaposed against an unsuitably lethargic vocal performance on Jamey's part.  Such a low-key delivery worked well on his slower-tempoed hit "In Color," but it sounds sleepy and uninterested on an upbeat track such as this.  By the time it is over, the weightless track scarcely leaves any impression on the memory.

Believe me - I enjoy country music that comes in pure and unadulterated form, which means that Jamey Johnson is the kind of artist that I would normally flip for.  While his potential is undeniable, such material does not measure up to it, and whether Jamey truly is the next Waylon Jennings remains to be seen.  He may one day prove to be the savior of traditional country, but this song will not be the one to get him there.  One can only hope that his future efforts will eventually produce the truly great country music that we know to be within his capability.

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

Jason Aldean, "My Kinda Party"/ Trailer Choir, "Shakin' That Tailgate"

It only makes sense to discuss both of these songs in one review, since they're practically the same.  It's as if somebody took one song, split it down the middle, and distributed the cliches evenly between the two halves.

From a critical perspective, Jason Aldean's "My Kinda Party" is an abominable single.  It has hardly any melody, and nearly every lyric is one that we've heard before.  It's like "She's Country, Part 2," except that now he's left his "honey-drippin' honey from the holler in Kentucky" for a "tan-legged Georgia dream" who's "rockin' them holey jeans."  Jason always seeks to give his songs an extra "edge," which all-too-often comes in the form of overcooked arena rock guitar licks.  The heavy rock and roll instrumentation cannot disguise the fact that Jason is remains a C-list vocalist.  "My Kinda Party" is unlikely to drive away Jason's current fans, and it is even less likely to win him any new fans.  But if you hated "Hicktown, " "Johnny Cash," "She's Country," and "Crazy Town, then you will despise this godawful song.  All it aims for is to be loud.

To Trailer Choir's credit, "Shakin' That Tailgate" at least manages to deliver a catchy chorus and an interesting title hook, but those are its only assets.  The lyrics are about as trite as could be expected.  But this song will no doubt aid the group in its constant endeavor to avoid being taken seriously.

Neither song sounds at all country, but I can't say I expected that in the first place. (In the case of "My Kinda Party," the apologetic steel guitar fills are found at 0:44, and then are not heard again - with "Tailgate," they are completely absent)  Both songs grope at country credibility by namechecking Hank (even though they're singing songs that make Hank have a fit in his grave).  In addition, they mention consuming adult beverages and ogling hot country girls.  But neither song takes any risks, and neither song is at all interesting.  On the contrary, both sound like a mishmash of traits from countless songs we've all heard before.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know - there's nothing wrong with a song just being a fun song.  But all "Tailgate" has is a catchy beat, and all "Party" has is Jason's signature Guitar Hero riffs.  Neither is enough to make a truly fun song that retains its appeal after repeated listens.

If you're a proud Southern rocker who enjoys the "This ain't your daddy's country" brand of country music, then have at - you'll love these songs.  But if you're one who's been complaining about the sad state of country music for the past decade, then stay far, far away - these songs probably exemplify everything you've been complaining about.



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

HEAR "MY KINDA PARTY" (Click "Jukebox" tab to listen)


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Joey + Rory, "This Song's for You"

Joey + Rory are now making another attempt to get some new music on the radio, this time with help from some friends.

"This Song's for You," the first single from Album Number Two, is a simple shout-out to all the hardworking common folks who go to the duo's concerts.  The set of lyrics is not completely airtight, as it does include a few throwaway lines (particularly the one about the Wall Street "fat cats"), and some even feel a bit rehashed.  But fortunately, the lyrics still have a central theme that binds everything together.  It is clearly directed at expressing appreciation for their fans.

Joey + Rory retain their neotraditional country style on this track, but it still has enough polish to sound modern and radio-friendly.  In one of the song's verses, they declare that "If you love country music as it real as it comes, this song's for you."  Thus, they show that they take pride in the distict and unmistakable country quality that their music possesses, making that one of the most endearing lines in the song. (Hey, I love country music as real as it comes!)

Though Joey did most of the singing on most of the duo's previous releases, she and Rory trade off verses throughout this song.  The fact that we get to hear more of Rory's fine singing voice increases the song's appeal.  Zac Brown sings the bridge - a token contribution that adds little to the song (You might even mistake him for Rory).  It's not surprising to see Joey + Rory collaborating with the Zac Brown Band since they have often toured together, but Zac's vocals on this track seem to serve little purpose other than simply adding to its commercial appeal.

Me and my sister meting Joey + Rory at the Ryman Auditorium after their opening set for Patty Loveless
(Taken 11-2-09, not 1-1-06)
While this is unlikely to be the one song that Joey + Rory are remembered for decades from now, it is solid enough to possibly give them their long-awaited breakthrough on country radio.

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


Monday, August 16, 2010

Rascal Flatts, "Why Wait"

Here's something you probably didn't know about me:  I'm actually a former Rascal Flatts fan who fell off the bandwagon after so many craptastic singles.  Their output over the past few years has ranged from generic and average ("Take Me There") to perfectly atrocious ("Bob That Head").  The lyrics became too ridiculous and mediocre.  The vocals became too nasal and annoying.  Their style was overtaken by overblown arena rock, and eventually I stopped caring about them.

But what's this - a Rascal Flatts song with honest and meaningful lyrics, engaging vocal harmonies, and balanced and tasteful pop-country production?  Believe it, man.  Making the jump over to Big Machine Records might have been a good call after all.

"Why Wait?" - I haven't heard such a loaded title hook since "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You?"  There's a lot of meaning packed into those two simple words, and there are endless situations in which such a question could be posed.  In this case, it is posed by a man who wants to get hitched with his lover.  While the songwriters do not attempt to re-write the works of Hemingway, they do manage to effectively tell a story, and to capture the emotions of the song's character.

The well-crafted lyrics soar over killer production.  For once, producer Dann Huff has managed to strike a fine balance between contemporary country and rock elements.  Fiddles and electric guitars sit comfortably side-by-side in an arrangement that is nothing less than excellent.  In addition, this is the best that the boys' voices have sounded in years.  Their signature three-part harmonies are fully intact and sounding great.  There are no disastrous vocal acrobatics on Gary LeVox's part - rather, he does a fine job of channeling the song's joyful excitement into his delivery.

I haven't loved a Rascal Flatts song in forever, but for once, they seem to have gotten everything right.  Could this spectacular track be indicative of a new music direction for the trio?  If the Flatts were to release more great songs like this, it could go a long way toward making me a fan again.

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


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Carrie Underwood, "Mama's Song"/ Jesse Lee, "Like My Mother Does"

Songs about Mama have become quite common in country music, so much so that The Mama almost seems like a mythical character who teaches you to smile when things get rough, and gives you everything you need to make it through this crazy thing called life (and in a more upbeat song, you might even mention what a great cook she is).  But if you're going to sing about your mama, you have to walk a fine line between sincerity and artificiality.

One of the best "Mama" songs I've heard is "The Best Day," an excellent track from Taylor Swift's Fearless album (Please note that I am not trying to start a Carrie vs. Taylor battle, and please do not start one in the comments section).  What made that song work was the way it conveyed simple universal emotions by relating cherished memories that Taylor's mother gave her.  Better yet, the scenes described in the song caused us to see Taylor's mother as a real person instead of a stereotypical character.  That exposes one major area in which Nashville's newest "Mama" songs have gone wrong.

But before I get mean, I must point out some notable strengths on Carrie Underwood's current release, "Mama's Song."  First of all, her voice sounds positively angelic.  Neither the vocal nor the arrangement is overly bombastic - a problem that has plagued much of Carrie's past material.  Carrie has much talent, but she's not beating us over the head with it like she's still on American Idol.

While Carrie's fans will likely tout it as meaningful, the fact is that "Mama's Song" is a song that only a mama could love.  The lyrics are vague, full of cliches, and just plain boring.  The song is from the perspective of a young bride who is assuring her mother that she will be well cared for by her husband-to-be.  But lines like "He is good, so good" sound particularly dull when drawn out in long notes, and then repeated.  The song is infiltrated by a series of throwaway lines from "you taught me to do the right things" to "he's never gonna leave." 

Another problem is that Carrie comes across as a co-dependant character making the transition from living under her parents' care to living under her husband's care.  She gives no insight into what strengths and qualities her mother has endowed her with; she merely expresses confidence that now her man will take care of her. 

That is the main area in which Jesse Lee's "Like My Mother Does" elevates itself over "Mama's Song."  The main focus of the lyrics is the influence the character's mother has had over her daughter, as well as the daughter's desire to emulate her mother's qualities. 

Unfortunately, the song also suffers from one of the same problems of "Mama's Song" - too many cliches!  Though the narrator does describe her mother's admirable traits, these descriptions come in the form of vague, trite expressions such as "She's always got my back" and "When I love, I give it all I've got."  To make things worse, the heavy production veers off into overblown power ballad territory by the time the song ends.

But the biggest flaw that both of these songs possess is that neither one paints a clear portrait of the mother in description.  Neither mother seems like an authentic, believable, and admirable character; and neither rises above the mythical Mama figure found in far too many songs.
Think about it:  Do you really flatter your mother by reducing her to a vague stereotype?



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


To hear "Like My Mother Does," click "Cool New Music."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Composed - A Memoir, by Rosanne Cash

For half a century, the Cash name has become synonymous with great country music.  We now get to read Rosanne's chapter in the story.

Rosanne's 241-page memoir Composed is far from being a simple, stale recitation of facts.  At times it even deviates from chronological order.  Rosanne grabs your interest at the very beginning with her experiences growing up in the Cash household.  As the story progresses, the reader increasingly becomes more involved emotionally in Rosanne's journeys as a musical artist, and as a young woman endeavoring to find her place in the world, outside the shadow of her famous father.

Rosanne describes the creative process and artistic vision behind each of her albums, giving us insight into what it was like to be a country star in the eighties.  She takes us through all of the significant moments in her life and career, including her marriage to Rodney Crowell and their subsequent divorce, her experience in witnessing the September 11 terrorist attacks firsthand, and the ordeal she faced in undergoing an extensive brain operation.

Perhaps the main highlights of the book are the touching eulogies she wrote for her father Johnny, for June Carter Cash, and for her mother Vivien.  She also describes the pain of watching her father slowly die of complications from diabetes.  But despite the sad parts, Composed is not an overall downer.  A thread of wit and humor is woven throughout the story as Rosanne includes descriptions of many funny moments in her life.

In telling the story of her life, Rosanne Cash reminds us once again of what a gifted writer she is, employing rich language throughout, and honing in on many profound truths about life.  Her love of music is evident in her writing, as is her deep respect and appreciation for her family's legacy.

Composed is an engaging read from start to finish - nearly impossible to put down.  It doesn't matter if you're a country music fan or not.  It doesn't matter if you've even heard of Rosanne Cash before.  This is a story that anyone, from the casual fan to the enthusiastic Cash devotee, can appreciate and enjoy.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gwyneth Paltrow, "Country Strong"

Jeff Bridges struck Oscar gold with his portrayal of a washed-up country singer, and now Gwyneth Paltrow is throwing her cowboy hat into the ring.  She will soon hit country radio with the title song to her upcoming film Country Strong.

My prediction:  Fans will embrace it.  Critics will pan it.  Country radio will ignore it.  On one hand, "Country Strong" nearly collapses under deadweight lyrics.  The theme is simple:  She's country, she's strong, and she's proud of it.  But to her credit, she does manage to dodge some of the pitfalls that have made similarly-themed country songs so painfully annoying.  "Country Strong" is pleasantly devoid of wild Guitar Hero licks and drum machines, featuring a nice fiddle instead, as well as background vocals from Vince Gill and Patty Griffin.  Gwyneth displays notable vocal talent, actually singing instead of just screaming at us.

It's very pretty to listen to, and it will be a pleasantly inoffensive distraction to hear while the credits roll.  But "Country Strong" is not an artistically relevant contribution to country music.  The nicest thing that I can say about "Country Strong" is that it's listenable.  But the best country music thrives on being, not just listenable, but memorable, which this is not.

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

HEAR IT (Studio clip)

To hear the full song, click "Cool New Music"

Monday, August 9, 2010

Brad Paisley, "Anything Like Me"

It seems that half of Brad Paisley's hits have dealt with nostalgia and sentimentality, while the other half dealt with novelty and humor - with varying results.  His current single, "Anything Like Me," finds him balancing the two concepts with remarkable dexterity.

With "Anything Like Me," Brad rebounds from the pointless inanity of his previous hit "Water" - a song that totally bored me to tears (and occasionally made me have to go to the bathroom). The lyrical theme is one that Brad, as well as his co-writers Chris DuBois and David Turnbull, can relate to - that of raising boys.  Brad sings from the perspective of an anxious father-to-be who discovers that he and his wife will soon have a son, and instantly begins fretting over what will happen if his son is "Anything Like Me."  He envisions his son climbing a tree too tall, riding his bike too fast, and trying to melt a Tonka truck with a magnifying glass.  As the song nears its end, he slowly becomes more optimistic, concluding that "there's worse folks to be like," though the lyrics give little insight into what positive traits the son is likely to inherit.

One of the strongest characteristics of "Anything Like Me" is its relatability.  It will surely strike a chord with parents who have raised boys, as well as men who were once unruly little boys themselves.  Because of that, the humor is likely to hold up even after repeated listenings.  The song is tastefully delivered in a simple acoustic arrangement with touches of bluegrass.  Appropriately, the arrangement is kept low-key, which keeps "Anything Like Me" from sounding like a novelty song.

The concept of this song is similar to that of Brad's 2007 mega-hit, the equally memorable "Letter to Me."  Both songs see Brad looking back into his youth with mixed feelings, and both include delicate touches of humor.  Though "Anything Like Me" is far from being his first foray into this particular lyrical territory, it's an enjoyable one nonetheless.

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


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Taylor Swift, "Mine"

Since my readers have seen how mean I can be in these reviews, I'm sure you must be dying to hear what I think of Taylor Swift.  I know she can be a polarizing subject, so feel free to read whichever version of this review appeals to you.

VERSION 1 (For Taylor-lovers):  OMG!!!  Taylor is like so totally awesome! <3<3<3 I luv her and all you haterz can just stuff it cuz ur just jealous!  Taylor Swift is WAY better than Carrie Underwood!

VERSION 2 (For Taylor-haters):  God, why is Taylor Swift even alive?  She can't even sing, and she stinks live!  Her songs are so pathetic and she's not country and the only reason she's even popular is because of the whole Kanye thing.  Carrie Underwood is WAY better than Taylor Swift!

VERSION 3 (Actual version):

When a rough and unfinished version of this song was leaked online, Big Machine Records was forced to rush the release of the first single from Taylor's highly-anticipated third album, so that the fans can hear it as Taylor intended.  But does "Mine" really live up to all the hype surrounding it?

Taylor herself describes it as "a song about my tendency to run from love."  The first two verses sound like a typical Taylor "Love Story," but the song gets more interesting at the bridge near the end.  Taylor describes having a fight at 2:30 AM that sends her running out into the street crying.  At this point, she "braces [her]self for the goodbye, 'cause that's all [she's] ever known," but he reassures her of his love for her by singing the cute and gushy chorus to her.

But now let's talk about everybody's favorite topic:  Taylor's vocals.  The truth is that Taylor is a very limited vocalist who sounds best when she keeps her performance low-key.  "Mine" is three aching minutes of an overly ambitious singer reaching for notes that she can't hit.  It's rather ironic that this is the autotuned, "high-quality" version that had to be so hurriedly released.  One of Taylor's biggest problems is that she needs to learn her limitations, and to work with her vocal imperfections instead of against them.  She simply has not been blessed with the same powerful pipes as Carrie, Reba, Martina, Sara, or Jennifer Nettles.

The loud and aggressive production makes the vocal seem even more strained by comparison.  As soon as the first chorus begins, the track is overtaken by thrashing guitars and percussion.  There's just too much going on on this record!  It's disappointing to hear this on a Taylor Swift song, because most of her recent output has not had this problem.  In contrast, the simple and stripped-down production of songs like "White Horse" have represented Taylor's artistic peak to date.  What a shame to see Taylor make so much progress on her previous album only to begin sliding backwards!

In "Mine," I see the core idea of what could have been a fantastic song.  A song about a tendency to run from love could have been quite good.  Unfortunately, it's been drowned in a pool of screeching pop-country schlock.

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


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gretchen Wilson, "I Got Your Country Right Here"

Hooray for Gretchen Wilson!  She has parted ways with Columbia Nashville!  She is now recording on her own label - Redneck Records!  What a perfect opportunity to take advantage of her new creative freedom, and to deliver the best country music Nashville has heard in years!... Or she could just continue with the usual radio butt-kissing.

It's disheartening to see this talented artist continually painting herself into the "Redneck Woman" corner.  Ever since radio began pushing her aside, it seems she has been bent on duplicating the success of her debut smash.  It would be far more effective if she were to recapture the fun and lighthearted spirit of "Redneck Woman," instead of constantly recycling the same theme, and producing one inferior rehash after another.  If you were to take "Redneck Woman" and strip it of all the fun and cleverness, you would have her new single "I Got Your Country Right Here."

That made a killer album title, but it makes an awfully flimsy single.  It seems Gretchen and her writers have only one goal in releasing this song:  to elicit another big "Hell, yeah!" from all the redneck girls like her.  I would be wasting my breath to try to explain the lyrics.  For three aching minutes she just namechecks several legendary country singers and classic songs, throws in  references Skynyrd and ZZ Top, and then declares "I Got Your Country Right Here"!  The name-dropping trend was already getting to be severely irritating, but now we hear an entire song clumsily crafted around it.  While "Work Hard, Play Harder" had the catchy factor on its side, the clunky production of "I Got Your Country Right Here" fails to polish the lackluster lyric.

This is especially disappointing when you consider that Gretchen no longer has the restrictions that come with a major-label recording contract, so she could very well be giving us something better than this cheap radio fluff.  But if this is the kind of country that Gretchen's got, then she can just keep it.

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


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Laura Bell Bundy, "Drop On By"

After barely missing the Top 30 with "Giddy On Up," Broadway star-turned country crooner Laura Bell Bundy takes another shot at radio success with a strong single that shows an effort to stand out from the competition.

While "Giddy On Up" came from the Shakin' side of Laura's Achin' and Shakin' album, "Drop On By" is a soft ballad from the Achin' side.  Laura's vocal performance is a sultry whisper as she delivers the melancholy lyrics.  One of Laura's greatest assets as a vocalist is her outstanding ability to connect with the lyrics, and to deliver her own unique interpretation.  Her vocals convey feelings, not just words.  This is an admirable ability in any vocalist, but it's an ability that many current country stars lack.

The song's production, a creative fusion of genre influences, is as much of a highlight as the vocals.  The sound of the steel guitar almost borders on neo-traditionalism.  A few electric guitar riffs give the song a jazzy, bluesy sound.  The string section is just subdued enough to underscore the vocals without causing the track to erupt into an Underwood-esque pop power ballad.  The song has a bit of a classic throwback sound, but a steady drum beat gives the track just enough polish to sound modern at the same time.  It's easy to imagine hearing this song in a classic Hollywood movie musical... or a Broadway play for that matter.

Who would have guessed that a former Broadway show girl could deliver such solid country songs that not only sound country, but also show potential to break country radio's mold and make this genre sound interesting again?  I'll have more of that, please.

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


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mark Chesnutt, "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)"

Producing a good cover song can be pretty tough.  There are so many ways it go wrong.  Cover songs generally fall into one of a few different categories.  The first category, or the A-list, includes the precious few covers that put an entirely new spin on an old favorite, making the old seem new again.  The B-list includes those that sound different than the originals, displaying a measure of creativity, but fail to approach the excellence of the originals.  The C-list includes the somewhat pointless note-for-note remakes that sound almost identical to the originals.  Finally, the D-list includes those that totally ruin the song and show gross disrespect for it.

Mark Chesnutt's cover of this Kristofferson classic (from his covers album Outlaw) lands right on the C-list.  It is a faithful re-creation of the original classic.  Since Mark is paying tribute to an artist he has great admiration for, this project no doubt has great personal meaning to him.  But it may be of limited interest to those of us who are not Mark Chesnutt.  We already have Kris Kristofferson's stellar original version.  What outstanding quality does Mark Chesnutt's version have, so that we should want to hear it as well?  He doesn't reinvent it or put his own spin on it, so there just doesn't seem to be anything artistically relevant about this remake.

But let us assume for a moment that country radio might actually play this single (They won't).  Would I enjoy hearing it on the air?  I definitely would.  Sure, it sounds much like the original, but the original sounded beautiful.  Hearing this would be a welcome relief from the overproduced fluff that has been populating country airwaves.  Furthermore, many country radio listeners today are likely unfamiliar with this classic Kristofferson tune.  Mark Chesnutt's cover of this song could potentially serve a purpose in introducing modern-day country fans to the joys of traditional country music.

With all these factors in mind, I am totally lost as to what score I should give this single.  I would be either giving a bad score to a good song, or giving a good score to a pointless cover.


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