Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jason Michael Carroll, "Numbers"

After accruing a modest catalog of Top 20 hits, Jason Michael Carroll joins a number of country crooners taking the Cracker Barrel route.  His third album Numbers will be released on July 25 via Cracker Barrel, with the title track being shipped to radio as the first single.

Here Jason offers a song that is exactly what its title promises, with a hook that means exactly what is says on paper - nothing more, and nothing less.  "Numbers all around, flying by up and down" he muses against the backdrop of your typical country-but-not-too-country instrumental line-up.  "Most of them mean absolutely nothing, but some of them mean everything."  Unfortunately, that's about as deep as the lyric gets, with the bulk of it made up of randomly-strung-together number references, ranging from "doin' seventy-two in a '65" to "We were both nineteen, and she was a perfect ten."  Some of the numbers are related to some life experience, but the height of the song's cleverness comes with a namecheck of "Highway 101 on 102.5."

There are instances in which "Numbers" offers a half-hearted attempt at lyrical depth, such as the second verse's account of when the narrator first met his significant other.  But instead of completing the storyline, the song offers one more chorus and guitar solo, and then regresses to superficial references of "John 3:16" and "the second coming."

"Numbers" briefly touches on the numbers that "mean everything," but spends way too much time on the numbers that mean nothing.  It ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The end result is a song that means "absolutely nothing."  With an abundance of inanity, and a lazily-constructed narrative, "Numbers" is only three and a half minutes of pure boredom.

So here's one more number for you, Jason.  Sorry, but you might not like it.

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


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Album Review: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers - Starlight Hotel

In sharp contrast with the slick, polished, and predictable mainstream country fare, it’s refreshing to hear a record characterized by such simple charm as that of the new sophomore release from Seattle-born songstress Zoe Muth and her band the Lost High Rollers. Starlight Hotel is a record replete with light acoustic arrangements, as well as soft restrained vocals on the part of lead singer Zoe Muth. She’s backed up by some fine musicians. The sweet sound of Ethan Lawton’s mandolin winds its way around the notes in each song. Dave Harmonson supplies the weeping sounds of the pedal steel. Meanwhile, Mike McDermott accompanies on guitar as Greg Nies keeps the beat on drums.

Zoe Muth continues to prove herself an exceptionally talented songwriter, claiming writing credits on all of the albums tracks, all of which are consistently engaging in content. Her lyrics explore themes of emotional vulnerability, restlessness, and a wide spectrum of other topics. The album opens with “I’ve Been Gone,” which tells the tale of a woman’s lust for the open road, and her desire for companionship on her never-ending travels. The track is complete with a charming mariachi horn section that sounds reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” “Whatever’s Left” finds a woman looking for reassurance of commitment from her lover, as expressed in the well-crafted hook “When something is broken or something is bent/ I want to hear you say/ We can make do with whatever’s left.”

The theme of romantic disappointment is given ample treatment, particularly on songs such as “Before the Night Is Gone” and “New Mexico.” On the former, a woman silently grieves over the sad state of a relationship, pining for reassurance of her man’s affections. “Won’t you tell me our love will linger on/ And knock that chip of your shoulder/ Into your heart of stone to start a spark,” she wonders, “’Cause I need some way to see in the dark.” In the comparatively lighter tune “Let’s Just Be Friends for Tonight,” Zoe’s character is a bit further into her healing process after the dissolution of a relationship. She finds consolation in a bar, listening to sad old country songs, and sharing “a wink and a smile” with a man she meets there. “But,” she says, “I don’t want a new love unless it’s a true love/ So let’s just be friends for tonight.”

“Tired Worker’s Song” is a strong lyric, but rather pedestrian in melody and performance. It has a dull melody that doesn’t combine well with Zoe’s understated vocal style. In contrast, “If I Can’t Trust You with a Quarter (How Can I Trust You with My Heart)” has an odd set of lyrics, but boasts a pleasant steel-guitar-laced mid-tempo arrangement. The song is about a woman who meets a man she is initially interested in, but declares it a deal breaker when he takes her quarter and plays the wrong song on the jukebox. The track may garner smiles from some listeners, and raised eyebrows from others.

Still, even those two lesser tracks display notable strong points of their own, just as every other track on the album does. There are no tracks on Starlight Hotel that are weak enough to be labeled as missteps. Overall, Starlight Hotel is a solid effort that rings with simple, earthy sincerity throughout the track listing. It’s an entertaining, absorbing listen that will make a welcome addition to any country music record collection.

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


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Billy Currington, "Love Done Gone"

After hearing enough beer-drinking anthems and sleepy love songs to last me a lifetime and a half, I was desperately wishing that Billy Currington would shake up his catalog a bit.  In listening to his latest release, it sounds like I may have gotten my wish.

Do my ears deceive me?  Am I actually hearing a summer song, by Billy Currington no less, that nowhere mentions hot girls or cold beer?  In contrast, "Love Done Gone" finds Billy singing a breakup song - but not a sad breakup song, a happy one.  The lyrics offer little insight into the circumstances surrounding the breakup.  The single's defining feature is, not the song lyrics, but rather a jolly melody and horn-infused production.  It's clear that the song mainly aims to be catchy, and it definitely succeeds in that department.

The song's narrator essentially sounds like the same laid-back character that has surfaced in most of Billy's recent hits.  In the wake of his recent split, he shrugs off any feelings of hurt or disappointment, and accepts the relationship's end as an inevitable happening that was bound to come sooner or later.  The majority of the lyric sheet is filled with examples of things disappearing, fading away, or coming to an end. 

Many of these various similes and metaphors - ranging from "leaves on the trees when the autumn comes" to "bubbles disappearin' in a glass of champagne" - toe the line between clever and hokey.  Ultimately, the oddball lyrics and quirky production make for a single that is oddly charming, ridiculously catchy, and instantly recognizable right from the opening "ba-ba-da-ba-da-ba" hook. 

Only time will tell how this single offering will wear on us.  Perhaps we'll find ourselves loving it, then hating it, and then loving it again after some time away from it.  At any rate, "Love Done Gone" is the most interesting single Billy's put out in quite some time.  It works for me.

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


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Trace Adkins, "Just Fishin'"

In a surprising display of good taste, country radio didn't jump on board with Trace Adkin's recent vomit-inducing ditty "Brown Chicken Brown Cow."  Trace's new single "Just Fishin'" finds him retreating back into safer lyrical territory, but it also finds him doing what does best - tugging heartstrings.  At any rate, Trace has once again delivered a quality single that is just enjoyable enough for us to forgive the massive turd that preceded it.

While listening to this new single, it's hard not to be reminded of Trace's 2008 hit "You're Gonna Miss This."  Like that past chart-topper, "Just Fishin'" emphasizes the fleeting nature of the special moments in life.  Whereas the former utilized the common three-act story arc to make its point, "Just Fishin'" specifically focuses on parenthood, and isolates one significant moment in a father's life - that of taking his daughter fishing.

The daughter is unaware of the special significance her father attaches to their simple outing.  To her, it's just a normal experience, during which she chats with her father about everything from ballet shoes to kittens, thinking that they're "just fishin'."  Her father, on the other hand, savors every moment of the time spent with his daughter, wistfully aware that she will one day grow up and leave the nest.  He's fully aware that these moments won't last forever, so he's fully enjoying them while they're still here.

As a major plus, "Just Fishin'" reminds us once again of what a talented singer Trace is.  He has a recurring tendency to squander his million-dollar baritone on stale cheap fare, but when he gets a hold of a really good song, it's a real treat to listen to.  His delivery of "Just Fishin'" is warm, down-to-earth, and brimming with sincerity.  One would expect that Trace, being a father of five daughters, would have a deep personal connection to this lyrical scenario.  That connection comes through in his vocal.

Though it does bear a similarity to "You're Gonna Miss This," "Just Fishin'" still manages to offer a different variation on a familiar formula, and a well-executed attempt ends up a strong success.  If Trace is going to make it back into the Country Top 10, "Just Fishin'" deserves to be the song that gets him there.

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


Friday, April 22, 2011

Thompson Square, "I Got You"

"A car's got gasoline to run down the road.  A crop's got rain, dirt, and sun to make 'em grow.  A song's got rhyme.  A clock's got time..."

I bet you can't guess what comes next, can you?  "You got me, and baby I got you"!  Did Kiefer and Shawna not realize that we could see that coming from a mile away?  The second verse rolls around, and the painful predictability continues.  Now they sing about how they "don't need a big old house full of stuff," because being wrapped up in each other's arms is enough.  I can't shake the feeling that I've all this before.

The best and most interesting songs on Thompson Square's self-titled debut album are those that offer witty takes on the ups and downs of a relationship, and that carry a hint of authenticity.  There's nothing unique or authentic about songs that are so obviously tailor-made for radio.  Like its similarly uninteresting predecessor "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not," all "I Got You" really says is "I want a Top Ten hit."  There are a million other songs that sound just like it.  Once it's chart run is over, it will just be another one of those "million other songs" that we refer to when criticizing a future release.

Not only is the song a bore, but the production is enough to cause a headache.  Again with all the incessant banging and crashing!  Wouldn't it be great if record labels showed some confidence in artists by using simpler arrangements that allowed the artist's performance to pull its own weight?  Instead of that, country radio has become the site of a never-ending battle over who can make the loudest records.

Dear Nashville:  Please stop dumbing down artists who could actually be good. 

Unsolicited advice:  Quit drowning them out with unnecessary overproduction, tone down the thrashing guitars and drums, and have them sing a song that's actually somewhat interesting.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane

When a band consists of such superb bluegrass musicians as Alison Kruass, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, Ron Block, and Jerry Douglas, it's a given fact that the collaboration will result in something beautiful.  It's been eight years since the magic was at work on Alison Krauss & Union Station's previous album Lonely Runs Both Ways. But the wait is over with the release of Paper Airplane, the band's first new album release since 2004.

You could lift the vocals right out of Paper Airplane, leaving it as an instrumental set, and it would still be a great album.  Then again, why would you want to?  Alison Krauss posesses one of the most distinctive and immediately recognizable voices in all of country and bluegrass music.  Her gorgeous vocal performances polish each track until it shines.

Alison Krauss & Union Station know a thing or two about being lonely - It's a topic given ample coverage on this album.  The set open with the gorgeous and melancholy title track, which finds a character dwelling on the fragile and fickle nature of love.  The track "Sinking Stone" expresses resignation toward an inevitable breakup, as emphasized in the memorable hook, "I'm untying this sinking stone."  Another theme dealt with is that of longing for unrequited love, and wondering whether to continue holding out hope for it, which the Tyminski-helmed track "On the Outside Looking In" handles deftly.

The album also has its share of more serene moments, such as the romantic ballad "Dimming of the Day."  This track is notable for the way it expresses longing for companionship, while carrying sensual undertones in such lines as "Come the night, you're only what I want/ Come the night, you could be my confidante."  Alison pines for the peace and serenity in the final release of death in the song, "Lay My Burden Down," which she aces with her restrained whisper of a vocal delivery.

Dan Tyminski performs lead vocals on three tracks, in addition to his rightly revered guitar and mandolin picking.  "Dust Bowl Children" hearkens back to the days of the Great Depression, during which many left the Oklahoma Dust Bowl region in hopes of finding employment and a better life in the cities.  Dan's fierce lead vocal forcefully conveys the anger and desperation of one facing such a plight, especially on such hard-hitting lines as "The only work I ever got was standing in a welfare line," making "Dust Bowl Children" a memorable standout track.  He takes his final turn at lead vocals on the richly-colored boatman's tale "Bonita and Bill Butler."

Paper Airplane boats impeccable thematic cohesion, with heartache being the permeating theme, closing with a beautiful acoustic interpretation of Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell."  Expert musicianship and intelligent introspective lyrics define Paper Airplane from start to finish, making it a substantial and enjoyable listen, and a worthy addition to the group's discography.  Was it worth the wait?  Oh yes it was!

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


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Emmylou Harris, "The Road"

In the tradition of her classic song "Boulder to Birmingham," this new single from Emmylou Harris finds her once again singing about her late mentor Gram Parsons.  But this time, besides expressing grief over his death, she expresses thankfulness for the experiences they shared together, and for the lasting influence he had on her.

Emmylou's voice doesn't have as much power as it did back in her younger days, but her age has had no ill effects on her ability to convey emotion and sincerity in her performances.  It's apparent that this song comes from a very personal place, as it conveys elements of nostalgia and sadness, but ultimately concludes that "On that road, I'm glad I came to know you, my old friend."

Good as the song is, however, I have to say that I'm not big on the slick production.  The guitars seem to get a little too loud on the bridge, during which Emmylou sings in a falsetto, and they get to be a slight distraction.

Still, "The Road" finds Emmylou in remarkably fine form.  Her open and honest authencitiy is extremely refreshing in comparison to the recycled songwriting concepts that mainstream country music constantly cranks out.  Beautifully written, and beautifully performed, "The Road" is both an enjoyable reminisce of days past, and an enticing preview of Emmylou's upcoming studio album.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


The single is available as a free download at

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sugarland, "Tonight"

It starts out bad, and then it only get worse.

To Sugarland's credit, their overall-disappointing album The Incredible Machine at least managed to produce two killer singles with "Stuck Like Glue" and "Little Miss."  Unfortunately, those were the only two good songs on the album, and the inevitable third single exemplifies much of what was wrong with the album as a whole.

Once again, empty lyrics meet overcrowded production.  The lyrics of "Tonight" attempt to convey longing for one who does not reciprocate the narrator's affections, but that ship never really leaves the harbor.  Instead, it sinks under the weight of self-indulgent mediocrity thanks to the endless repetition of the title hook.  The lyric sheet offers two four-line verses, and then robotically repeats itself for the remainder of the song's four-minute length.  Thus, "Tonight" comes across as a lyrically unfocused, scatter-shot effort.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all is a grating, stuffy-throated performance on the part of lead singer Jennifer Nettles.  Ever since the days when Sugarland was a trio, its defining feature was Jennifer's distinct, powerful voice.  Since then, she has often been regarded as one of the most talented female singers country music has to offer.  Sadly, her performance of "Tonight" begins in an annoying nasal delivery, and ends with her shouting to be heard over bombastic production, and the magic in her emotive Georgia twang is lost.

Jennifer's performance has often been the saving grace that elevated even less-than-stellar material to an enjoyable level.  In this case, however, it's the final death stroke for a single that was already an insubstantial miss.

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


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Luke Bryan - "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)"

Summertime isn't here just yet, but mainstream country artists are already armed with loads of brainless summer tunes to throw at the wall, and see how well they stick.  During this time of year, we find that many male artists live in a world filled with attractive women who exist only so that men may stare at their 'badonkadonks.'  Thus, the only question that remains is "How bad is it going to be this year?"

If the new Luke Bryan single is any indication, then we're in for a long and bumpy ride.  Okay, Luke, let's see how many summerish country cliches you can spit out in the next minute.  Ready?  GO!  Pick-up truck!  Boots!  Georgia mud!  Tractor!  And now, as an extra twist, we shall place the gyrating female tush on top of the hood of said tractor!

DING!  Time's up.  Now on to the next challenge:  You must now repeat the phrase "Shake it for me, girl" over and over until you drive all discerning listeners to self-injury.  Congratulations!  You now have me banging my head against the barn wall in perfect time with the heavy drum beat and guitar licks.

To Luke's credit, the amount of personality in his performances often lifts even his not-so-good material to a somewhat tolerable level.  But in this case, his country boy charm is merely the only thing keeping the song from getting an abysmal score of 1.  He all but won me over with the super-fun "Rain Is a Good Thing," but "Someone Else Calling You Baby" was a step down from that, and this song is an even bigger step down from that.  Now that the song has been thoroughly beaten into the Georgia mud, "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" seems like a strong contender for the title of "Most Insufferable Country Summer Tune of the Year." 

But wait... Here come the Frankie Ballard and Jake Owen entries!  So stay tuned!  Or don't.

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


Friday, April 15, 2011

Brantley Gilbert, "Country Must Be Country Wide"

Weren't you just thinking that country radio could really use more songs about how cool country life is?  And that it would be nice if such songs bore little resemblance to actual country music?  Neither was I.  But that seems to be what Brantley Gilbert thinks, since he so loves writing formulaic songs on that very topic, some of which have been delivered to country radio via Jason Aldean (Think "My Kinda Party" and "Dirt Road Anthem").

In some ways, "Country Must Be Country Wide" attempts to re-create what worked about "Hillbilly Bone."  Like that Blake Shelton hit, it portrays the country lifestyle as being inclusive in nature, while also emphasizing its increasing ubiquitousness.  Where it goes wrong is in trading the personality and clever novelty elements for all the usual formulas, such as namedropping.  "In every state there's a station playin' Hank, Willie, and Waylon," Brantley sings.  But let's be real - They're not playing Hank, Willie, and Waylon.  They're playing Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, and Jason Aldean.

"Country Must Be Country Wide" may very well serve its intended purpose, which was likely to provide Brantley with a raucous set-opener to get the crowd on their feet at his shows.  It's also entered the country chart, whereas his two previous singles both failed to chart, so it might even be some sort of a hit.  But as an artistic endeavor, it's generic, disposable, and totally interchangeable with any other rocked-up backwoods cliche-pile on country radio.

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


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bradley Gaskin, "Mr. Bartender"

If I were to say that Bradley Gaskin's musical and vocal style bear a striking resemblance to that of Travis Tritt, I would only be saying what nearly every other critic has already said.  So I'll just say this:  They're right.

With a voice eerily similar to that of the talented nineties star, Bradley Gaskin delivers a debut single that is shamelessly neotraditional.  "Mr. Bartender" is a straightforward barroom weeper in which romantic disappointment leads a man to seek comfort at his favorite watering hole. 

As a lyrical composition, "Mr. Bartender" isn't exactly groundbreaking.  It doesn't get much more clever than imploring "Mr. Bartender" to "Take me out with one shot."  Instead, this single makes it mark through Bradley's big-voiced soulful delivery and through the unapologetic countryness of the arrangement.  It's still a darn good single, but "Mr. Bartender" may only be scratching the surface Bradley's talent.  To some extent, it may be a teaser of even better things to come, but "Mr. Bartender" is still several notches superior to most of what's on country radio today.

"Mr. Bartender" received an overwhelmingly positive reception when Bradley performed it for radio programmers at Country Radio Seminar, leading his label to rush-release it to radio.  That may be a reason to be optimistic about the song's hit potential, but we'll have to wait and see how it plays out.  Releasing a song like this to country radio is a gutsy move, since radio clearly prefers country music that is only marginally country.  While there's definitely nothing wrong with hearing a good pop-country song every now and then, here's hoping that the success of Chris Young and Easton Corbin has paved the way for some more unadulterated country music to be heard on the radio as well. 

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


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reba McEntire, "When Love Gets a Hold of You"

Though Reba recently seemed to have reclaimed her hitmaker status on country radio, her chart record hit a nasty bump when her cover of Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" stalled disappointingly outside the Top 20.  Follow-up release "When Love Gets a Hold of You" is a safe middle-of-the-road offering that will likely restore Reba to chart domination.  It's not good, and it's not bad.  Nothing about it will shock or surprise country radio's audience, or frighten radio programmers away from giving it endless airplay.

The lyrics are anchored by at least some form of a narrative, but weighed down by a plodding melody, and by all the little cliches that keep popping up.  It's basically an uninteresting way of saying 'You just wait.  You'll grow to love me eventually.'  You'd think a soon-to-be Country Music Hall of Famer with a 30-year career behind her would have more to say than that.  The track is thoroughly leveled by a bland, murky, typical Dann Huff arrangement.  Even as talented a vocalist as Reba is, the depth and color in her voice doesn't shine through when surrounded by such a generic mix of drum and guitar punctuated by the obligatory steel guitar fills.

It's understandable that Reba is concerned with remaining commercially viable at this late point in her career, but commercial success should not come at the expense of making music that's actually interesting - especially not for an artist of Reba's stature.  At the very best, "When Love Gets a Hold of You" may supply Reba with one more Top 10 hit to add onto her lengthly resume, but it will be quickly forgotten thereafter.  One thing is for sure:  If Reba had built her entire career on material like this, she would not be the legend that she is today.

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


Monday, April 11, 2011

Blake Shelton, "Honey Bee"

"This might come out a little crazy, a little sideways, yeah maybe..."

Thanks for that warning, Blake, though I don't think anything could have prepared me for the sheer lameness of these lyrics.

"You'll be my [soft and sweet/ glass of wine/ sunny day/ honeysuckle], I'll be your [strong and steady/ shot of whiskey/ shade tree/ honey bee]."  

What could be more romantic than three and a half minutes of endless variations on that not-particularly-clever formula?

"Yeah, that came out a little country..."

Of course.  Time to plug the country boy image again.

"But every word was right on the money."

Seriously?  I might have to disagree there.

"Now hold on 'cause I ain't done..."

Good Lord, what next?  Now she'll be your little Loretta, and you'll be her Conway Twitty?

Blake's new single has a pleasant groove to it, but it's hard to get over the fact that the lyrics are essentially about nothing.  Few of the 'You be my this; I'll be your that' pairings offer a clear portrayal of the relationship the song describes, and most of them aren't even all that interesting in the first place.  That leaves the song seeming awfully repetitive and boring.

Ever wonder if an artist's commercial success in inversely proportional to the quality of his music? (It hardly seems fitting to use such big words in discussing such a dull and simple song, but please bear with me) Jamey Johnson becomes a critic's favorite - Country radio tosses him out.  On the other hand, Blake Shelton has finally become an automatic add on country radio, but only after his material has taken a definite turn for the worse.  "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking" seemed to be a sign of progress, but "Honey Bee" is an enormous step backwards.  Obviously, radio will reward it anyway, but it surely won't be the first time country radio has displayed poor taste.

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


Toby Keith, "Somewhere Else"

Gloomy lyrics meet a catchy singalong melody on "Somewhere Else," the third single from Toby Keith's current album Bullets In the Gun.  It's a solid, if not groundbreaking potrayal of romantic disappointment in which the character seeks solace at his favorite bar.  The  narrator broods over all the little disappointments in his life, from the loss of his woman to the Cubs getting beat on Sports Center.  He emphasizes the aimlessness of his existence in the hook "If you don't know where you going/ You might end up somewhere else."

The lyrics handle the theme of heartbreak competently, but the performance is the single's most notable characteristic, with Toby rattling off the verses in a fast-talking delivery that makes the song stick in your head.Toby has many times proven himself to be a talented vocalist, and his strong performance on this track does not disappoint.  The production includes an interesting mix-up of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, which makes for a fun and engaging listen.
Enjoyable as it is, "Somewhere Else" might not be particularly well-remembered after finishing its chart run.  We might forget about for a while, and then get back into it after some time away from it.  In summary, "Somewhere Else" is not what you'd call a career record, but it's solid enough to build on the legacy that Toby Keith has already established.

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


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunny Sweeney, "Staying's Worse Than Leaving"

After three years of being ignored by country radio, and three non-charting single releases, Texan neotrad artist Sunny Sweeney re-emerged last year with a sound that was more polished and commercially friendly, while still showing a strong connection to her traditional country roots.  As a result, she gradually fell into the good graces of country radio, and netted the first Top 10 hit of her career with "From a Table Away."

On her follow-up release, Sunny is backed by a drum-heavy arrangement of electric and steel guitar with peels of fiddle. Like her previous-single, it has enough polish to make it palatable to country radio, but it is still unmistakably country, such that tacking on the "pop-country" label would still seem like an enormous stretch.

"Staying's Worse Than Leaving" finds a character on the tail end of an ill-fated relationship.  She is clearly resigned to the fact that things are not going to be easy for her.  "Leavin's hard," Sunny sings.  "It'll shake ya, damn near break ya."  She views leaving as an ultimate last resort, but as the state of the relationship deteriorates, she eventually concludes that "Staying's Worse Than Leaving," so she packs up her bags.

The lyrics portray a conflagration of emotions.  The woman is desperate, but at the same time bold and determined, not caring "who passes judgment on [her] reasons."  She strains to be hopeful, but struggles with uncertainty ("It's gotta get better - It can't get worse/ Hope it's a blessing and not a curse").  Both the lyrics and Sunny's performance cause the listener to feel the ache along with the song's narrator.

Perhaps the most appealing characteristic of Sunny's new single is the way it so candidly addresses the theme of heartache.  The mainstream brand of music that we call country sometimes prefers to forget the fact that it was once the go-to genre for all brokenhearted individuals in need of a song they could relate to.  In modern times, country radio often favors uplifting and inoffensive material over the heartbreak songs that had previously been country music's specialty.  "Staying's Worse Than Leaving" makes no attempt to lighten it's emotional weight.  It knows that it's a sad song, and owns it.

"Staying's Worse Than Leaving" is an excellent follow-up to one of the best country singles of 2010.  Radio may or may not continue to allow Sunny a regular slot on playlists, but her consistently excellent material guarantees that if her success continues, mainstream country music could get a whole lot more interesting.

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


Music Video Round-Up - April 2011

Lee Brice, "Beautiful Every Time"

Due West, "When the Smoke Clears"

Keith Urban, "Without You"

Rehab, "Talk About"

Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Paper Airplane"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jason Aldean, "Dirt Road Anthem"

Most of Jason Aldean's recent rocked-up hit songs about country folks and country livin' have been in a fairly predictably vein, but his new offering contains one somewhat fresh component - country rap.  Such an addition might prove polarizing for many fans, but it's appreciable to hear an artist making some attempt to do something out of the ordinary.

There's a little caveat though.  Rapping only works if the words are interesting and creative, and if you deliver the rhymes with gusto and personality.  The only other recent example of country rapping in a mainstream radio hit is Sugarland's "Stuck Like Glue," in which a quirky, fun, and joyous performance made for a most charming little earworm.  In the case of "Dirt Road Anthem," the rap portion is a dull lackadaisical affair delivered with minimal enthusiasm.  Boring rhymes such as "I'm tired of talkin', man y'all ain't listenin'/ Them old dirt roads is what y'all missin'" make it an even bigger yawn, and the rapping ultimately ends up hurting the song instead of helping it.

Outside of the rap portion, "Dirt Road Anthem" sounds like generic Aldean.  It may have been originally recorded by writers Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, but it slips comfortably into Jason's not terribly distinctive catalog with the usual references to pick-up trucks and ice cold beer.  He also continues to indulge his affinity for name-dropping country legends - This time it's George Jones - without paying a hint of tribute.  It's a bit odd that this "Dirt Road Anthem" lacks any of the qualities commonly associated with anthems, such as power, purpose, and enthusiasm.  The tune's meager artistic means are unlikely to slow its rise to the top of the charts, but "Dirt Road Anthem" is sure to sink country radio even deeper into the same quality rut that it's been in for years.

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


Monday, April 4, 2011

Gloriana, "Wanna Take You Home"

When a song's lyrics begin by rhyming "girl" with "rock my world," it's going to take a lot for the song to win me back.  It doesn't get better from there as the Gloriana quartet achingly rehashes every trite romantic cliche in the book.  The first single to Gloriana's upcoming second album displays songwriting so juvenile that it should be embarrassing.

It's depressing to hear song that aims so low.  "Wanna Take You Home" aspires to be nothing more than weightless, insignificant fluff.  As soon as you listen to this song, you get a mental image of an uninspired writing committe thumbing through a rhyming dictionary trying to come up with something just bland and generic enough for country radio to accept (The committee behind this little beauty was made up of band member Tom Gossin, Matt Serletic, and Wendell Mobley).  According to Tom Gossin, "We are excited to release this song because we really feel it displays the growth of our band over the past few years."

Growth in which areas, exactly?  The only interesting thing about it is the sparse pop-country production.  At best, "Wanna Take You Home" is a plateau effort, if not a regression.  There are no memorable hooks.  Even the melody falls flat.  Besides that, any song with lyrics this bad is going to sink like a stone.  If the Gloriana troupe considers such a disposable effort to be evidence of growth, then we have little reason to believe that the rest of their upcoming album will be any less forgettable.

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