Welcome to Download or Delete, a rundown of the best and worst of Music Row and the country music machine. If you are triggered into social media outrage by snark, it’s probably best you look away now, unless you are the kind of angry stan that hate-spams a link everywhere. In which case, read on and get as riled up as you want; I myself am fueled purely by displaced rage and quality espresso.
Ready? Let’s begin.
One of the biggest country music stories of the past month has been Shania Twain’s return to releasing new music, fi-na-lly. Like Garth Brooks before her, Shania smelled the rising Music Row economy from wherever she’d holed up in Paparazzi-less luxury, and conveniently decided now was the time to exploit that pesky ‘90s nostalgia. There is plenty of that to go around, and even as a predominantly ‘90s child myself, I find the preoccupation with that particular decade a little nauseating. Sure, some great music was released during that era, but equally the kitschy sentimentality and lack of subtlety can feel a bit grating in light of the twenty years since, and while I would count myself as a fan of Shania’s back catalog, I don’t find that precludes me from arguing most of her repertoire wouldn’t translate if released today. It was of its time, and the danger of an artist whom that applies to deciding to release music considerably after their time period is that they carry their context with them. In other words, their style doesn’t make sense in the present day. I feel this is at least somewhat true for Shania.
“Life’s About To Get Good” is a jaunty, bouncy show opener/closer driven by tinkly, melodic synths, a four on the floor beat and group harmonies. It’s clear some effort has been made to move with the times and some credit does have to be given for that, but it just somehow misses the mark for me. Whilst explaining my position is my job in this instance, it’s difficult to pinpoint what falls flat in my opinion. Maybe it’s the repetitive, unimaginative chorus, the overtly chipper delivery or the tininess of the production, but it doesn’t hit me in the way I feel such a comeback song should. This is her first lead single in fifteen years, shouldn’t it be bigger and better? It’s not a bad song, but it is rather lacking in weight. Perhaps that’s just me.
Speaking of lacking in weight, let’s talk about Dan + Shay for just a minute. They seem like sweet boys, and certainly “How Not To” was a solid enough song despite its heavy pop orientation, but new single “Road Trippin’” is so forgettable and distinctly average that I’m not even sure I’ll remember it in five minutes’ time. I know their entire modus operandi is Rascal Flatts rebranding for the emotionally delicate kidz, and there’s nothing specifically wrong with that, but even for them this is floaty imitation garbage designed to push spins on radio and then never be heard from again. Do you know how many times they sing the title over the course of four minutes? More than 25. If that’s not unimaginative I don’t know what is.
That brings me onto Dierks Bentley’s “What The Hell Did I Say,” a title which must have a snarky joke embedded somewhere if one considers the trajectory of Dierks’ career. I concede that short of “Riser 2.0” anything he produced would have been a disappointment on some level, but Black as an album was a considerable let-down, not least for the scrubby alt-rock vibes and more superficial sentiments that permeate the set. “What The Hell Did I Say” is one of the record’s key perpetrators and its association with his current tour only serves to further its testosterone-fueled mess. The narrative is old ground, the lyrics are clumsily formed, and the twang of the dobro during the riff does nothing to countrify what is a boring and repetitive rock song with an utterly uninspiring melody. Dierks’ vocal sounds trapped and lifeless, but I suppose that’s an appropriate approach for a song of this ilk.
RaeLynn’s latest radio release “Lonely Call” coincidentally functions as a sort-of answer song to Dierks’ efforts. On the broadly mainstream but not totally un-twangy pop country track, the Shelton darling finds herself dealing with a difficult heartbreak that is put to the test when her former beau puts through a drunk late-night call. The crux of the hook is drawn from different types of calls that are made depending on personal importance to the caller, placing the call she has just received at the bottom of the hierarchy. The chorus is solid enough and it’s not a bad twist on the typical post-break-up booty call, but the sudden random key change during the final refrain is enough to make even the most mellow of folks punch a lightbulb. It’s wincingly bad and poorly executed, and wrecks what is otherwise one of her more tolerable offerings.
I’m also divided on Sara Evans’ new lead single “Marquee Sign,” from her upcoming Words. The metaphor of wishing a sign had been present to inform her of someone’s future mistreatment is twee, and the production overpowers what bare bones of the song exist. Stylistically it settles uncomfortably in a mid ‘00s pop vein, straddling elements of R&B and soft rock, but it never fully commits to anything and indeed drifts off into modern electric blues towards the end, when it once again indecisively drifts between a conclusive ending and a weak fade. It doesn’t really know what it wants to do, and perhaps that is true of Sara, too. Feeling out the murky waters of label independence can be disconcerting at best.
I’ve not really understood the breakout or hype of Luke Combs this year, especially since his major label debut focused on more of a mainstream sound than his independent releases favored, and he didn’t come across as particularly unique or interesting. His new single “When It Rains It Pours” stands out more to me than much of his material, however, and its early-mid ‘00s country radio sound offers a welcome respite from the milky synths and snap beats that seem to be playing house with the vast majority of popular artists currently. Its Brad Paisley-friendly guitar line and head-tapping drum beat (real drums!) recall an earlier period of the format that despite not too long forgotten, nonetheless feels worlds away from the present situation. His vocal is charismatic and capable, and the lyric is a smart take on break-ups that turn out to be a positive. Featuring a harmless good ol’ boy attitude, Luke describes in detail his incredible string of good luck following the exit of a former lover, and not only does it feel believable, he manages to steer clear of any douchey tropes that could so easily slip into the track. If another mainstream male were to write such a song, I can almost guarantee that the examples given would be more moronic, more frat-boy-gross, and more low-key sexist than is even considered here. Even the Hooters stanza manages to remain inoffensive. Sad that such a feat is impressive at this point, but there we go.
A formerly offensive bro who’s still on probation (as far as I’m concerned) is Michael Ray, whose sophomore lead single “Get To You” has been clearly positioned to change some minds. He received a lot of (justly deserved) flack with the triad of “Kiss You In The Morning,” “Real Men Love Jesus” and “Think A Little Less,” all of which caused significant brain cell loss and conducted rampant sexism cast in innocence. “Get To You” attempts to erase the reputation those three songs built by going for the “romantic pop crooner” vibe, once again recalling styles more at home in the ‘00s top 40 than anything more recent. Its sycophantic delivery helms an overly sincere I’m-a-good-guy-I-promise lyric, and while it’s certainly an improvement on past material, we can’t seriously be applauding Michael for the musical equivalent of your local fuckboi turning up with roses and champagne and promising he’s going to be better this time, or that he’s “not like all those other guys.” I’d like to think we’re smarter than that, but then Florida Georgia Line had far too many people fooled with “Dirt,” so I have no hope.
Remember when The Cadillac Three were a good band, and Jaren Johnston was one of the brightest up-and-coming songwriters on the scene? Somewhere along the way he started writing 53 versions of the exact same song, and all of them got recorded and released, if not by his own band then by any number of other mainstream country artists. “Dang If We Didn’t” is yet another we-got-blackout-drunk-for-no-fucking-reason song and only serves to preach to every redneck alcoholic who’s too wasted to care. Enough with the party songs. I’m so bored. Please give me another narrative; not everyone works 9 to 5 and then spends all weekend at the bar. Musically it sounds like the hazier, boozier counterpart to Luke Combs’ latest, but it is clearly destined to die at radio and further prove that there’s simply no room in the charts for The Cadillac Three. They’ve tried so many singles that failed at this point that I’m surprised they haven’t been dropped.
Not the greatest outlook this month, but then it is July – the month where most country radio listeners consist of more cheap lite beer than water content.