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.
First up on the dock is Kelsea Ballerini’s shiny lead single “Legends,” a track which strives valiantly to fraternize with her own “Peter Pan” as well as Taylor Swift’s fairytale phase. It’s shimmery anthemic pop at its most middle of the road, mid-tempo and laced with just enough synth to make the down-strummed guitars sparkle. It offers nothing new but is relatively inoffensive in its overstretching of magical metaphors, even as Kelsea’s vocal delivery is disappointingly lackluster for a song with such lofty aspirations. It doesn’t have the bite of the narrative from Peter Pan, and it’s not as slick nor as original as Swift’s general output, but it is passable Radio Disney fodder and at this point that’s all she needs to continue rolling.
But while Kelsea Ballerini wishes she was Taylor Swift, Jessie James Decker wishes she was Kelsea Ballerini, or at the very least Christina Aguilera or Shania Twain. Her Blackbird Sessions EP is about as extra as it gets, folding agonizingly convoluted inflections and trills into a disparate selection of cover songs alongside her own “Girl On The Coast.” It is presumed that most of this hails from bad vocal habits learned in childhood, and carried through into adulthood with a kind of forced desperation, but it’s often impossible to tell where her authentic self ends and the acrobatic one begins. Her cover of Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” turns a sweet, soulful tune into a nasal chaos, while her rendition of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One” is so imitational she could make a decent stab at a tribute career if country music doesn’t pan out. Currently, she’s simply a budget version of any female pop diva from the last twenty years.
There are ways to do pop country that don’t make me want to gauge my eyes out too much, and Lady Antebellum go some way towards pulling this off. I enjoyed their first record, but have found the vast majority of their catalog since to be swimming in vanilla. Heart Break, whilst not exactly a gritty example of non-commercial artistry, has more depth and substance to it than more recent efforts and does at least polish each offering with a healthy dose of mandolin. The stylistic content is still radio-friendly pop country, but the writing and production has undergone significant improvements; from the smart but aching title track to the sincere string ballad “Hurt,” and from the funky, jazzy lead single “You Look Good” all the way to the closing “Famous,” a pitiful tale of a public figure known for her drug addiction and public meltdowns. Of this 13-strong set “Famous” is the most intriguing and the most tightly-written, and it does throw up the question of inspiration. Perhaps all will be revealed in time.
Of course, we cannot talk about returns to pop country form without mentioning Rascal Flatts, whose latest record Back To Us is a rather overt attempt to reclaim some of the respect and sales they once enjoyed. I can’t help but feel that in the interim Dan + Shay have taken their position (quite literally – they are a younger, hipper carbon copy), but Back To Us is not the worst I’ve heard from the Flatts, and lead single “Yours If You Want It” is quite the catchy guilty pleasure. As long as one is ready for a series of treacly Disney vignettes that make Kelsea Ballerini sound edgy, a listening session with this record is not altogether unpleasant. There is a place for it, somewhere, and it’s nice to see Lauren Alaina share the limelight, even as the Carrie Underwood cover “I Know You Won’t” falls utterly flat (knowing the original performance makes the cover rather painful). “Vandalized” brings some ironed-out funk which will probably slot comfortably onto country radio, and “Love What You’ve Done With The Place” provides sweet relief despite its somewhat heavy reliance on R&B.
Speaking of Lauren Alaina, she comes off her first number one hit with the new single “Doin’ Fine,” an absolute belter that kicks things off immediately with the lines “Daddy got sober / Momma got his best friend / I’ve cut down crying / to every other weekend.” The track musically toes the line that Carrie Underwood first successfully drew, and Lauren’s vocals are utterly on point on both a technical and an emotional level. The lyric manages to draw together autobiography and universality, and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a monster hit.
On the other side of the coin, however, Lindsay Ell’s Worth The Wait EP was – well – not. The production is dry and leaky and Lindsay’s voice is a shadow of its former glory. She was never the strongest vocalist to grace country music, but she was capable of accompanying poppy numbers and stellar blues guitar-playing with ease. On her latest EP, it instead appears that touring heavily (any glance at her socials will reveal the sheer level of travel undertaken and number of performances delivered) has rendered her voice strained and rasping. This does not suit the kinds of songs she is intent on delivering, and it’s disappointing given how long it has taken for new music to reach her fans, in addition to Kristian Bush’s key producer credit. And if she wanted to cover a John Mayer song, “Stop This Train” was entirely the wrong choice.
When it comes to the solo males of country music, no-one is perhaps more ubiquitous than Kenny Chesney, and that goes doubly so for boring and tired material phoned in from a brand that has no interest in being interesting. “All The Pretty Girls” is the latest single from the cringeworthily-titled Cosmic Hallelujah, and it opts simply to vapidly list every antiquated and worn-out stereotype of middle America. It’s lazy and bland songwriting at its most irritatingly pervasive, and is only saved by the catchy refrain and the unnamed female vocalist who provides prominent harmonies during this section. It sounds like Lee Ann Womack, but I could be wrong.
Gross attempts at binary gender roles also crop up in Jerrod Niemann’s new single “God Made A Woman” and to an extent in Lee Brice’s “Boy.” The former theorizes that women were created specifically by the Lord to save wayward – and, frankly, selfish – men, all angelic Virgin Marys who remain mere vessels for the work of a higher power. And guess who co-wrote it? Jesus-loving Real Man Michael Ray. Never mind silly old equality, the female species’ sole purpose is to yank men’s heads out of their asses and force them to actually become good human beings. How conveniently patriarchal (and dripping with LGBT erasure).
The latter of the two tracks from Curb’s only two vaguely successful artists, “Boy,” is sentimental in a way only country music can be, and not entirely terrible. The arrangement is pretty and Lee Brice gives an improved vocal performance, but it still doesn’t retract from this notion of boys fitting into a rose-tinted, cinematic mold. Evocative and neo-romantic lyricism can’t hide some tired gender stereotyping, even if it is slightly more intelligent and poetic in its observations than your average Chris Janson track.
Ugh, Chris Janson. Remember when he was interesting for like, five minutes and then he just became fifty shades of embarrassing? As if recording the same rambunctious hillbilly and kitschy loved-up offerings over and over on his debut wasn’t enough, his latest Fix A Drink EP manages to be parody without intention. Brad Paisley has had his rough moments over the past few years, but Chris can only aspire to that level of creative lull. The set’s title track sounds like a Chase Rice reject, he chases cheap Luke Bryan vibes on “Name On It,” he caused me to actually groan with the lame hook on “Everybody,” and the brain cell-destroying “Redneck Life” casually advocates child labor. To add to that, “Little Bit of Both,” the Frankie Ballard song Chris co-wrote, turns an okay song into a heaping pile of garbage. Chris’ rendition begins on a kind of hick hop, sparse hillbilly bed before suddenly transitioning to a jazzy, funky mix a la Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good.” Then there’s a fevered harmonica solo, and apparently a nervous breakdown from the producer, because who knows what’s gone on here.
I had that same reaction to Granger Smith’s new one “Happens Like That.” Do you remember when he was a respected Red Dirt artist? Judging by his expression on the single cover, Granger remembers too, and he regrets everything. The track is written to an R&B structure, overproduced and auto-tuned for no apparent reason, and cursed with a horrendous distorted guitar solo. It sounds like if every rotting corpse of country music (RIP) collectively vomited in the same recording studio. Tyler Farr has seen the writing on the wall on two fronts with “I Should Go To Church Sometime,” and uses his own conscience about lack of devotion to faith to score him some points with an establishment that are wholly over his generic shtick. He still can’t sing, but it’s not a terrible song.
And, finally, Gary Allan has released a song that fans have been calling for some time. He’s had his ups and downs as we rode out the bro-country phase, and seems to have given up his radio days in favor of substance, thank goodness. “Mess Me Up” features the anthemic adult contemporary, soft rock sound that he has oft worked within, alongside a lyric (and, to an extent, melody) quite akin to Dierks Bentley’s excellent “Say You Do.” It’s a nice forgoing of the trend-chasing that has wrecked so many of our established stars, and I’m glad he’s coming back around.