The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music [Sept. 6]

Every week I take a look at the current top ten country songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and give each song either a +1, a -1 or a 0. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the current top ten country songs, with the highest possible score being a +10 and the lowest possible score being a -10. The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the current state of mainstream country music and determine if it’s improving or getting worse. To see the full list of hot country songs for this week, click here. Let’s take a look at this week’s top ten.

  1. Jason Aldean – “Burnin’ It Down” -1
  2. Florida Georgia Line – “Dirt” +1
  3. Kenny Chesney – “American Kids” 0
  4. Dierks Bentley – “Drunk On a Plane” -1
  5. Lady Antebellum – “Bartender” -1
  6. Sam Hunt – “Leave The Night On” -1
  7. Tim McGraw (feat. Faith Hill) – “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” +1
  8. Luke Bryan – “Roller Coaster” 0
  9. Dustin Lynch – “Where It’s At (Yep, Yep)” -1
  10. Lee Brice – “I Don’t Dance” +1

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: -2

The pulse actually improves this week! It’s up one from -3 last week. What caused this shake up? The top five remained the same, however 6-10 experienced some changes. Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan’s “This Is How We Roll” and Cole Swindell’s “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” both fell out of the top ten. But Luke Bryan stays in the top ten as his new single “Roller Coaster” moves into the eighth spot. The other newcomer to the top ten is Dustin Lynch’s “Where It’s At.” I thought this song was dead, but disappointingly it’s not. I imagine his new album being available for pre-order this week helped boost the numbers for this single. Sam Hunt continues to creep up the charts with his pop music, moving up two spots to #6. With several new albums coming out in the next three months in the mainstream, expect this chart to start experiencing shake ups on a weekly basis.

Album Review – Nashville Outlaw’s Tribute to Motley Crue

When it was announced that there would be a tribute album for rock band Motley Crue from “Nashville Outlaws”, two questions popped into my head. First, why? Why, why, why? What has Motley Crue done in their career to warrant a tribute album from Music Row? They aren’t southern rock; they never ran to country for relevancy before. Motley Crue has always been bad boy hard rock. This tribute album is 100% pointless. My second question comes from this viewpoint. I understand to make the album seem badass and edgy in country music, the producers advertised it with “outlaw”; I understand logic behind the marketing. But how in God’s name can you consider half of these artists as outlaws?!?! Rascal Flatts?! Are you kidding me? They are the furthest thing from a country outlaw.

With those questions and mindsets in place, I approached this album expecting the worst. Surprisingly, there were some good moments on the album, hell, even some great covers. When an artist approaches a cover song with creative liberty and creates an original composition to the lyrics, and executes that liberty well, it is one of my favorite things. Save for a select few songs that accomplish that, the album is mostly a bland, pointless tribute album.

The Worst Songs on the Album

Right away, we are introduced to the worst song of the entire collection. Rascal Flatts’ cover of “Kickstart My Heart” is, in one word, terrible. Gary LeVox does not have a voice suited for rock music. When you listen to it, you can tell he’s way out of his element. The worst thing about the song, for me, came at the “When we started this band” bridge. They censored the word “ass” in this bridge. “Years gone by, I say we’ve kicked some [HEAVY GUITAR LICK].” You’re seriously attempting to pass off this soccer-mom pop band as “outlaw” and you censor them from swearing? Gary LeVox, you’re now an outlaw, it’s okay to say ass when you sing. But by doing this, you take away whatever microscopic outlaw credibility Rascal Flatts apparently had to warrant a spot on the album. The other song that truly stood out to me as awful was Brantley Gilbert’s take on “Girls, Girls, Girls.” On paper, Brantley is easily the most outlaw of the fifteen artists represented here and musically the most capable of doing a Motley Crue cover song justice. But in real life?  Nope. Brantley Gilbert sounded bored out of his mind singing this song. There are no vocal inflections, no emphasis on words or anything. Gilbert is completely monotone throughout the whole track. I was bored listening to this song. To me, the bad thing about both these tracks was that there was no attempt to bring anything new or original to these songs. Both of these songs are essentially carbon copies of the original with new vocals dubbed over and it doesn’t work.

The Best Songs on the Album

I was surprised that there were actually three songs that I enjoyed on this tribute. Each of these songs took a lot of creative liberty with the covers, recomposed the melody to fit their style of music and delivered great vocal performances. “Without You” by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio took the tough-guy power ballad and turned it into a beautiful, stripped down love ballad sang as a duet. The music fits perfectly with the lyrics. My favorite track on the album is Lauren Jenkin’s “Looks That Kill.” This rendition is a haunting reworking of original rock song. The track is filled with many electric string instruments, which gives the heartbreaker in the song a more mysterious personality. It’s almost as if Lauren is singing along to a Vitamin String Quartet instrumental of the song.  It’s brilliant; cover music done right, in my opinion.  The last song that stood out to me was The Mavericks’ reworking of “Dr. Feelgood.” Imagine watching an old-west movie about a drug dealer in the town’s saloon. This would make for a perfect theme song for that movie. The Mavericks also take some liberty with the lyrics and make it work to a completely new beat and feel for the song.  You can tell The Mavericks are having fun and enjoying themselves on the track.  It’s a fun listen.

The Rest of the Album

The ten remaining tracks are relatively bland in my opinion. Big & Rich, Cassadee Pope and Florida Georgia Line all do their best to make these songs their own, but overall they just don’t measure up to the bar set by the three songs in the above section. They’re not bad; and quite frankly, Cassadee Pope sounds natural as an alternative rocker in “The Animal in Me.” But sonically, that song, along with FGL’s “If I Die Tomorrow” are similar to that of Nickelback or Three Days Grace.  They don’t sound like themselves on the tracks, and they vary too far from Motley Crue to justify it as a carbon copy cover.  Many of these artists, including Justin Moore, The Cadillac Three and The Eli Young Band don’t stand out on the track because they don’t stray too far from Motley Crue’s original song.  And as for the rest of the artists who do take that risk, most of them strikeout. Aaron Lewis’ production is far and away the most classic country song on the whole album, but he fabricated a southern drawl for the verses that takes away from the track. Gretchen Wilson is on the verge of screaming throughout her whole song. LeAnn Rimes takes advantage of her song and shows off her vocal abilities, but the song is “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room.”  She didn’t change the lyric to “girl’s room” so I find it odd that they chose a female to undertake that song.  Darius Rucker, surprisingly, has a good cover song here. It’s an honest melody to his established country sound, and if I didn’t know this was a cover tribute, I’d assume this was an original for Hootie. This version of “Time for Change” is 100% Darius Rucker, and I think it would be a decent country single for him (had his last major hit not also been a cover).

Overall Thoughts

The album is just bland, uninteresting and inconsistent. In my opinion, tribute albums like this should stick to one mindset. Either pay tribute to Motley Crue by bringing in artists who can do the song justice without changing the melody too much, or bring in artists like Lauren Jenkins and The Mavericks who will do a country tribute to the band and recompose their songs to be country. This Nashville Outlaw tribute jumps between the two mindsets and doesn’t offer much of anything. Three points for three good songs.

Grade: 3/10

 

Album Review – The Buffalo Ruckus’ Self-Titled Debut

When it comes to finding a new country artist in the sea of thousands, I like to call them diamonds in the rough. But that’s not the case with The Buffalo Ruckus. They’re more like the rough among the diamonds. In a world where mainstream country music is so polished and clean, you then have a group like The Buffalo Ruckus who are the exact opposite. They’re music is rooted in country, yet have so many different other influences mixed in that results in music that even I had trouble coming up with words for at times while listening to their debut album. Luckily, they have a pretty good description of their music on their site. This is their description: “A compendium of Roots, Americana, Southern Soul, Psychedelic Postmodern avant-garde Experimental Country Fried Rock.” You might feel confused by this description, but it’s right on the money. The Buffalo Ruckus truly have a one of a kind sound on their self-titled debut album.

The Best Songs on the Album

Two things I want to point out right up front about this group that they do right on this album: 1) Their instrumentation is fantastic. Brad Haefner, Michael Burgess and Christian Dorn are amazing at their roles. 2) Jason Lovell can flat-out sing anything he wants. You figure this out right from the start with “If It’s For Love,” a song about falling in and out of love. This song showcases the southern rock side of the band with the great guitar licks and strong harmonica play. Lovell shows grit and character with his voice. “Son Of a Rebel’s Son” is a southern pride anthem that showcases the southern rock side of the band too. Their psychedelic side leaks through on the album’s final track, “Black Hearted Woman.” It’s a song about being in love with a cruel woman. Think of it as a darker and more country version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”

But if there’s one song where their talents come together and produce absolute magic it’s on “Don’t Save Me.” It’s about a man living a life of addictions and debauchery, but pleading to never stop him from living this way. The song gets louder and more aggressive as the song progresses. Lovell’s voice is dynamic and showcases great range, getting louder and softer in just the right spots. While Lovell and the band are loud and bombastic in “Don’t Save Me,” they show their softer and more country side in “Far to Fall.” It’s an Appalachian country tune about being down and fighting to get back up. The theme is going to mean something different to each person who listens to it. The country side is shown again in “Angilee,” where they’re joined by the Grammy nominated Americana artist Shannon McNally. I thought the Ruckus and McNally sounded good together on this love ballad. Both show great passion and exasperation in their voices toward the end of the song.

The Worst Songs on the Album

There were two songs that stood out to me that needed a little more to be good songs. “South Georgia Angel” felt a little bland lyric-wise. It’s an above average song that didn’t really do anything for me. “No Good, So Good” is one of the most country songs on the album that features fantastic instrumentation and Lovell has great vocals as usual. But I felt again the lyrics weren’t that impressive. I just thought song could use a little more meat to it in this department.

The Rest of the Album

“High Again” and “Even On the Darker Days” both deal with being positive in the darker days of heartbreak, addictions and other problems in life. Lovell’s voice showcases a great range in both of these songs, reaching his higher register many times. “What’s a Boy to Do” is the folksy/roots side of the band being showcased front and center. I thought the acoustic instrument play was really great in this song and made me want to hear more folk sounding songs from the band in the future. “Moonlight Rebels” is an Americana tune that shows the band can harmonize well together. The lyrics are a little too simple, but you can overlook it because the song is a fun listen. I found myself tapping my foot to this from the very listen to it.

Overall Thoughts

I think this is a great debut for The Buffalo Ruckus. With it being their debut, it’s obviously not going to be perfect. What they do right on this album, they do pretty damn good. They have a dynamic singer in Lovell and the wide range of instrumentation featured in the album was nearly flawless on every song. The only department I felt this album lacked in some of the songs was the songwriting. It’s not bad songwriting, but it isn’t great songwriting either. It’s just solid, when I feel like this band is capable of being great. On their second album I want to hear more dynamic and complex lyrics that challenge the listener’s ears. If they can do this, the sky is the limit for The Buffalo Ruckus because they already have a unique sound that allows them to standout from other alternative country bands in Texas. Nevertheless this is a pretty good debut from The Ruckus and they’re a band I recommend keeping an eye on. If you enjoy bands like Micky and The Motorcars or Blackberry Smoke, I think you’ll enjoy The Buffalo Ruckus.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Review – Will Hoge’s “Middle of America”

Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge achieved critical and commercial success with his album, Never Give In, last year. It reached #1 on the Billboard U.S. Top Heatseekers Albums chart and even reached #23 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His single “Strong” was featured in a Chevrolet commercial, garnering him a lot of new fans. 2013 was a pretty good year for Hoge. Now he’s gearing up to release the followup album later this year and has released the first single from it, “Middle of America.” Hoge though almost didn’t record this song for himself. From an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I wasn’t expecting to write a song for me. We were just trying to write a great song and as it went on I started getting more and more attached to it. There’s always that moment of, ‘Do I want to keep this song for myself because I think it’s really great, or do I want to send it to Blake Shelton and make a whole bunch of money off of it? Maybe he’ll want it.’ It’s a strange place to be, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that sometimes that’s the right play,” says Hoge.

It’s good he kept it because a producer from a mainstream country camp would probably butcher this song into something entirely awful. “Middle of America” was written by Tommy Lee James, Jessi Alexander and Hoge himself. The song is about the everyday life and happenings in rural America. And you regular readers know my thoughts on songs about small towns. They’re done to death and you really have to distinguish it from the rest of the pack to make me pay attention to it. In this case, Hoge does enough to make me listen to it and even like it. Why? The lyrics for once in a song about a small town are actually honest. Basically the picture of rural America that Hoge paints in the listeners’ heads is it isn’t perfect, but that’s just the way things are in rural America.

“Middle of America” is a well-written song, but there are some moments where you feel like the lyrics are kind of cliché, which isn’t uncommon in these type of songs. But the instrumentation and authenticity of the mood of the song make up for it. At least it’s not trying glamorize it to be one big party or throw down like bro country portrays it. Speaking of the instrumentation of the song, there’s a guitar, drum and piano that plays throughout it. This song is one of the most country Hoge has produced, but like all Hoge songs it isn’t purely country. There’s also rock and Americana influences throughout it.

I think “Middle of America” is a solid, new single from Hoge. If this song ever got a shot at radio time, I think it would do well. Perhaps with Hoge’s writing credentials and connections with mainstream country he could get a shot. But that’s being a hypothetical optimist. Hoge though is now more known by the country music listening audience and I think he’ll do even better on the charts with his new upcoming album. He’s dedicated to his music and you know you’ll always get honest music from him. His new single is a good listen and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t done so yet.

Grade: 8.5/10

Album Review – Brad Paisley’s Moonshine in the Trunk

Let’s get something straight right out front before I even begin this review: Brad Paisley is no longer one of the “good guys” of mainstream country music. We’ve all kind of known this for a while with his albums getting progressively worse and his single “River Bank” being a huge disappointment. Moonshine in the Trunk cements this fact. He already warned us months ago that this album will feature the adaptation of “the modern technology of EDM and dubstep to the classic country formula.” To add more embarrassment on top of more embarrassment, Paisley has also been engaging in one of the worst marketing ploys I’ve seen an artist engage in a good while. For the last few months he’s been “leaking” songs off the album and pretending to be fighting his record label over this poor stunt. Here’s a taste of what’s been happening on his Twitter feed:

The only country music outlet that has pointed out that this is nothing but a dumb marketing tactic is Trigger at Saving Country Music. Every other country outlet has eaten this up to be legit and real. I better stop now before I get on a real roll. Let’s get to Moonshine in the Trunk

The Best Songs on the Album

Well there aren’t many, but a few nonetheless that are decent on this album. The album’s title track is a fun song about driving around like you have moonshine in the back of the car and dropping references to how NASCAR got their start running moonshine and Uncle Jesse of Dukes of Hazzard is mentioned in the chorus. There’s a lot of electric guitar in this song, which makes “Moonshine in the Trunk” more rock than country. There are several clichés mentioned in this song, but it’s hard to hate it. It’s also one of the better written songs on the album (I’ll explain this more later in the review). This song is then followed by the second good song on the album, “Shattered Glass.” It’s about a man watching his daughter growing up and achieving lots of success in life. The shattered glass is her shattering the glass ceiling, a term used a lot in the business world for women who achieve high ranking positions. This song has a nice, subtle message about feminism and women being able to achieve whatever they want to achieve. Kind of ironic considering Paisley is part of a genre that suppresses female artists and barely give any chance to shine. I think this song would sound better coming from a female artist.

The only other song on the album that I would classify as “good” would be the bonus track “Me and Jesus.” It’s the one spot on the album where you get a glimpse into the old Brad Paisley sound. It’s a pure country song with acoustic instruments and no electronic machines to alter the sound. You actually get to hear Paisley’s voice. Yes, the lyrics are dead simple and not creative. But at least it sounds like it’s coming from the heart and not meant to play in a Walmart commercial. Speaking of commercial songs…

The Worst Songs on the Album 

If I sound repetitive in my criticisms, that’s because I’m only matching the album’s overall repetitiveness. If you repeat a problem over and over, I’m going to keep pointing it out over and over again. The album opens with “Crushin’ It,” a bro country song about crushing beer cans. This is a perfect example of Paisley desperately chasing the popular trend in an attempt to stay relevant. The song isn’t horribly offensive, but rather boring and vanilla. And then of course he drops this line in the song: “But like the great George freaking Strait I’m the king of getting unwound.” Ugh. This song tries to be dumb fun and instead it’s just dumb. I already talked about how bad “River Bank” is and you can see that full review by clicking here. “Perfect Storm” is a classy form of a bro country song (if that is possible). The song compares a woman to a good drink right from the start and then women are compared to a mix tape. Is this the 1980s? Who the hell makes mix tapes still? The lyrics aren’t too immature, but there’s a bro air surrounding them.

Gaining money through no so proud ways is the topic in “High Life.” No, Brad Paisley does not mention prostitution in this song, but he’s might as well had because that’s what he’s doing for Chick fil A in this song. The song is already bad enough with the awkward theme (celebrating getting inheritance after the death of your father doesn’t seem like it’s in good taste), but then there’s the name dropping of Chick fil A after the mother in the song slips in front of one and sues the franchise. Carrie Underwood lends her pipes for the background vocals in this song, which I guess is Paisley’s way of helping a female country artist shatter glass in the genre. Instead of making another emotionally stirring duet like “Remind Me,” they decide to have her do background vocals and then engage in a conversation with Paisley at the end of the song as they discuss how much they love Chick fil A’s waffle fries. Expect this to make a commercial for the restaurant quite soon.

“You Shouldn’t Have To” is the most pointless song on the album. The lyrics are so boring and the theme is apparently doing things you shouldn’t have to do. You could put two pigs in a room with a typewriter and they could come up with a more interesting song. “Cover Girl” features boring lyrics again. It’s a song about a girl being worthy of being a cover girl for a magazine. Dear lord. Paisley makes a song that’s perfect for a PSA about how great America is in “American Flag on the Moon.” It even has a children’s choir at the end of the song. It’s the same old shit, different album for Paisley.

Now let’s talk about the worst song on the album, which is “4WP.” Those initials stand for four wheel parked. No joke. The song opens with a lame imitation of the opener for Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher.” You then get to hear that new sound Paisley warned you about, as it’s front and center in this song. Instruments are put through stutter step machines and make for horrible sounds. The song also goes full bro country with it’s lyrics (never do this). Going parking with a girl on a dirt road is mentioned in this song. What an horrendous song!

The Rest of the Album

“Limes” is a song about making margaritas and once again has shallow lyrics. But what saves it from being a bad song is the solid electric guitar and piano play. “Gone Green” is a pure sounding country song complete with acoustic guitars, banjos and some harmonica play. Once again poor lyrics ruin a Paisley song though. It’s about going green, whether that’s buying an electric guitar or powering your house with solar power. The theme is well intentioned, but it sounds too much like a PSA song for one of the major car manufacturers green car commercials. Paisley also takes a veiled shot at coal, which is perplexing considering he comes from West Virginia, a state that heavily relies on the coal industry for it’s economy. Paisley’s friends in LA and Nashville may have gone green, but his friends and family back home still rely on coal for their lively hood. “Country Nation” is a laundry list song that name checks Chevy, Ford, small towns, cranking the radio loud and name dropping several major college football teams. I guarantee it was created for the sole reason to play in bumpers on ESPN during college football season. It isn’t bad, but it’s so commercial.

Overall Thoughts

Three reason why this album is mostly bad: poor lyrics, too commercial and bad instrumentation. I feel like I’ve outgrown this dumbed down form of country music. Most people progress as their career moves forward, but Paisley has slowly regressed with each album. He was once smart and witty with his songs, but now he’s just a big kid with 5th grade lyrics and overrated guitar play. EDM influences flare up throughout as he promised they would, but it’s just the same old Paisley schtick right behind these overproduced sounds. The songwriting on this song irritated me more than the EDM. Paisley had a hand in writing each song except “Gone Green.” Perhaps it’s time he stops writing songs because he appears to be out of fresh and creative ideas. There are plenty of talented songwriters with fantastic songs just sitting on the shelf waiting to be picked up. So Mr. Paisley if you are reading this here is my advice: Go back to your roots. Make classic country again. Get the best songwriters in Nashville to write your music. This album will either be an anomaly in Paisley’s career or mark his downfall. Moonshine in the Trunk is a major disappointment and is easily the worst album Paisley has ever produced.

Grade: 4/10