Album Review — Luke Combs’ ‘What You See Is What You Get’

It’s hard to believe it was just over two years ago that Luke Combs made his entrance into the greater country music scene with his smash single “Hurricane” and now today is undeniably the biggest star in the genre. While I don’t see Combs as one of the best voices or songwriters in the genre, I understand (and enjoy) his appeal and see why he’s had such a meteoric rise: he has a humble, “aw shucks,” good ole boy persona who is undeniably country and even “paid his dues,” building up an impressive grassroots fan base as an indie artist before signing onto a major label. And I only see his star continuing to rise.

Combs made a pretty solid debut with his first album This One’s For You, adding even more quality songs on his deluxe version of the album. So I was eager to see if he could top his debut effort with his sophomore album What You See Is What You Get. Unfortunately he doesn’t and right away before even listening to the album, seeing the track list at 17 songs struck me as a red flag. In today’s streaming world, it’s easy to see this as a label decision to stuff the album to milk streaming numbers (hip hop is especially infamous for this tactic). I also rarely find that albums of this length are able to maintain a high level of quality throughout, as almost all of these albums have filler stuffed in the middle. Before I touch on this more though, the album starts off pretty good.

Opening song and lead single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is a solid and catchy country rocker. It’s well-treaded territory in country music: an ode to beer over girls that break your heart. Combs of course pulls this off thanks to having the persona I described above. It’s his “secret sauce” and why he’s risen in popularity above everyone else in country music. “Refrigerator Door” is a song about the sentimentality of all the pictures and magnets that adorn a refrigerator door and the nostalgia it generates within Combs seeing them. Again a solid song, it doesn’t blow me away. It’s a little predictable, but it also feels heartfelt.

“Even Though I’m Leaving” is very much along this same sentiment. You know right away somebody is dying in this song by the end of it, in this case the father. In comparison to other songs in this same vein, it’s not as meaningful and well written as Eric Church’s “Monsters,” but it’s also not so on the nose and cut and paste as Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes.” Still despite the predictable nature, I really enjoy the song, as it truly does tug at the heartstrings and resonates with the listener. “Lovin’ On You” is a fun and simple song that works because of Combs’ enthusiastic delivery. I feel like it’s one of the more overlooked songs on the album, but it shouldn’t because it’s actually one of the better ones.

“Moon over Mexico” is Combs’ take on a beach song and it’s just okay. The song is just a bit too sleepy for my tastes, as it just doesn’t really convey a beach feeling to me. And it’s kind of an overall awkward fit with Combs. “1, 2 Many” sees Combs joined by the legendary Brooks & Dunn and I fell in love with this song instantly. It not only fits Combs well, but bringing on one of the all-time great party country acts in Brooks & Dunn elevates this song from pretty good to memorably great. The energy of this song is infectious, the lyrics are catchy and the harmonies of the three at the end is the mighty exclamation point needed to cap this song off.

Unfortunately this is followed by easily the worst song on the album, “Blue Collar Boys.” I’m so sick of these songs about redneck boys versus city boys and preaching superiority over the other. It’s such a tiring, predictable and pretentious theme that even Combs with his endearing persona can’t pull it off. To all country artists out there thinking about doing these songs: Please stop! “New Every Day” is a song about learning from mistakes and breakups and becoming a better person as a result. It’s a great message and the instrumentation does a good job creating a reflective feeling to match the lyrics.

Remember what I said at the beginning of the review about long albums almost inevitably having forgettable filler? Well “Reasons” fits this description to a T. It’s bland and forgettable. “Every Little Bit Helps” is carried by Combs’ energetic delivery. It’s your standard, getting over you heartbreak country song, but Combs’ secret sauce comes through for him again. “Dear Today” allows the listener to hear Combs in a more stripped down environment and it sounds great. The only problem is it feels like a logical concluding track to an album, but instead it’s #11 out of #17 on this album. Cull this album down to 12 tracks and have this song as the closer and it’s without a doubt better than his first album.

The album’s title track is an anthem about Combs himself: who he is, what he stands for and how he doesn’t portray himself to be anything other than what he is. It feels like a genuine and honest declaration from Combs, which is refreshing because so many artists fail to pull off these type of songs because they tend to mischaracterize themselves. But Combs actually describes himself in the same way myself and I’m sure many others see him as through his music.

“Does To Me” was a song I was really looking forward to hearing thanks to the Eric Church feature, but after thoroughly listening to it I’m underwhelmed. I expected so much more out of this collaboration. The song is about finding more meaning in the little things in life than what other people do, but it just doesn’t do anything memorable with the subject matter. On top of it Church’s feature feels like a wasted opportunity, as he barely shows up for a few lines that I won’t even remember (Church also covered this topic better with “Some of It,” making this song worse). I would have rather heard both of them 50/50 on a song they wrote together, but I feel like the label forced Combs into pushing this album out too quickly that prevented this from happening.

“Angels Workin’ Overtime” has an enjoyable “honky tonk” vibe, but the premise/hook of the song makes me gag with how cliché and unoriginal it is. It’s like one of those throw pillows that says “Bless This Mess” or the stick figure family you see on the back of a car. It’s just so basic and empty! So I’m sure it will be a smash hit. The same came be said for “All Over Again.” It’s a song that blatantly placates the label with it’s pop country sound and it’s generic, “Hurricane”-like lyrics. Again this will probably be a hit, much to my chagrin when there’s so many other great songs on the album.

At least the album closes with two great love songs in “Nothing Like You” and “Better Together.” The former song’s subdued nature allows Combs’ passion to shine through in the lyrics, while the latter utilizes the piano well and once again allows Combs’ vocal performance carry the song. But once again I have to question the track placements: Why put two quite similar songs back-to-back to close the album? It just cheapens the impact of both songs on the listener. Again I really enjoy both songs, but they shouldn’t be right next to each other on the album.

While Luke Combs doesn’t deliver a bad album in What You See Is What You Get, I can’t help but overall feeling like this album is a missed opportunity for Combs to deliver something great. If this album was a more reasonable length and if the fluff and bad songs were cut, this album could have easily been one of the top ten country albums you’ll hear this year. So while I wouldn’t call this album a sophomore slump, it’s certainly no slam dunk either.

Grade: 6/10

A Quick Note!

Hi all! Thank you for stopping by and reading! I just wanted to drop a quick note about the lack of posts. I’ve been absolutely swamped with real work, so this has prevented me from writing here. Hopefully I can be back ASAP! There’s a few reviews I’m itching to write! But I just wanted to let you know what’s happening. At the latest I’ll return with new posts after Thanksgiving. Thanks for the patience!

Josh

Album Review — Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’

What can I say about Kanye West that you haven’t heard from somebody else already? There isn’t, so let’s just cut to the chase: his newest album Jesus Is King. With this new album Kanye goes gospel and has said that he’s done with secular music and he’s not swearing in it either (there is zero cussing in this album). Yeah I’m sure this will stick, just like when he dropped Yhandi like he said he would last year. Nevertheless, let’s roll with it. Jesus Is King opens with “Every Hour,” which prominently features the Sunday Service Choir. It’s a passionate and uplifting performance from the group and while as a standalone song it doesn’t really work, it does work great as an album opener. So Kanye does establish the right mood for a gospel album.

“Selah” is Kanye’s fiery proclamation of being a born-again Christian and him giving himself over to Christ. And this is great for Kanye. But as for the song: it feels like it never really leaves first gear. It has an epic opening with the pounding drums and the Sunday Service Choir singing “hallelujah” in the background. It truly makes the song feel like something big. But nothing big ever really comes. The bars range from decent to mediocre and puzzling (I have no clue what he means when he raps “Everybody wanted Yhandi/Then Jesus Christ did the laundry”). It’s basically a half-finished song, which is a common theme on this album.

This continues on “Follow God.” I love the sampling of “Can You Lose By Following God” by Whole Truth, continuing Kanye’s excellent knack at picking samples. The beat is catchy, as well as Kanye’s flow. But the lyrics go nowhere, as it’s just Kanye rapping about talking with his dad and then really nothing after it. “Closed on Sunday” may be Kanye’s most cringe-inducing track of all-time, as the writing reaches an all-time low for him: “You my Chick-Fil-A/You’re my number one with the lemonade.” This is Luke Bryan-level rapping bad. Not to mention the production is weak and too minimalist. And why is he weirdly shouting out Chick-Fil-A at the end? Any other restaurant and I would say Kanye was being paid to say it, but I don’t think Chick-Fil-A needs any advertising to convince people to eat there. It’s delicious and it sells itself!

“On God” is another short song, but this one actually feels finished. But the lyrics are so contradicting. On one hand, West is rapping about being so thankful for God and then on the other he reiterates being the best artist of all-time, complains about how much he pays in taxes and then tries to justify why he charges so much money for his merchandise (for $150 you too can have a Kanye/Jesus sweater!). In the words of his dad on “Follow God,” that ain’t Christ-like. Hence why so many people like myself are 100% skeptical of the “new Kanye.” Thankfully it finally gets better on “Everything He Needs.” Ty Dolla $ign is smooth as silk on the hook, as he usually is on features. The harmonies of West, Ty and Ant Clemons sound great and give the song an appropriate uplifting feel to a song about being thankful for everything you have. It’s a solid and complete track, which is an accomplishment on this album.

Clemons has another great feature on “Water,” as he sounds better over West’s production than West himself. The same can be said of the choir. But West’s bars are lazy and short and he doesn’t even feel necessary on the song. So you’re left with a good hook, production and an unbaked overall concept. Again. “God Is” is one of the best songs on the album and shows Kanye at his best. It’s a genuinely inspiring gospel song where Kanye brings a lot of passion with his vocals. If he could have brought this level of energy and focus over the entire album, it would have been excellent just like this song. And it once again is a great sampling choice, this time “God Is” by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

“Hands On” is a rambling and quite frankly boring song where Kanye has the most basic and monotone flow. And the song goes on and on with Kanye rapping about being judged by Christians and asking for prayers. I’m not really sure Kanye was going with this song, but with what have it goes nowhere. It’s beating a dead horse, but this is what happens when you rush projects.

“Use This Gospel” is another big highlight on the album and that’s a big thanks to the excellent features. First is the reunion of Clipse, as both Pusha T and his brother No Malice kill their verses. It’s great to hear this duo together on a song again, especially No Malice, who left behind music to become a preacher and is the perfect feature for the album. Then Kenny G of all people comes at the end of the song and blows you away with a satisfyingly smooth saxophone solo. Again, when Kanye is focused it’s incredible how he can bring together several different elements and make them sound amazing.

Of course the album doesn’t end on this great note, but instead a mediocre interlude (calling it a song feels insulting) in “Jesus is Lord.” It’s completely pointless, but if you’ve listened to multiple Kanye projects and the rest of this album, you’re not surprised.

Kanye West’s Jesus Is King shows glimpses of being a great album. But ultimately Kanye didn’t spend enough time and focus on it to bring it together. So you’re left with several unfinished songs, ideas and largely great production that is wasted. There are enough good to great songs and moments on the album that make it worth checking out. But there’s also plenty of down moments that balances this album to overall being just bland and okay.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Miranda Lambert’s ‘Wildcard’

It’s been a lengthy break since Miranda Lambert released The Weight of These Wings and a lot has changed for her. But now she’s back with her new album Wildcard. One thing that immediately stands out about this album is the production, as it’s something I feel that is important to address up front. On her last album the production was headed up by Frank Liddell, while this time Jay Joyce takes over producer duties. Joyce’s production is something I’ve had my fair share of criticism for in the past, but lately I’ve largely enjoyed his work. Well you can put me back off the wagon because the production on this album is a mess.

It’s apparent right away with opening track “White Trash.” It’s a clunky mishmash of country, rock and pop, not quite deciding what it wants to be. Lambert’s voice sounds too clean and almost robotic. It becomes a running theme for a large part of this album: on paper this sounds interesting and good, but the execution and presentation is completely lacking and at times downright bad. This falls on Joyce. To make matters worse for this song the lyrics sounds like mediocre leftovers from a Gretchen Wilson album. It’s a been there, done a lot better type song.

“Mess with My Head” elicits pretty much the same criticisms. The lyrics are subpar and not interesting. Lambert’s voice is once again overproduced. It’s a shame because there’s elements I really enjoy in this song: the heavy reverb and the crunchy guitars in the bridge followed by the weird effects done to the steel guitar. “It All Comes out in the Wash” is Lambert’s kitschy side and this grinds my gears quickly. The laundry imagery evoked in the lyrics isn’t clever nor catchy. This reminds me a lot of “Little Red Wagon,” another song from Lambert I don’t like.

“Settling Down” features more mediocre production. It’s another song that just can’t decide on it’s sound and it feels like it’s just bouncing all over the place. It’s about Lambert trying to figure out where she stands in her relationship and unfortunately nothing of interest is offered in this questioning. It’s just a lot of clichés one goes through when having doubts in a relationship. I’m not really sure what “Holy Water” is about to be honest with you. Maybe salvation, yet the church is selling snake oil? I don’t really understand what this song is going for and if you have a clue feel free to enlighten me in the comments. And I’m not trying to be cynical here, but I just flat out don’t understand what it’s about.

Maren Morris joins Lambert on “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and it’s a song about women contemplating murdering their husbands for cheating on them. But they insist they won’t since they’re too pretty for prison. I’m of two minds with this song: On one hand I like the tongue in cheek nature and the funny lines (fifteen women having to share a bathroom and the “waxing situation”). I think Morris is a great feature choice too. But on the other hand I’m burnt out on these type of songs becoming hits for like a decade (mostly from Carrie Underwood, who usually went ahead with killing the man in the song). I wouldn’t mind this topic being retired for a while.

Now I know up to this point I’ve spent a lot of time tearing this album apart, but fortunately this album mostly takes a turn for the better in the second half, starting with “Locomotive.” It’s a really fun and playful love song about Lambert’s husband loving her, regardless of her reckless lifestyle at times. The rocking guitars and the bluesy harmonica, along with Lambert’s rapid delivery in the chorus make this an instantly catchy head nodder. “Bluebird” is about Lambert keeping her head up and using the hurdles of life being thrown at her as motivation. It’s a really well written message song and I enjoy the shimmery strings that are interluded throughout the song. It shows that when the production is properly executed on this album, it really lands well.

“How Dare You Love” is a bit saccharine for my taste and this is coming from someone who’s a sucker for sappy love songs. From the weak metaphors to the lacking hook, this song just sort of passes over me. “Fire Escape” is a love song that features some obvious influence in it’s sound from 80s rock ballads. That’s a good thing, as I really enjoy the rocking side of Lambert when it’s not overdone. The song has an almost smokey feel about it, which is appropriate for a song that frequently references fire.

The next two songs showcase Miranda Lambert at her worst and best respectively. “Pretty Bitchin'” is pretty terrible. What’s the woman version of bro country? Because this is it. The lyrics are extremely lazy, objectify looks and at times are just straight up filler and non-sensical. “Yeah life’s pretty weird, life’s pretty great/Life’s pretty good if you live it/1, 2, 3 Mississippi/Sitting pretty, damn pretty.” This is just complete bullshit. I expect better from Lambert. But then she delivers better with “Tequila Does.” In fact, it’s my favorite song on the album. It’s a catchy and clever song about Lambert’s love affair with cold drinks being stronger than any romantic relationship. I love the western influenced, yet funky sound, making it easily danceable. “All hat, no cattle” is also one of my favorite quips I’ve heard from Lambert.

“Track Record” is another classic rock influenced sounding song that Joyce nails. It reminds me of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” with it’s synth-y feel. The lyrics I dare say are even better, as Lambert candidly addresses her “checkered” track record with love and relationships, as she embraces who she is. This genuine honesty makes for a great song and why a lot of her last album really connected with a lot of people. Closing song “Dark Bars” is another great one. Lambert pours her heart out as she pours one out in a dark bar. The amount of detail of the bar and the mood hanging over it really immerses you in the setting and allows you to put yourself in Lambert’s shoes. It’s an enjoyably dark song that ends the album with a bang.

Wildcard basically lives up to it’s name, as it’s all over the place in terms of quality and style. The first half of this album is bad, while the second half is largely good. The production is very hit and miss, even though I can appreciate the attempted risks from Miranda Lambert and producer Jay Joyce. Overall the album is also too long and could have easily been culled down to ten tracks. It would have definitely helped the overall quality because when you weigh the good and bad against each other on this album, you’re ultimately left with a middle-of-the-road effort from Lambert.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Old Dominion’s ‘Old Dominion’

Four years ago Old Dominion released their debut album and to say they didn’t make a good first impression on Country Perspective is an understatement. But still even in hindsight I can say they deserved every bit of criticism they got. They seemed to take notice of the criticisms they received from reviewers too because their sophomore album Happy Endings was a noticeable enough of a step up in quality that I’ve quietly been anticipating this band’s third album. I’ve been hoping that the great glimpses of potential they demonstrated on that album would lead to a good third album. So do they accomplish this with their new self-titled album?

The album’s lead song and single “Make It Sweet” lives up to it’s name: it’s a pretty sweet sounding love song that’s both catchy and heartfelt. It may be a bit saccharine to some listeners, but for me it’s just right and it’s breezy, simple feel makes it an instantly likable song. “Smooth Sailing” is about seeking the more peaceful side of life and remaining upbeat in the face of negativity. Again the simple, singalong nature makes for another solid song. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s not a sentiment that needs overthinking.

“One Man Band” is a song about a lonely man seeking love. The lyrics are downtrodden, yet slightly hopeful and this feeling is conveyed perfectly in this song with the crisp and clean electric guitar lingering through the song and a surprisingly effective snap track that keeps the flow going. It’s one of the band’s best songs to date. Speaking of their best songs, you can add “Never Be Sorry” to that list too. This song instantly hooked me with it’s smooth and infectious sound (another one to add to the yacht country list). And it’s catchy due to it’s minimalist approach, showing you don’t need to go big to make a danceable song. Big props to producer Shane McAnally and the band for coming up with not just a great sounding song, but crafting lyrics that are just as hooky too.

The hot streak for this band continues with “My Heart is a Bar.” It’s another song with great lyrics, as it poignantly lays out the frustration and heartbreak of a man who’s always used as a rebound and the shoulder to cry on, but never the heart that is taken by someone else. What I love most about the lyrics are the way it balances the cynicism and sadness, which really allows anyone who has went through these emotions to be able to connect with it. Matthew Ramsey delivers a fantastic vocal performance here too, showing his growth as a frontman. Also the glimmery piano gives the song an appropriate “tear in my beer” feel.

“Midnight Mess Around” is a smooth and enjoyable sex jam that avoids the creepy pitfalls so many of these types of country songs fall into and has the right amount of playfulness and charisma to make it endearing to the listener. It’s even a bit soulful, which is something new from Old Dominion. “Do It With Me” is about a man pleading to a woman to love and be with him. So here’s a sentence I’ve never typed before: this song really utilizes it’s use of synths and a harp well. It’s weird, but it works! That’s the best way I could describe this track.

“Hear You Now” is your classic heartbreak regret song, where the man is eating crow for letting love slip through his hands. Once again the band displays quality songwriting chops with lyrics like “You used to wake me with a whisper but now the only voice is the pouring rain/And the echo of goodbye just rattles through my mind like a midnight train.” It’s understandable to debate the sound of this album being country at times, but you can’t dispute the country quality in lyrics like the ones above. “I’ll Roll” puts you in the mind of rolling down a desert road. At least the sound does, as it’s got that trippy desert feel thanks to a twangy telecaster. But I feel like the lyrics are lacking a bit and could do a better job of putting you in the mindset the song is going for, as they play it a bit safe.

“American Style” is easily the worst song on the album, with it’s cliché and lazy lyrics that are a dime-a-dozen in the pile of dime-a-dozen country songs about America and small towns. This is basically a smooth version of Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids.” It’s not egregiously bad, but these type of songs just bore me so quickly. “Paint the Grass Green” is about a man vowing to do whatever he has to do to keep the love strong in his relationship. On paper this song definitely seems too sweet and cliché, but then I listen and it surprisingly works. Just like “Make it Sweet,” this song has heart that shines through with it’s tone and presentation that wins you over.

The somber piano ballad “Some People Do” shows yet another side of Old Dominion to cap off the album, this time their most serious side. It’s about hoping and seeking forgiveness from someone you did wrong. Ramsey once again delivers a praise-worthy vocal performance, showing great vulnerability with his falsetto and conveying the appropriate amount of emotional depth needed to connect a serious piano ballad with the listener. If there’s one song I had to point to on this album to demonstrate how far this band has come, this would be the song.

With their self-titled album, Old Dominion officially sheds the bro country moniker that once plagued them. Old Dominion prove they now deserve to be taken seriously. This album shows incredible growth, depth and a nice balance of both serious and fun songs. The production is varied and shows this band is capable of delivering multiple styles. Most importantly this band has undeniably improved in all facets and dare I say positioning themselves as one of the best groups in mainstream country music. This album isn’t good, it’s great.

Grade: 8/10