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

Album Review – Ronnie Dunn’s ‘Tattooed Heart’

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If you’ve followed Ronnie Dunn’s career in recent years, especially on social media, you would find that this is an artist who has no idea how to deal with being out of the spotlight and being in the back nine of his career. It’s something I’ve talked about a lot on my blog regarding older artists facing the reality that they’re no longer in their prime and have to accept fading into the background in favor of younger, more marketable artists. I’m not saying that this is fair and in fact I’ve argued against the ageist radio system in older artists’ favor. I’m just pointing out reality. Dunn has accepted this at times and other times doesn’t seem to accept it so much. He’s argued for traditionalists and he’s argued for more modern sounds. Long story short he’s been really inconsistent. So it’s no surprise on his new album Tattooed Heart that he’s once again inconsistent and seems to hedge his bet between traditional and modern, leaning more towards the latter many times on this album.

There are many things I find wrong with Tattooed Heart, but before I get to that there are some songs Dunn gets right. One of these times is “I Worship The Woman You Walked On.” The song is about a man speaking to the ex of his current love and telling him about how he’s now loving the woman he had walked on before. He explains how he appreciates her the way he never did. The song importantly comes off more as empathetic rather than vengeful, which it easily could have. Another good song from Dunn is “Only Broken Heart in San Antone.” If there’s one theme Dunn can nail it’s heartbreak and he does it on this song. The song has a very cool and easy-going feeling about it, but this also perfectly encapsulates the loneliness of the broken-hearted person who can only see lonely in a moment of heartbreak. This song also features the most pedal steel guitar of the entire album, which would have really benefitted other songs. The only song to feature any fiddle on the album is the final song “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More.” It’s a song about heartbreak and wanting not only a shot of alcohol in this moment of pain, but classic country like Strait and Jones. This a solid song, but it unfortunately contradicts a lot of the rest of the album.

I originally praised “Ain’t No Trucks in Texas” and after giving it fresh re-listens it just doesn’t resonate as much with me and suffers from much of the same problems I have with “Damn Drunk” and that’s it’s overuse of clichés. While they’re used to get the overall point of the songs across, they each get tiresome with more listens due to these very same clichés. They’re not necessarily bad songs, but clunky and lazy and with more effort could have been good songs. The clichés are most nauseatingly bad on “Young Buck.” This is essentially a letter written from an old bro to a new bro. It praises the cliché bro who drives trucks, chases girls and is the consummate “good ole American boy” according to this song. Songs like this make me gag because it frames reality like it’s some corny, drive-in movie from the 50s America.

You would think Reba’s guest appearance on a song would lead to something good, but “Still Feels Like Mexico” feels like the same old crap we’ve heard from Nashville pop from the synth-y production to the predictable beach love theme. This song is not much different from Luke Bryan’s “Roller Coaster” or Jason Aldean’s “A Little More Summertime.” In fact I would say it’s worse than those songs. Dunn probably should have taken the time to take cues from Reba’s latest album, which chases modern sounds a couple of times, but for the most part is decidedly Reba music that complimented her strengths and didn’t alienate her fan base. Or in Dunn’s case, doesn’t confuse the shit out of the listener, who I imagine expects more traditional country from him.

The biggest problem of this album is also it’s greatest irony. Older artists like Ronnie Dunn love to complain about pop artists like Beyoncé performing at country awards show and say that country can stand just fine on it’s own, yet on their albums have palpable, straight up pop influences. Take for example “That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels” and “I Put That There.” These are straight up pop songs and bad ones at that if I might add. So it’s okay to poorly steal from other genres, yet decry their artists? Once again the hypocriticalness and ineptness of the genre shines through. The hypocriticalness reaches critical mass on the title track, Dunn’s cover of Ariana Grande’s “Tattooed Heart.” It’s not that Dunn’s cover of this song is terrible, it’s just that doesn’t fit him and it’s a blatant attempt at crossover appeal and trying to be hip. It’s so transparent and not to mention is worse than the original version. This was a song meant to be sung from the point of view of a young woman, not a 63-year-old man. This old meme sums it up:

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Ronnie Dunn had a few good things going with Tattooed Heart and if he built on them this album could have been good. Instead like many other artists on major labels he falls prey to the lure of renewed fame and spotlight by chasing after modern appealing sounds and covering a pop starlet. Ronnie Dunn can do better and has shown this many times throughout his career in Brooks and Dunn. But he’ll never rediscover it if he continues to chase after something that just isn’t there anymore. You can’t rewind the clock and you can’t re-live the past. You can only move forward from where you’re at now.

Grade: 4/10

 

Recommend? – No

Album Highlights: Only Broken Heart in San Antone, She Don’t Honky Tonk No More, I Worship The Woman You Walked On

Bad Songs: Young Buck, That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels, I Put That There, Still Feels Like Mexico

Wallpaper: I Wanna Love Like That Again, This Old Heart


The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [November 1991]

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This is the Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country  Airplay Chart from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top 30 songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9[+4], 8[+3], 7[+2], 6[+1], 5[0], 4[-1], 3[-2], 2[-3], 1[-4], 0[-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past pulse of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Country Airplay Chart from November 9th, 1991.

  1. Alan Jackson – “Someday” +4
  2. Travis Tritt – “Anymore” +3
  3. Keith Whitley & Earl Thomas Conley – “Brotherly Love” +4
  4. Garth Brooks – “Shameless” -2 [Worst Song]
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “Like We Never Had A Broken Heart” +3
  6. Patty Loveless – “Hurt Me Bad (In A Real Good Way)” +3
  7. Marty Stuart – “Tempted” +1 (Love Marty, and the production was cool and different for 90’s country, but the lyrics aren’t great)
  8. Alabama – “Then Again” +2 (I like the restrained production here)
  9. Lorrie Morgan – “A Picture Of Me (Without You)” +3 (Solid George Jones cover)
  10. Joe Diffie – “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)” +2
  11. Randy Travis – “Forever Together” +2 (Not his best but still good)
  12. Ricky Van Shelton – “Keep It Between The Lines” +4
  13. Billy Dean – “You Don’t Count The Cost” +3
  14. George Strait – “The Chill Of An Early Fall” +4 [Best Song] (One of my favorites of his)
  15. Pam Tillis – “Put Yourself In My Place” +3 (Interesting production. I like the dobro)
  16. Reba McEntire – “For My Broken Heart” +4
  17. Little Texas – “Some Guys Have All The Love” +1 (Hook is a little corny for my tastes)
  18. Dwight Yoakam – “Nothing’s Changed Here” +3 (Dwight always delivers)
  19. Davis Daniel – ‘For Crying Out Loud” +2 (Don’t care for his voice that much)
  20. Clint Black – “Where Are You Now” +3
  21. Suzy Bogguss – “Someday Soon” +4
  22. Diamond Rio – “Mirror Mirror” +3
  23. Vince Gill – “Look At Us” +3
  24. Conway Twitty – “She’s Got A  Man On Her Mind” +3
  25. Lionel Cartwright – “Leap Of Faith”+1
  26. Brooks & Dunn – “My Next Broken Heart” +2
  27. Restless Heart – “You Can Depend On Me” -1 (Too cheesy for me and that falsetto is just….oof)
  28. Sawyer Brown – “The Walk” +3
  29. Steve Wariner – “Leave Him Out Of This” +3
  30. Doug Stone – “I Thought It Was You” +3 (It’s cheesy, but I like the sound enough to bump it up)

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +76

We usually have good weeks, but honestly there was a lot of true quality on this chart. There were A LOT of ballads which makes sense given the time of year. All in all I’m very happy with this chart.

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [March 2001]

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This is the past pulse of mainstream country music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country Airplay Chart (or, “Hot Country Songs” as it used to be called) from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top thirty country songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9 [+4], 8 [+3], 7 [+2], 6 [+1], 5 [0], 4 [-1], 3 [-2], 2 [-3], 1 [-4], 0 [-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past state of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week’s chart will be from March 31st, 2001.

  1. Diamond Rio – “One More Day” +3
  2. Jessica Andrews – “Who I Am” +2
  3. Toby Keith – “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This” +3
  4. Travis Tritt – “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” +3
  5. Faith Hill – “If My Heart Had Wings” -1 [Worst Song] (Overproduced and cheesy)
  6. Keith Urban – “But For The Grace Of God” +4 [Best Song] (Yes, Urban is rated higher than Strait, Tritt…etc)
  7. Brooks & Dunn – “Ain’t Nothing Bout You” +1 (Cool sound, not so cool lyrics)
  8. Kenny Chesney – “Don’t Happen Twice” +1
  9. Tim Rushlow – “She Misses Him” +4 (I really don’t like his voice, but I can’t deny this is a damn good song)
  10. Dixie Chicks – “If I Fall (You’re Going Down With Me)” +2
  11. Martina McBride – “It’s My Time” +2
  12. Trick Pony – “Pour Me” +2
  13. Tim McGraw – “Grown Men Don’t Cry” +2
  14. Lee Ann Womack – “Ashes By Now” +3 (Those bongos are pretty cool!)
  15. SheDaisy – “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me)” 0 (Yes, they used 4 instead of “for.” Why? I have no idea)
  16. Gary Allan – “Right Where I Need To Be” +3
  17. The Warren Brothers – “Move On” 0
  18. Jamie O’ Neal – “There Is No Arizona” +3
  19. Mark McGuinn – “Mrs. Steven Rudy” -1 (It’s catchy, but oh so creepy)
  20. Jo Dee Messina – “Burn” +1
  21. Phil Vassar – “Rose Bouquet” +3
  22. George Strait – “If You Can Do Anything Else” +3
  23. Pam Tillis – “Please” 0 (In terms of country, 0. In terms of pop I’d give this a solid +2)
  24. Garth Brooks – “Wild Horses” 0 (Not because I dislike the song, but because Garth can’t put the f***ing song on YouTube, or really anywhere for me to hear)
  25. Patty Loveless – “The Last Thing On My Mind” +3
  26. Sara Evans – “I Could Not Ask For More” +1
  27. Alan Jackson – “When Somebody Loves You” +3
  28. Montgomery Gentry – “She Couldn’t Change Me” +4 (This sort of describes me)
  29. Steve Holy – “The Hunger” +2
  30. Aaron Tippin – “People Like Us” 0 (Good sound, but I’m not a fan of the “I’m so country” lyrical template)

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +56

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [March 2008]

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This is the Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country  Airplay Chart from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top 30 songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9[+4], 8[+3], 7[+2], 6[+1], 5[0], 4[-1], 3[-2], 2[-3], 1[-4], 0[-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past pulse of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Country Airplay Chart from March 15th, 2008.

  1. Carrie Underwood – “All American Girl” +1 (Cliché, but the sound and vocals are good)
  2. Rodney Atkins – “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)” 0
  3. Alan Jackson – “Small Town Southern Man” +4 (One of his best in my opinion)
  4. Kenny Chesney & George Strait – “Shiftwork” 0
  5. Chuck Wicks – “Stealing Cinderella” +1 (cheesy as all hell, but it’s played with enough sincerity to work for me)
  6. Trace Adkins – “You’re Gonna Miss This” +4
  7. Gary Allan – “Watching Airplanes” +2
  8. George Strait – “I Saw God Today” +4
  9. Chris Cagle – “What Kinda Gone” +2
  10. Jason Aldean – “Laughed Until We Cried” +3 (Yeah, a positive Aldean score. I’m as shocked as you all are)
  11. Brooks & Dunn – “God Must be Busy” +2
  12. James Otto – “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” 0 (Eh…)
  13. Taylor Swift – “Picture To Burn” +1
  14. Phil Vassar – “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” +1 (Cheesy as all hell, but at least it sort of incorporates a story)
  15. Bucky Covington – “It’s Good To Be Us” -1
  16. Lady Antebellum – “Love Don’t Live Here” +3
  17. Kellie Pickler – “Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind” +1
  18. Joe Nichols – “It Ain’t No Crime” +1
  19. Jewel – “Stronger Woman” -1 [Worst Song] (Man, never heard a song by here before. Don’t care for her voice at all. Plus the song is too preachy for me. Sorry)
  20. Jake Owen – “Somethin’ Bout A Woman” 0
  21. Dierks Bentley – “Trying To Stop Your Leaving” +3
  22. Josh Turner & Trisha Yearwood – “Another Try” +4 [Best Song]
  23. Garth Brooks & Huey Lewis – “Workin’ For A Livin'” +2 (Yes, I’ve heard this Garth song)
  24. Ashton Shepherd – “Takin’ Off This Pain” +2
  25. Jack Ingram – “Maybe She’ll Get Lonely” 0
  26. Rascal Flatts – “Every Day” -1
  27. Brad Paisley – “I’m Still A Guy” +2
  28. Montgomery Gentry – “Back When I Knew It All” +3
  29. Josh Gracin – “We Weren’t Crazy” +2 (Yes, people on country radio used to sing from the perspective of ONCE being young instead of pretending they’re still young…)
  30. The Eagles – “Busy Being Fabulous” 0

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +45

So yeah this kind of a weird week. On one hand, there’s a plethora of great songs. Even compared to some charts in the 90’s I’d say there’s more good songs here. In other words, quantity versus quality. In fact, picking the best song was absolutely brutal.

The problem is that there’s also a lot of mediocrity here. Nothing inherently terrible or anything, but there are too many songs that play it safe here and don’t really stand out that much. Still this is a damn good week. I’m happy with the results.

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!