Album Review — Aaron Watson’s ‘American Soul’

Aaron Watson is an easy artist to root for: he’s an underdog, self-funded, independent artist who is making an honest push to become a more mainstream, household name. He managed to make “Outta Style” into a minor hit. I came across him with his album The Underdog and was later impressed with his album Vaquero he released four years ago and while the later is a bit bloated, it still holds up as a solid and enjoyable album. Both albums are the kind of breezy and melodic country music you can both appreciate and see having wider appeal too. That’s a tough balancing act to pull off. Very few artists managed to strike a balance between high quality and appeal. And from what I see, Watson seems like a very nice and likable person.

With all that being said, he’s lost me since the release of Red Bandana. It’s a corny and contrived album that annoyed me from the very first listen. I never got a chance to properly review this album, but it was one of my least favorite releases of 2019. The opening song “Ghost of Guy Clark” sees Watson seemingly anointing himself as a torchbearer of Clark, which is so condescending and dishonest. I mean he does this and then he puts a song like “Country Radio” on the album later, something Guy Clark wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot writing pen and is a blatant attempt at radio attention. Clark was a songwriter’s songwriter and Watson is trying to be modern-day Brad Paisley, which isn’t a bad thing at all. But it’s nowhere near Clark. The whole record just feels so fake and tries so hard to be something it isn’t. So my hope with Watson’s new album American Soul is that it would be more like the other two albums.

Unfortunately it’s mostly more of Red Bandana. Watson tries to simultaneously be deep and radio-friendly, which again doesn’t jive together. Opener “Silverado Saturday Night” sounds like Watson is angling hard for a spot in a Chevy commercial. This song checkmarks every single cliché you can think of in a country song and is essentially bro country. No amount of fiddles and traditional country production can cover up for this lazy songwriting. If this song wasn’t so blatant with the clichés and took a more subtle approach I would find greater appreciation. “Boots” does a better job in this regard: it’s your standard country love song, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with tropes. It has a nice hook, melody and this is more in line with what I like to hear from Watson. I can say the same of “Whisper My Name.” The song centers around reflecting on how so much has changed since a couple has fallen in love, but they still have that same fire of love towards one another. It utilizes it’s imagery well and the fiddles mash up with the electric guitars to create a catchy rhythm.

“Best Friend” is the kind of overly sappy songwriting that makes me gag. Even worse it promotes the weirdly obsessive pet ownership culture that pervades nowadays (the term “fur baby” makes me cringe). This song is definitely not for me. “Long Live Cowboys” is the standard generic country song that fetishizes a cowboy culture that never existed (the stuff you see in those Hollywood movies that are based on the false stories of Wyatt Earp). These types of songs usually appeal to the “look how country I am crowd.” They typically like to dress up in cowboy boots and hats at country concerts. Watson once again tries to see how many country tropes he can jam into a song on “Stay.” This is cheap radio bait where I’m once again supposed to overlook it because it has a fiddle.

The album’s title track might as well be a post-9/11 Toby Keith, ‘Murica song. It would fit in nicely right next to his patriotic schlock. What’s frustrating is Watson did a much, much better version of this with “They Don’t Make Em Like They Used To.” This song has the emotional sincerity and songwriting depth of a Made in China, American flag t-shirt sold in Walmart. Also I think it’s much more American to hate the Cowboys and Yankees rather than to cheer for them. Watson does thankfully manage to deliver one more quality song on this album in “Out of My Misery.” It’s easily the best on the album, as the song intimately details the crushing heartbreak of a man pleading to his woman to show him mercy and come back for one night of love before leaving him for good. Watson does a great job of showing the desperation of the man and how much this breakup is hurting him. This is the kind of songwriting that made me a fan of Watson in the first place.

“Touchdown Town” is a hackneyed celebration of Friday night high school football that happens in every small town across the nation. As someone who comes from one of these towns, I understand the appealing escapism of high school football and understand why it’s glorified in songs. But it makes me cringe when I hear and see it celebrated so much too because it’s often at the expense of things that should matter. Not to mention the toxic underside of high school football culture is never addressed in these songs: the cover up of sexual assaults, illegal gambling, jock culture often leading to bullying culture and the long-term effects of head injuries sustained from playing the sport. And I can appreciate the sentiment of seeing your father as a hero on closing song “Dog Tags.” The same can be said of the brave men and women who serve this country. They’re absolutely more deserving of being seen as heroes rather than movie stars. But once again these rah rah patriotic country songs are beaten like a dead horse. It feels less like genuine appreciation and more like further exploitation of patriotic imagery in the cheapest way to form a connection with the listener.

Aaron Watson’s American Soul offers little substance and depth. Instead it’s just several cheap, plastic attempts at it. I know this is a pretty harsh review, but I’m not going to hold back my criticisms when Watson’s shown many times before he’s capable of doing much better. While getting radio play is something every artist wants, it should not come at the expense of quality and at this point it clearly is for Watson. I hope Watson delivers something better on his next album, as I would rather be cheering for him instead of jeering him.

Avoid It

Review – Billy Currington’s “Drinkin’ Town With A Football Problem”

Billy Currington Summer Forever

To say Billy Currington has turned into a disappointment is an understatement. In the mid to late 2000s, I was quite a fan of the music Currington was making, with such notable singles like “Good Directions” and “People Are Crazy.” But ever since the bro country wave hit the genre, Currington has been steadily going downhill with his music quality. It started with “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer,” a passable song with bro country tinges. Three years later it turned into his worst single, “Hey Girl.” Now I know a lot of fans don’t hold this song under the fire like a lot of other bro country songs, but to me this song didn’t get jeered enough. His latest single, “Don’t It,” was a mediocre and forgettable song. Yet, it topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart. In fact it was his ninth career airplay #1. That being said his newest album Summer Forever has experienced subpar sales and less staying power on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart than Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Django & Jimmie album. And who’s the one with radio support again?

I think it’s obvious that Currington’s days in the spotlight are starting to wane. His singles continue to spiral downward in quality and his sales are nothing to brag about. If his label Mercury Nashville thought highly of him and his drawing power, then they wouldn’t have released his new album in June. It would have been in April or May. His last single, “Don’t It,” took several weeks to finally climb up the charts and just barely got to #1. I don’t expect his future singles to be any different, including his newest single “Drinkin’ Town With A Football Problem.” Just by looking at this title I could tell this was going to be a cliché filled song and I wasn’t wrong. Right off the bat this song takes on an annoying tone with shouts of “hey y’all.” It gets my attention, but not in a good way. It makes me want to turn the station or turn the song off instead of listening to it. Then you get lines like these, which populate the majority of the song:

Barhoppers, churchgoers
Marlboro Light smokers
Blue collar, red voters
Population 1,009

Ah! So it’s one of those songs where a bunch of stuff is listed and we’re supposed to relate to it because we’re all a bunch of clichés. Got it! It’s not like we haven’t heard this kind of song before. The main crux of this song and why all of these different things are listed is because it’s about small towns who love to drink and watch high school football. Again it’s not like we haven’t heard this song before. For those who aren’t picking up on my sarcasm or clicked the links, the songs I linked are Kenny Chesney songs, “American Kids” and “The Boys of Fall.” I’m not picking on Chesney here, but “Drinkin’ Town With a Football Problem” sounds like those two songs combined. I’ve talked about my “meh” feeling on “American Kids,” but let’s talk about “The Boys of Fall.” I absolutely can’t stand this song or any song that glorifies high school football. As someone who grew up in a town that is like the one in these songs, it’s a sickening theme to hear glorified because it’s just so easy and overhyped. But gullible mainstream listeners eat this stuff up.

Pretty much every country song about high school football is eye-roll inducing, bro chest thumping, douchebaggery that paints this happy, Mayberry-like picture of high school football. It talks about how important it is to the town and how these young men are learning such valuable lessons. I’m sure it does, but we all know that a lot of high school football isn’t like this. Yet, “Drinkin’ Town With A Football Problem” furthers this narrative. That’s why I was happy last year when Canadian country artist Kira Isabella released the song “Quarterback.” This song was about how the high school quarterback was a rapist and how his status protected him from being apprehended for his actions. Of course it didn’t take off here in the States because we’re not allowed to soil the sanctity of high school football. I’ll step off the soapbox now. Bottom line: these songs about the glorification of high school football are overdone and lack creativity. “Drinkin’ Town With A Football Problem” is no different.

The only thing I like about this song is the instrumentation, which at least has a nice pop country sound. It at least sounds like it belongs on country radio and doesn’t try to be an EDM or R&B song. The guitar play is on point and doesn’t drown out Currington’s voice too. So I’ll give credit in this area. Other than that this is pretty much another forgettable single from Currington. It was chosen because it’s a really safe choice. These types of songs have been proven hits for country artists for years and I expect this song to be no different. It’s slowly inching its way up the airplay chart, similar to “Don’t It.” I’ve given up on Currington producing quality music, as his latest album Summer Forever and this new single show that he just doesn’t care about putting out good music anymore. “Drinkin’ Town With a Football Problem” is just another song on the mainstream country conveyor belt and I don’t recommend listening to it. There are much better songs that deserve attention.

Grade: 4/10

Album Review – Easton Corbin’s ‘About To Get Real’

Easton Corbin About To Get Real

If you were born with a golden voice tailor-made for country music, wouldn’t you use it for good? Most people aren’t born with a fantastic voice like country artist Easton Corbin. As I’ve said on the site before, the first time I ever heard Easton Corbin’s voice I thought it was George Strait. There aren’t many country artists upon first listen I like to King George. Yet ever since Corbin’s debut single “A Little More Country Than That,” I’ve been consistently disappointed with his output. For the most part it’s been bro country, checklist songs that Corbin is way above in terms of talents. He could tackle almost any country song he wants and instead we get singles like “All Over The Road” from him. With his new album About To Get Real, I was hoping it would be a return to what made me originally a fan of his. But at the same time I expected some good songs that are completely overshadowed by mostly bad songs. Unfortunately it’s the latter.

The album kicks off with “Kiss Me One More Time,” a pop country love song. The instrumentation reminds me a lot of Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It,” which isn’t a good thing. If this had more steel guitar and less drum loops, I might like the instrumentation. The lyrics aren’t that bad, although the line about their love being sweeter than “honey or homemade line” is cringe-worthy. This song is just decent, but what’s scary is this is one of the better tracks on the album. The next song “Guys And Girls” is one of the worst songs on the album. It’s straight out of the bro country playbook, as the song is about defining what guys and girls do to each other. Thrown in-between this is every bro country cliché you can think of. Seriously give it a listen and I don’t think Corbin missed one bro country trope. From the moonlight to a truck to a small town, it’s all there. This song is just pathetic in every way, especially coming from Corbin.

Speaking of pathetic, next is the completely forgettable “Clockwork.” If you recall this was released as a single in early 2014 and it couldn’t even crack the top 30 of neither the Billboard Country Airplay chart nor the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart. Corbin and his label should have just trashed this pop country love song and left it off the album. There are several bad songs on About To Get Real and “Diggin’ On You” is certainly one of them. It’s your standard pop rock, bro country love song. Sure it isn’t offensive lyrically, but it’s just a “been there and heard it,” type song that if you don’t hear you won’t miss anything. Corbin’s most recent single, “Baby Be My Love Song” follows this. I reviewed this song several months back and I still don’t like it. From my review: It sounds like a country song for the most part, with some pop elements fused into it to help draw the mainstream crowd to this song. Corbin’s voice is as great as ever, as there isn’t any auto-tune or other machines altering his voice. Unfortunately the lyrics for this song are…..well for the lack of a better word, horrible.

The album’s title track is Easton Corbin’s take on a “sexy time” R&B-influenced country song. The most prominent instrumentation to me on this album was the drum loops, which on a country song shouldn’t be the case ever. Sure there’s an electric guitar and piano sprinkled in a little, but it feels like that was by accident more than anything. This song is only a little over three minutes, but it feels longer because I find myself getting bored listening to it. “Yup” is another song where Corbin frustrates the shit out of me. This is basically an alternate take of Joe Nichols’ “Yeah.” In-between Corbin singing “Yup” over and over, he’s singing about trying to get a girl drunk and you know of course what he’s going for. Can we stop centering songs on an alternative to the word “yes”?

The most country song on the album is “Wild Women And Whiskey.” You can actually hear pedal steel guitar and the piano. The instrumentation reminds me a lot of what you would hear in a late 90s country song. There’s just one problem: the lyrics. It’s a pretty checklist song about…well wild women and whiskey. On top of that Corbin name-checks Alan Jackson and George Strait at the beginning of the song. If only he followed the examples they set. “Are You With Me” is another one of the better songs on the album, as it’s a love song where Corbin sings of trying to see if the woman is on the same page as him. The lyrics could have been better, but this is the best-written song on the album. Sure it’s not that creative of a song, but it’s decidedly country and mostly avoids annoying clichés. Unfortunately it’s buried towards the back of the album; so don’t expect it to be released as a single.

Easton Corbin takes a page out of the Chase Rice playbook on “Damn Girl.” I could just tell from the title that I would cringe throughout this song and I was right. It’s just another song about a guy picking a girl up at the bar and trying to take her home to have sex. “Just Add Water” is your standard summer checklist song. What? You couldn’t tell that from the title? It was pretty obvious from the title. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t Corbin’s next single or a future single, as country radio would eat this song right up. Maybe in my younger years I would have liked this song more, but I’ve heard so many of these songs that I’m just over them. I’m all for a summer country song, but this just doesn’t add anything to the mix.

About To Get Real closes out with “Like A Song,” one of the softer and more tender tracks on the album. Along with “Are You With Me,” this is one of the best-written songs on the album. Yes, it relies on the cliché of getting a woman stuck in your head like a song, but it works for the message of this song. It’s a heartbreak song where the man can’t stop thinking about his ex and is doing what he can to cope with his pain. This is the type of song that should make up the majority of Corbin’s albums because it truly showcases his talented voice. This is the kind of song that originally made me a fan of Corbin.

Coming into this album, I expected a mix bag from Easton Corbin. That’s exactly what Corbin delivers with About To Get Real. There are mostly bad and forgettable songs, but there are a couple of songs where Corbin shines and shows glimpses of his true potential. The pandering, bro country songs though ultimately bring this album down and make it disposable for the most part. Corbin was blessed with a golden voice, but unfortunately it’s wasted on terribly written music. I still stand by my original opinion of comparing his voice to George Strait, as he could easily be that type of artist for the next generation. But Corbin shows that he doesn’t want this by chasing trends all the time. Maybe one day he’ll wake up and give us his best. For now he’s just giving us his worst.

Grade: 4/10

 

Album Review – A Thousand Horses’ ‘Southernality’ Shows Glimpses of Southern Rock Potential

New country band, A Thousand Horses, formed back in 2010 and actually had a debut album released with DGC/Intersope Records. After that, the band signed with Republic Nashville in 2014 after the label’s president, Jimmy Harnen, listened to the band. Signing with the a major label certainly helped the band as their debut single, “Smoke,” topped the Country Airplay chart this year. Lead man Michael Hobby, and his band of Bill Satcher, Zach Brown, and Graham Deloach don’t necessarily build on the country sounds of “Smoke,” but bring forth a light, fun-loving southern rock approach to their major label debut, Southernality.

Immediately from the opening guitar riff of “First Time” you can hear the southern rock influence. A few seconds later, when the whole band kicks in, you might confuse this with a Black Crowes song. The keyboard guitar melody coming awfully close to the Black Crowes hit, “Jealous Again.” Here, A Thousand Horses rock out and sing of the single, one-night stand life until there’s a woman who steals his heart. “Heaven is Close” shows a bit more depth in the writing. It’s a song about finding freedom in the open road with the one you love. A Thousand Horses find a bit more originality in their sound, too, with the production on this track. “Heaven is Close” builds nicely from an acoustic first verse all the way to a polished electric guitar solo and a gospel like choir backing up Hobby’s vocals.

As Josh wrote about in his review for the band’s lead single, “Smoke,” the song was extremely safe and radio friendly with no edge or risks taken. And with the song squeezed between two fast paced southern rockers on the album, it doesn’t help the case for “Smoke” to stand out. “Travelin’ Man” carries an interesting production. The verses are well paced with the guitars and inclusion of a harmonica creating a western cowboy feel, but that’s abandoned with the sped up, chaotic chorus of heavy guitars and drums. The “Travelin’ Man” Hobby sings about is himself, tearing from town to town and how it’s hard to love this kind of guy.

“Tennessee Whiskey” is a more country, heartbreak song. His woman left him in South Texas, and he pines for Tennessee whiskey to calm his broken heart help get her off his mind. The song somewhat chronicles a journey from El Paso to Tennessee while he sings to the whiskey. The combination of steel guitars and electric guitars works well to create nice production for this countrified power ballad. I mentioned earlier that the first song of album had some sonic similarities to the Black Crowes. Well, A Thousand Horses wrote “Sunday Morning” with Rich Robinson, guitarist from the Black Crowes. It’s no surprise that this song also carries similarities to that band. The gospel like combination of rock and country in the chorus is fitting with the context of a woman who struggles to find joy, even with a Bible right in front of her. It’s a passionate song, and one of the album’s top tracks.

The title track is a clichéd country rock song about being from the south. At the first line, I knew exactly what was in store for us with this song, and I was ready to just skip ahead: “Yes sir, yes ma’am, talk with a drawl.” It’s just another list of how southern people are. “We say what we mean, gonna carve it stone. Yeah, these roots run deep down this old dirt road.” For being the shortest track on Southernality, it sure seemed like the longest. “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” is a rather safe pop country song. It’s a song about calling up an ex girlfriend and pining for one last chance to make things right between them. The production and melody sound familiar, very similar to “Smoke.” This song is also slated to be the band’s next radio single, with an official release at the end of the month. Even with all the southern rock available to choose from, it looks like A Thousand Horses will be sticking with safe pop country for the radio charts.

“Landslide” is a southern rock anthem about being your own man. The first verse includes a slight at controlling label executives who “couldn’t hum a tune if it hit him in the eye.” But it’s not so much of a protest song as it is a prideful anthem of being yourself in the face of others who want you to do things their way. However, ironically, it relies on clichéd country buzzwords like “southern soul” and “dirt roads” to describe where their identity and attitude comes from. “Back To Me” is a more acoustic ballad where Hobby sings of longing for his girl back. She’s run off to chase her dreams and he feels that he can set her heart free.

“Trailer Trashed” is about…you probably guessed it. It’s a prideful, rocking anthem about hillbillies partying. The song is shallow, and there’s not much more to say. It’s a song I wouldn’t be surprised to hear The Cadillac Three sing. “Hell On My Heart” is another power ballad where Hobby sings of the pain of loneliness and guilt. She left him without any answers, but it’s suggested that his reckless way of life that caused her to leave. He wants to try to change to get her back, because her leaving is hell on his heart. Southernality concludes with a pop country ode to a small town, hometown called “Where I’m Going.” It’s the place where everyone knows everyone, where there’s only one red light and one radio station. It’s a typical coming back home song and loving the simple things about it.

Just like their first major label single, A Thousand Horses’ major label debut album is rather middle of the road. It rises and falls from one track to the next. Southernality has moments where the band has some great, original material, and other times where they rely too much on cliché lyrics and stories. The production is slick, polished, and balances the rock and roll with country nicely. Michael Hobby’s vocals are a nice fit with the southern rocking melodies. Overall, Southernality just bounces too much between clichéd country rock and more original artistry. You usually get a little of everything in debut albums like this, in an attempt to see what fans gravitate towards. So we may have to wait for another album or EP before we can really see if A Thousand Horses is a great new addition to southern rock, or if they’re just a loud, noisey country rocking band spitting out clichés and fluff. It’s hard to tell from Southernality.

Grade: 5.5/10

Review – Randy Houser’s “We Went”

Even though Randy Houser has been making music for nearly seven years, it wasn’t until his third album, How Country Feels, that Houser found a place in the upper tier of country acts. That album produced four straight top five singles for Randy Houser, with two number one songs in “How County Feels” and “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight.” Needless to say, cashing in on bro-country helped reignite Houser’s career, and he doesn’t appear to be hopping off that train anytime soon. Randy Houser’s new single, “We Went,” is your everyday, typical bro-country anthem.

What makes Randy Houser stand out from other solo male acts is the mere fact that he has a powerful, booming voice. Houser’s previous single, “Like a Cowboy,” is an excellent showcase of his vocal capabilities, and that isn’t lost in “We Went.” Houser’s producers know his voice is the main selling point for his songs, and they give Randy some moments to show off his pipes. However, a good vocal performance isn’t enough to cover for the tired, clichéd lyrics that plague the song.

When you summarize and take the song on the surface level, it’s actually kind of funny how many similarities there are to Luke Bryan’s new single, “Kick the Dust Up.” It’s a boring night in small town so Houser and his lady want to go out to the corn to make their own excitement. The similarities don’t stop there, just read these lyrics from the opening verse: “Foot on the gas, ready and throwing up a little dust like a pick up truck does in the mud.” I don’t think it’s coincidental that there’s an ode to dust being kicked thrown up. Also, his lady is turning him on, and Randy Houser is oh-so descriptive in that area. “Nobody knows how to get me going quite like you do when you do the things you do.” That couldn’t be any more vague or stupid. Toss in some lines about fogging up windows in place no one else knows and la-di-da, you have a country song in 2015.

There’s a small reference to being on the run from the cops in an attempt to give this song a little edge, but the focus of the song is without a doubt the 2015 checklist to ensure radio play. The production of the song is quick with the verses and choruses running together without any room to breathe until after the bridge. The quick succession sort of fits with the heavy guitars and “edginess” of the lyrics, but it doesn’t work. Also, don’t forget how a steel guitar is randomly placed in the solo to remind you this isn’t a pop rock song. The production is just all over the place. If it’s any consolation, How Country Feels is an album with some pleasant deep cuts among the bro-country singles released to radio. I think one can reasonably assume that Houser’s upcoming album should provide a similar variety. “We Went” is a shallow offer of bro-country from Randy Houser.

Grade: 3/10