The Hodgepodge: Dear Music Row, Call a Spade a Spade and Start Labeling Your Music Pop

This is probably a recycled thought/topic for this feature, but non-country “country” music has been on my mind all week. It all started with Maren Morris’ HERO. Another recent pop release wrapped up in the label of country music include Keith Urban’s RipcordLittle Big Town is stepping into true pop music with their upcoming project with Pharrell, Wanderlust. This is the direction mainstream country music appears to be taking if last night’s CMT awards are any indication. Little Big Town and Pharrell performed a pop song from Wanderlust. Cam performed with pop group Fifth Harmony, and Cassadee Pope sang backup to Pitbull. Over the years, we’ve seen pop acts like Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Nick Jonas, and Katy Perry all make appearances at “country music” award shows. And for good measure, country music sites like Taste of Country still haven’t let go of Taylor Swift, who officially moved to pop almost two years ago.

I’m not going to sit here and rehash complaints about how Nashville is killing country’s tradition. It’s dead, and I’ve accepted it. The Murder on Music Row has become a full-fledged massacre, despite Chris Stapleton’s best efforts. My plea today is for Music Row to stop calling this music country. Sam Hunt still isn’t country. Ripcord and HERO are not country albums by any stretch of the imagination. With all of their experiment’s with pop music, they’re starting to get it to sound good. Maren Morris and producer busbee have a good pop album on their hands with HERO. She delivers the songs well, with confidence and authenticity from Morris as a singer. And I’ll admit that I enjoy “80’s Mercedes” as a song. It’s a catchy, fun pop song. But let’s stop pretending this is country music; it’s not.

For the last few years, the only reason they defended it as country was due to the fact that the songs sucked, and wouldn’t stand a chance on pop radio. But if future albums follow HERO and turn out to be well-produced pop albums with good pop songs, then call it pop! There’d me no more shame! Everyone, including Thomas Rhett, knows “Vacation” is a joke and wouldn’t stand a chance on any respectable pop radio station, but country radio will play it because that’s where the spotlight hits the bottom of the barrel. Music Row has done everything it could to make country music a joke and piss on the graves of Hank, Cash, Waylon, and now Merle. But now it looks like they’re ready to put forth effort on the pop front. Maybe.

We’re still being treated to half-assed adult contemporary albums like Black, I’m Coming Over, If I’m Honest, and whatever Florida Georgia Line will do. “H.O.L.Y.” certainly paints a picture of an A/C album coming from the duo. I’d call that music closer to pop than country, but it certainly isn’t good. These are albums where no one included seems to care about the music being released. But it seems like their albums are serving as a stepping stone toward moving more in the pop direction.

So, Music Row, start moving your pop music away from the country music landscape so artists like Maddie & Tae, Jon Pardi, Chris Stapleton, and Kacey Musgraves can clean up the mess you’ve made. You’re way past the point of no return, and no one will take any of your b and c level pop singers (aka top “country” singers) seriously if they turn back to country. You’ve completely alienated many of the fans you’ve had at the cost of chasing after a different demographic – a demographic only interested in the hot trend and not the history of a beautiful genre of music. Stop giving this genre a bad name. By putting this music on national TV and calling it country, you’re letting these faces and songs represent the entire genre. Meanwhile, there are several artists like Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours, Margo Price, and Michaela Anne, to name a few, who are carrying the rich tradition of country music in their music. Let artists like that represent the name “country music” while you and your singers continue to do your pop music under a different name.

So call a spade a spade and, Music Row, start calling your music pop.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow, Brandy Clark‘s Big Day in a Small Town will be released.
  • Frankie Ballard‘s El Rio will also be released tomorrow.
  • Jon Pardi‘s California Sunrise will be released next week on June 17th.
  • Luke Bell‘s self-titled album will be released on the 17th.
  • Scott Low‘s The New Vintage will also be released on the 17th.
  • Hey everybody! Josh here with some album news I wanted to pass along to you. I saw Brandi Carlile a couple of nights back (excellent show by the way) and she revealed that they’re going to do a re-release of her most well-known album The Story next year, marking the 10th anniversary of the album. All of the proceeds for the album will be going to the Looking Out Foundation, which helps children who’s lives have been torn apart by wars. Carlile said she and the band won’t be performing the songs on the re-release, but rather a list of guests and friends. She also mentioned one of her idols will be performing the title track.

Throwback Thursday Song

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. You can never go wrong with Hank Williams. Despite what Music Row sells, there will always be someone out there respecting the music Hank made.

Non-Country Suggestion

“Hurricane Love” L.A. Woman. How many of you have heard of Cymbal? It’s a music social media app where you simply share a song with your followers, and you can play samples of the songs that are posted directly through the app. It’s a cool concept for an app, but I think it’s still rather new and used mostly on the indie circuit. This is a song I discovered through Cymbal.

Tweets of the Week: CMT Awards Edition

There was no reason to watch the CMT Awards after Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.” And there was no reason to watch before Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.”

iTunes Review

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This was left under Jon Pardi’s newest album. California Sunrise has the potential to be the best mainstream album released this year, and if the few songs pre-released are indication, then it could be in a conversation with this year’s best.

Note: The Hodgepodge will return in two weeks, as we will be featuring our mid-year best and worst posts next week.

Album Review – Thomas Rhett’s ‘Tangled Up’ May Be One of Country’s Worst Albums

Let’s just be honest here: Thomas Rhett’s accomplishments and notoriety in country music today are solely because his dad is Rhett Akins. Thomas Rhett is a mediocre vocalist whose debut album was nothing but generic pop and bro-country schlock. There was zero originality because Thomas Rhett is not an artist. He’s a puppet willing to sing whatever his label, Valory Music Company (a subsidiary of Big Machine), wants him to sing and become whatever persona his label wants him to be. In 2013, the money was in bro-country. Fast forward two years, bro-country has faded and the money is in R&B-influenced sounds that create funky, danceable beats. Rhett developed a professional crush on Bruno Mars and says he’s changed the trajectory of his career to emulate Mars’ style of music. Conveniently, that funk pop musical styling just happens to be what makes money for Big Machine these days. Combine that all together and we have Bruno Mars Thomas Rhett’s newest album, Tangled Up.

The album begins with a club beat called “Anthem.” Don’t be fooled, just because you’ll hear a banjo in no way makes this song country. Drum machine beats and hand claps are front and center in the production as Rhett merely narrates how the song works. He speaks, not sings, but speaks lines like “this is part where the bass gonna stop” or “You startin’ to feel the momentum build so bring it on back to the chorus” and my personal favorite line of the whole song “this is the verse where you don’t know the words and you don’t give a damn ’cause it feels good.” It’s almost as if the writers are blatantly making fun of the generation that buys into this shitty music simply because it’s a “good beat.” But don’t get me wrong, this song flat-out sucks. “Crash and Burn” follows. Josh sums the song up perfectly with this segment in the single review: “Rhett does not have the charisma and soul of Mars to pull the song off. You need a high energy singer with great chops to make this song great and Rhett simply doesn’t have that. I feel like the instrumentation swallows his voice on this song. You notice everything else on this song before Rhett’s voice.” You could take that first sentence and apply it to just about every song on the album.

Up next is perhaps the worst song of the album: “South Side.” Before we even get into the terrible funk music, we get a distorted computer voice in an English accent (why?) saying, “Please commence shaking your south side.” I fought every urge in my body to not skip this song the moment I heard that sentence. I knew from that the song to follow was going to be terrible, but I just had to listen to it to know how terrible. Firstly, the funk mixed with stupid banjos sounds a bit like “Kick the Dust Up.” Rhett, again, simply sings about how a beat makes people want to shake their ass. But the second verse of this song is probably the worst verse in country music:

Like Memphis, Tennessee, got in bed with CDB
And had a baby and when the baby cried
It made this sound, ain’t no lie it was funkified

ARE  YOU KIDDING ME?! Thomas Rhett claims his new “funkified” music is the love child of Memphis Soul and Charlie Daniels! There have been some terrible name drops in country music, but this one just may take the cake. This song deserves a dedicated rant on its own. Moving on before I throw my computer into a wall. We get the first song on the album that I can actually listen to without getting angry. “Die A Happy Man” is a blues inspired love song. The sentiment is there and it feels somewhat honest: even if he never travels to see the world, he’d still be a happy man as long as he has his wife. However, I’m still not crazy about the song. The lyrics are rather bland and clichéd as Rhett still paints a shallow picture of how his wife’s looks and sexuality are what brings him to his knees and makes it hard to breathe. Also, Thomas Rhett is not that good of a singer, and in “Die A Happy Man” you can hear him trying too hard to sound sultry and sentimental.

Tangled Up is an album chock full of ideas and sounds borrowed from others. No other song is as indicative of his lack of originality than “Vacation.” There are 14 credited songwriters for this train wreck. 14! But half of those songwriters come from the band War. Rhett wisely credits the band for the song because the beat of the verses is essentially the beat from “Low Rider.” The song is about a party at home, but the partygoers are acting like they’re on a tropical vacation. It’s stupid lyrics that Thomas Rhett poorly raps set to a borrowed beat. Even the second verse where Rhett raps about  a Walgreens beach chair and Busch Light sends the same simple life sentiment of Jake Owen’s “Real Life.”

“Like It’s The Last Time” is yet another generic pop country song about a party in a field. You have all the usual suspects here: Moonshine, trucks, raising cups up, hooking up with the girl you like, bonfires, generic mid-tempo guitars, pop beats, and an implication of Fireball shots. It’s just another song to add to the hundreds of corn field songs from the past two years. “T-Shirt” is a hookup song about a girl who keeps coming onto Thomas Rhett. Apparently the song depicts a couple who’ve had these rendezvouses before and vowed to stop, but obviously that doesn’t happen. It’s a boring up beat pop rock beat combined with terrible lyrics and bad vocals. “Single Girl” finds Thomas Rhett pleading to a single girl. He wants to be her man and Rhett, who doesn’t seem to understand the fact that people can be happy and satisfied while not in a relationship, questions why she’s single. He assumes that because she’s single that she’s lonely and that he can be the one to fix it. These assumptions are misguided, immature, arrogant and a little trashy.

Surprisingly, there’s an actual good song on this album. “The Day You Stop Lookin’ Back” is a song where Rhett sings to a girl with a broken heart. The lyrics are actually mature and respectful and the production is more organic with an acoustic guitar and very little pop effects on the drums. Rhett encourages her to stop letting a past heartbreak get the best of her because once she stops looking back, she can then move on. It’s not a great song, but compared to most of the garbage on this album, it sounds pretty good. But we return to the crap with the title track, “Tangled.” This song is straight disco with a backing vocal effects and auto tuned, funky keyboard notes, heavy drum beats for dancing, and a funk inspired guitar. The lyrics are just another song of how Thomas Rhett enjoys being with some female because of the way she loves him physically. “Tangled” is a good reminder of how poorly Thomas Rhett sings.

Another good reminder of Thomas Rhett’s poor vocal abilities can be found in “Playing With Fire.” Rhett sings this song as a duet with American Idol’s Jordin Sparks. She is a much better singer than Rhett. Her lone verse is a better vocal performance than the rest of the album, and she’s even under utilized. Sonically, it’s 100% a pop ballad, but not a bad one at all. Lyrically, it depicts yet another rotten hookup relationship where both parties know it’s bad for them. However, they give into those impulses because they love playing with fire. Thomas Rhett also collaborates with Lunchmoney Lewis on “I Feel Good.” This is a lyrical mess of random nothingness. It starts out describing a scene that would have belonged in “Vacation” then finds Rhett driving in his car celebrating the fact that he got paid. The lyrics of this song don’t make any sense, and Lunchmoney Lewis’ rap breakdown doesn’t help this stupid funk song at all.

Tangled Up finally comes to an end with “Learned It From The Radio.” This is a song where Thomas Rhett thanks Dallas Davidson, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line for teaching him how to be a cliché. “How to wake up, how to work tough, how to roll up those sleeves. How to throw down, how to get loud, and what to put in that drink. To give the stars in the sky a little halo, I learned it from the radio.” It’s every cliché list item from 10 years of mainstream country reworked into this narrative of “how I learned this, how I learned that.”

This album is a mess and shouldn’t even be called music. The songs that combine country sounds with funk sounds are just a hodgepodge of noise that would make a deaf person cringe. The actual funk, disco, R&B songs are shitty and Bruno Mars himself wouldn’t even try to record that mess. Mainstream country isn’t exactly moving away from bro-country. Sure, these songs aren’t pop rock corn field parties, but the lyrics are still the same trashy immature sentiments meant to boost bravado and masculinity. Tangled Up is an embarrassment to country music, it’s an embarrassment to funk and it’s an embarrassment to music in general.

Grade: 0/10

Album Review – Kip Moore’s ‘Wild Ones’ is Mainstream Country’s Best Rock Album

Kip Moore is much more of a natural rocker than many of his country counterparts, save for maybe Eric Church. But even after Moore’s debut album Up All Night, there are comparisons being made to the likes of Springsteen more so than Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean. Even seeing Moore live in concert (back when “Young Love” was his radio single) proved that rock music was better suited for Kip’s voice, and Kip and his team have tapped that side for his newest album, Wild Ones. This is not a country album by any means; it’s a rock album, but a fairly decent one if I do say so myself.

Wild Ones kicks off with the roaring title track. This song is simply about how Kip Moore and his friends like to party on the weekends. Content wise, this song offers nothing new, but one of Kip Moore’s strengths as a songwriter is that he tells these familiar stories from different angles. There’s no mention that the wild ones are partying on tailgates or back roads, they’re just partying somewhere and having fun. The beat picks up a little bit with “Come and Get It.” Here Kip is thinking about his woman and wants to have that passionate time with her. I like the production behind Moore’s vocals; the guitars layer steadily as the song rises and peaks at the bridge. You can tell there was some thought put into the music.

Kip sings of summer love in “Girl of the Summer.” In this familiar tale, summer has come to an end and the girl in this summer fling has left him without a trace. Kip reminisces of the times they made out in a photo booth, drove with the windows down, and sneaking into junkyards for a late night rendezvous. “Girl of the Summer” has a slower tempo in the verses that rises to an anthemic chorus. Again, this is a frequent story out of Nashville, but Kip adds enough of his own flair to the story for it to have some originality. “Magic” is a love song where Kip thinks her kisses and touch are more magical than any fairytales or TV magicians could create. The production in this song has a sort of fantasy feel to it which is a nice fit given the title. This song seems like a filler song. It’s not bad, but there’s nothing in the song that makes it stand out.

“That Was Us” is mid-tempo rock song with what sounds like a pop drum loop included in the mix. Similar to “Wild Ones”, this song depicts a couple of buddies who let it loose on the weekends and aren’t afraid to drink, smoke, fight, and make love. The song depicts a short timeline with actual character names as they meet and find love. But the third verse finds Kip and his friend hunting down an abusive boyfriend of a female friend until they’re pulled over by the “blue lights.” There was some effort put into telling more of a story here, but like many of the songs here, it’s not all that original. After this is the hard rocking “Lipstick.” This is a song that doesn’t have much of a story or that good of lyrics, but the rock production is awesome. Simply, Kip says he’s been everywhere and will travel anywhere to meet his lady and kiss her lipstick. The verses simply list place after place from Texas to Wisconsin and California to New York. The purpose is achieved after the first verse, yet we’re still treated to two other verses that name more places for no real reason. However, the lead guitar lick helps create an infectious melody behind Moore’s voice.

Kip experiments with an 80s inspired rock melody with “What Ya Got On Tonight.” While Kip travels and meets other beautiful women, he continues to think of the one who has his heart and wonders what she’s wearing. The lyrics are shallow, but again, the production is great and helps cover up for the lyrics. However, Wild Ones, turns the corner at this point and starts to have a bit more variety with lyrical content. “Heart’s Desire” shows Kip Moore in more desperate light after a relationship goes south. He’s a mess because he knows he messed up, but her love is still his heart’s desire. Kip Moore’s raspy voice aids in his delivery as he tries to make it through while still wanting her love to come back to him.

Next is one of the best songs on the album, “Complicated.” This is a love song, but it’s not a pretty fairy tale love. It’s a more realistic look at love with two imperfect people making it work through life’s twist and turns. “All I know sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, but what good’s love if it ain’t a little complicated? No it don’t always go like you always hoped it would, but sometimes complicated is pretty damn good.” I like the way the story is laid out and pop rock production makes song even more appealing and easy to listen to.

This is followed with the album’s lead single, “I’m To Blame.” From my review of the song: “The lyrics are pretty safe, and average for a country ‘bad boy’ song. They aren’t offensive, but nor are they groundbreaking, original, or inspired. ‘I’m To Blame’ is a short, catchy jam coming in a quick 2:14 for its run time. He doesn’t waste time with guitar solos in the song; the lyrics are packed in tightly.” Curiously, another song about Kip Moore being himself regardless of anyone else’s opinion follows. “That’s Alright With Me” finds Kip telling us, again, that he likes to drink, smoke, likes good-looking women, and makes no apologies for who he is or what he does. While the content of the verse of these two songs show different sides of Kip Moore, the messages are essentially the same. “That’s Alright With Me” seems like another filler song, and I think it’s placement in the track list was poorly thought out.

Kip offers up another pop rock love song in “Running For You.” Moore has fallen for a girl who wants to run off and chase her dreams wherever the wind blows her toward. Unfortunately for him, he’s unable to travel alongside her, but he knows she needs to go, and let’s her. But his vow to her is that he’ll be there for her when she needs him to. While the production on this song is more on the generic side, this song probably has the best lyrics on the album. The album ends with “Comeback Kid.” This slow-tempo rock song is about how Moore may not be the best right away; he always bounces back and never gives up. He’s thankful that his love continues to have faith in him. It’s a nice song with an honest delivery from Kip Moore.

Like I said above, Wild Ones is a rock album, not southern rock, just plain rock and pop rock. And as a music album I do like it. There were songs with a good rock production that was enjoyable to listen to, and songs where the lyrics and stories stood out more. Even the songs with familiar stories seemed fresher. Kip Moore and his writing team put more thought into these songs than you’d find on many other mainstream “country” albums. Even Moore’s song “Backseat” (which you’ll find on the deluxe version of the album) is a well-written exploration into a boy losing his virginity. Moore spends most of the time on the anticipation, nerves, and vulnerability involved with that action. In comparing that hook up song to the likes of “Strip It Down” or “Burnin’ It Down”, “Backseat” has much better writing. Overall, Wild Ones, has its moments, but there are still some flaws. I like it as an album, but this is Country Perspective, and the fact that this rock album is marketed as country is one of those flaws. With that said, Wild Ones may be the best non-country country album out of Nashville this year.

Grade: 5.5/10

The Hodgepodge: Is Country Music at the Point of No Return?

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A couple of months ago, Josh published a two-part Hodgepodge series about the mainstream country bubble on the verge of bursting. (Read part 1 and part 2 for some background). Call this an indirect continuation of that series, if you will. It’s no secret that mainstream country has been consistently low quality this year. How many new singles have Josh and I graded at three or lower in 2015? Quite a few; and the output from country’s biggest artists don’t appear to change that trend anytime soon.

The question I want to explore today is if country music has reached the point of no return? Has Music Row spread itself too thin with trend chasing and genre experimentation to return mainstream country to its roots? When I was at the Cody Canada & The Departed show last Saturday, the band played a Hank Cochran cover song. Before doing so, Cody Canada addressed the crowd and said, “Once upon a time ago, there was this thing called country music. You guys remember that?” While extreme, the comment was directed to Nashville and is rather true. That comment got me wondering if mainstream country could ever return to being country.

Luke Bryan’s new song debut from the upcoming Kill the Lights is an R&B influenced sex ballad called “Strip it Down.” It sounds similar to the likes of Chase Rice’s “Gonna Wanna Tonight” and “Ride.” Jason Aldean’s last couple songs since “Burnin’ It Down” have been R&B influenced. With two of the biggest superstars out of Nashville pumping this trend out, we can expect this to only be the beginning. It’s happening because some audience focus group responded well to this trend, so the powers that be in Music Row have adopted it as the next trend to follow tailgate parties.

The immense backlash from us and our fellow critics like Grady Smith, Trigger, and Farce the Music are just a snapshot of the negative feedback reaching the attention of said superstars. That’s why we’ve been treated to complaint after complaint about these guys hating the bro-country criticism; that’s why Luke Bryan is one of the many to get immediately defensive about his music when someone even mentions the word “party.”

Trigger at Saving Country Music penned a letter to Luke Bryan encouraging Bryan, arguably the biggest name in mainstream country right now, to step up and show some leadership. The Tennessean argues that it may take more than just one artist to lead the charge for better quality. But will anyone step up and take the necessary leadership, or are the stadium sellout tours too infectious and blinding to anything else? These stadium tours are killing the culture that built country music.

As trends continue to evolve, country music seems willing to bend and go where the wind blows. This creates two problems: Firstly, building new artists/careers around these trends doesn’t allow these artists to develop a sustainable musical identity to carry them past said trend. Secondly, as discussed on Twitter by Grady Smith, these new artists being put in opening slots on arena and stadium tours doesn’t develop their skills to perform in other capacities.

The songs are built to be like arena anthems; the songs’ hooks are the key component for these openers to attract a crowd that probably doesn’t care about anyone on the stage before 9pm. So when these same artists transplant themselves onto a stage like the Opry, it’s awkward because they don’t know how to perform in that more intimate, listening-centered environment. Watch a recent Opry performance of Michael Ray’s “Kiss You in The Morning” vs. Ashley Monroe’s “The Blade” or Will Hoge’s “Little Bitty Dreams.” Ray isn’t engaged with the crowd beyond the people up front, as he has no idea how to get the crowd’s attention beyond his stage persona. Whereas Monroe or Hoge simply stand in the circle and let their music and delivery draw the crowd in; a skill they’ve mastered through their countless shows in smaller settings like bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that both songs are simply better than “Kiss You in The Morning.”

I’m not convinced that mainstream country can ever fully revive itself at this point. Country music is trying too hard to be everything but country, and it’s alienating the country fans that originally brought these superstars to their pedestal. I think the trend chasing and desire to sell out stadium shows have created a new culture that’ll continue to expand itself into every popular genre until no one cares about it anymore. The “rock is dead” comparisons to country music today aren’t that far off. Thankfully, the spirit of country music is alive and well in independent artists, and the Americana genre has adopted those more traditional country artists and roots rockers.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

Today in Country Music History

  • Alison Krauss (1971), Neil Perry of The Band Perry (1990), and Danielle Bradbery (1996) all celebrate birthdays today.
  • Alan Jackson tops the charts in 1994 with his cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
  • Vern Gosdin has the #1 song on Billboard in 1983 with “Set ‘Em Up Joe.”

Throwback Thursday Song

“Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley. Whitley left this world way too soon in 1989. Keith Whitley is one of country’s many great vocalists and made quite the impact in the late 80s. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” was his first number one single, and was the start of five straight for Keith in 1988 and 1989.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Wilco’s Star Wars. This was a surprise release from the band last Friday. I honestly haven’t listened to any of Wilco’s music before, but I was intrigued to see an album named Star Wars, and even more curious with an album cover of a fluffy white cat and flowers. This album is an experimental rock album that’s as random and unpredictable as life itself. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found the album to be enjoyable.

Tweet of the Week

Divorce is never an easy thing to go through, and it sucks that Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert couldn’t make their marriage work. At the end of the day, they’re still people. They asked for privacy to deal with the issue, but I can understand why media outlets nationwide would want to publish the initial news of the divorce.

However, our favorite corporate country tabloids in The Boot and Taste of Country took it a step further. They published article after article of a Blake and Miranda relationship timeline, a photo montage/slideshow of the couple during their time together, and reaching for conclusions and making assumptions as to why Miranda may have gotten more emotional than usual during a recent concert. To be frank, it pissed me off seeing those headlines. Exploiting personal, private issues for site traffic is low.

An iTunes Review to Make You Cringe

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This was left under Luke Bryan’s Kill the Lights. This is just one of many positive reviews of people already in love with an album that hasn’t been released yet.

Album Review – ‘The First Time’ Proves that Kelsea Ballerini is Another Pop Singer Trying to be Country

My first post for Country Perspective was my opinion on who could replace the gaping hole left by Taylor Swift after her official move to pop music. Included on my list were names like Kellie Pickler, Brandy Clark, and Sunny Sweeney as I was hoping, and still am hoping, to hear more classic sounding country coming out of the female side of the spectrum. However, Music Row seems to have an answer for that void in the name of Kelsea Ballerini. This newcomer is already off to a strong start in mainstream country, and wouldn’t you believe it, she has Taylor Swift on her side as well.

That tweet by Taylor Swift only helped Kelsea Ballerini gain some momentum in her country career. Country Perspective has been calling Kelsea Ballerini the female equivalent to Sam Hunt. Kelsea’s debut single is just in the top ten, and now she has a debut album called The First Time ready with more pop garbage to infect country radio.

Why do we call her Sam Hunt’s female equivalent? Well allow me to present Exhibit A: the lead track on The First Time called “Xo.” Before you get your hopes up, this isn’t some cute pop country ode to a Trisha Yearwood hit. This is 100% pop/rap/dance crap that has no business being anywhere near country music. This song is about how Kelsea’s out with her man, but his ex girlfriend is at the same place, and Kelsea can tell there’s still sparks there. “You’re still in love with your ex, oh, and I ain’t one to be nobody’s second best, no” she sings in the chorus. Kelsea also makes it very clear that while she’s blonde, she’s not dumb. But she’s only smart enough to notice where her man’s attention is, not take the next step to kick the guy to the curb.

“Peter Pan” is a bit friendlier with a more natural pop country production. Here she compares her boyfriend to Peter Pan as he won’t grow up and be a man. The fairy tale references work well here and aren’t overdone. I have no problems with this song. Following this is another song where Ballerini doesn’t want to put up with boys. The lead single, “Love Me Like You Mean It” shows Ballerini wanting to get with the bros, but she’s annoyed they can’t commit. As Josh wrote in his great review of the song, “These lyrics are confusing and quite frankly shallow in terms of depth. This is bubblegum pop meant to appeal to radio and casual listeners. In a world with common sense this is on pop radio. But we live in a world where pop music being passed off as country music is the norm.” I couldn’t have said that any better.

Kelsea Ballerini continues to prove she belongs in pop more than country with “Square Pegs.” This is pop song where Ballerini does a sort of pseudo-rap encouraging people to be themselves regardless of whoever may criticize you. It’s a good message, but delivered poorly with fluff like “Everybody gotta be themselves, everybody gotta dream out loud, everybody gotta be themselves, square pegs make the world go ’round.” This is not a country song by any stretch of the imagination. “First Time” is a ballad about how Kelsea was stood up, again, by an ex-boyfriend. She sings, “goodbye should mean goodbye the first time” while she believes he’s out with some other blonde saying the same things to the new girl that he said to her. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. She at least realizes that old adage is true and vows to stick to her guns next time. And as if this pop album couldn’t get worse, Kelsea Ballerini records a song that’s just like a bro-country love song in the field, only from the female point of view. Here’s how the chorus to “Looking at Stars” begins:

So baby pick me up, I’ll be in the drive
Take me where the moon’s hanging in the sky
We can park it by the river, get out and throw the tailgate down down down

Really? I guess it’s no surprise seeing as in “Love Me Like You Mean It” Kelsea sings about wanting the boy with the hat back. But this overdone, clichéd story is now being sung by females. Seriously, how is no one in Nashville sick of writing these songs yet?

Remember that time in “First Time” where Kelsea Ballerini thought Mr. Stood-Me-Up might be different and she was proven wrong? Well in “Sirens” she hears warnings about some douche guy coming to town. You know, the guy who’s reputation for being trouble is so big that it crosses county lines. And does she listen to those warnings? Hell no, he’ll be different for her. WRONG! This little pop rock song finds Ballerini cleaning herself up again after yet another failed fling. However, Kelsea Ballerini has one song on The First Time that is actually pretty good. “Secondhand Smoke” is a ballad about how a girl who grew up in an angry home. The parents fought all the time and implanted the idea in her head that fights end in goodbye. But Ballerini doesn’t want to be the same way; she wants to get over those demons so she can have healthier relationships. The story is quite similar to Taylor Swift’s “Mine,” but the delivery of the song couldn’t be more different. I hope this gets released as a single over the rest of the pop garbage on this supposed country album.

The pop production continues with “Dibs.” Here’s Kelsea Ballerini calling “dibs” on some hot guy she sees at a bar. And she makes it very clear in an annoying spoken word breakdown about what she’s calling dibs on:

I’ll calling dibs
On your lips

On your kiss

On your time

Boy, I’m calling dibs

On your hand

On your heart

All mine

Kelsea Ballerini tries to prove herself as a girl power icon with “Stilettos.” Hearts are broken, she’s feeling sad, but she won’t let her confidence be shaken. She will walk tall in her stilettos and hold herself high. This is great, but, again, it’s another pop song that very much isn’t country music. The production of this song, from the music to Balerinni’s vocals, sounds a lot like Taylor Swift to me. With that said, I’m not sure if Taylor would ever sing, “so you can take your new blonde out to get your drink on.” This is at least the third different song to call out blonde girls as the other girl. I can’t imagine its a slight against blonde girls in general seeing as Kelsea is blonde herself, but it’s interesting that she makes that detail quite clear.

I listen to her song “Yeah Boy” and think of Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl.” In fact, if Currington walked up to Ballerini and just said “hey girl” she’d probably respond with “yeah boy” and off they’d go to some pick-up truck in a field. This song is yet another song where Kelsea Ballerini simply sings a bro-country song from the female perspective. I’m done. There’s no originality in this one. The album ends with Ballerini’s ode to youthful rebels in “Underage.” It’s about teenage girls acting out: fake IDs, drinking wine, racing cars, etc. It’s a list song about ways teens act immaturely and rebel against the rules. It’s curious, though, that a song called “Underage” would reference R. Kelly as their go-to jam in the car. I can’t imagine this is a coincidence considering the sex crimes R. Kelly has committed. That alone takes all credibility and decency away from this song. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?

Just like Sam Hunt’s Montevallo and just like Lady Antebellum’s 747, this is pop music. It’s rap and electronic noise try to pass itself as an “evolution” of the country sound. Don’t let yourselves be fooled. Sure you’ll hear various country sounds like banjos shoved in the mix, but that serves no purpose other than to make you think it’s country music. This is a pop album, not a country music album. Kelsea Ballerini can sing well, but she is a pop singer who would be laughed out of the country genre if we lived in a just world. If you ever wondered what it would sound like when you cross Sam Hunt with Taylor Swift, just listen to Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time. I’m all for getting more female voices on the radio, but not like this. I can think of dozens of female country singers who all deserve a single charting near the top ten before the wannabe pop princess, Kelsea Ballerini.

Grade: 1/10