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

Album Review – Judson Cole Band’s Eastern Skies is a Great Texas Debut

Not too much is known about the Judson Cole Band. For having a young career (the band formed in 2012 in San Angelo, Texas), they’re blazing a hot trail in the Texas/Red Dirt music scene. The guys became a staple at Blaine’s Pub in San Angelo and quickly caught the attention of others, earning gigs and opening slots at other Red Dirt concert venues and impressing some Texas music bloggers, specifically those at TexasMusicPickers.com. Judson Cole Band’s debut album, Eastern Skies, is an impressive collection of ten songs that should add more fuel to their fire.

The album kicks off with “Time To Run,” a great southern rock influenced song about running free with hard-hitting guitar licks capping each stanza. And before the instrumentation gets repetitive and predictable, they take a hard left turn and slow it down with a heavy blues-influenced guitar over the song’s bridge. “Goodbye Dallas” is a bit simpler in the production, but details the journey of a country singer searching for the spotlight. Naturally, the search for this spotlight begins in Nashville, but disappointed with the way things work in Music City, the singer returns to Dallas with a new appreciation for home.

“Call Me Back Home,” the band’s current single, features some acoustic guitars and banjos and some nice harmonies behind Judson Cole’s voice. The song is about a couple in a large relationship rut. He’s introspective enough to know there’s fault on both ends, but it appears that she’s a bit more stubborn to call him back home so they can work out the issues. On “16 Days” Judson Cole seems to be avoiding the inevitable. She’s gone away and her memory is haunting him.

On the title track, Judson Cole searches for truth in midst of a failing relationship. He wants to make sense of it all and is still left with questions and confusion. It’s a more mid-tempo led with a nice guitar and features a great build up to an emotional ending. Judson Cole’s vocals here are some of his best on Eastern Skies. You may recall seeing “Leave Me Another Day” as an honorable mention on last month’s top-10. This heartbreak tune is driven with a fiddle among the guitars and drums. Here Judson Cole begs his woman not to give up so easily on their relationship, because in the end she’ll come crawling back. This is another raw, heartbreaking vocal delivery from Judson Cole that adds a lot to the mood of the song. “Young Love” explores the simplicity of a relationship during young, naïve times. It’s easy until you have your heart torn out by someone you loved and you’re stuck with scars and bad memories. This song has great guitar work and production behind powerful vocals.

“Poor Widows Fate” is a chronicle of an outlaw who robs and kills to give the girl he loves all she wants. This gold-digging woman doesn’t return his affection and uses him to get as much money as possible until she shoots him and runs off with all he had stolen. This is an impressive, compelling song with some great production behind the lyrics. “Heart of Mine” is a tale of a man who’s fallen for a woman who doesn’t return his affections. He pleads for her to see how great his heart is for her. The last track on the album, “Old Truth Be Told” is an acoustic, introspective song. This stripped back tune explores how life hasn’t gone the way we expected and questioning decisions made along the way.

Eastern Skies is a fantastic debut album. More times than not, debut albums straddle safe topics and production to avoid alienating potential fans, but a majority of the Eastern Skies shows character and personality that prove Judson Cole Band is the real deal. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is they show that personality and confidence while not being too extreme in one direction to alienate fans. Eastern Skies brings fresh perspectives and sounds to old stories and songs. Seamlessly hopping between modern country sounds and southern rock, powerful vocals and tight, raw instrumentation, the Judson Cole Band prove themselves worthy to be among Texas’s top tier artists. This debut album shows nothing but potential, and will certainly be enjoyed by fans of Red Dirt country music. Keep your eye on the Judson Cole Band. Eastern Skies is only the beginning of what can be a long story.

Grade: 8.5/10

Album Review – Ryan Bingham’s Fear and Saturday Night

In late 2012, singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham released an album titled Tomorrowland. That album was heavy and dark in content, reflecting back on the passing of Bingham’s parents. Fast-forward roughly two and a half years, Bingham has released his fifth studio album, Fear and Saturday Night. Content-wise, this album has a much lighter and hopeful feel in comparison. Ryan Bingham shows a different perspective to life. It’s not just a have hope and things will get better attitude, but an encouragement to not let life pass you by. Sudden deaths can be eye-opening as to how short life can truly be, and the songs on Fear and Saturday Night, for the most part, urge listeners to find pride and enjoyment with the present. Drawing from folk and rock influences for the production, Bingham delivers a diverse, pleasing album.

Appropriately, the album kicks off with “Nobody Knows My Trouble.” A simple country production behind a rough, raspy voice, Bingham sings of how he’s carried the weight of his troubles all his life. He sings how those troubles led him to vices like drugs and alcohol. He also tells how those feelings led him to write his pain down, but that wouldn’t erase them. Following up this track is “Broken Heart Tattoos.” I hear a ton of Bob Dylan influence in Ryan Bingham on this album, and this song is particularly evident of that influence. Here, Bingham is singing to his child. Children are born into innocence, without worry and without pain at first. However, this song encourages, “take your sweet time and walk a straight line. And don’t you be shy of your wilder side or be afraid to let loose with broken heart tattoos.”

The next few songs all deal with relationships. “Top Shelf Drug” is a more upbeat southern rock song. To me this feels a bit like a filler song he compares his strong addiction to his woman with a top shelf drug. It’s an enjoyable song to listen to, but there’s nothing truly profound or original about it. “Island In The Sky” is one of the album’s top tracks, maybe the best. “Would you walk with me high above the clouds below?” Bingham asks at the beginning. He wants his wife to be with him through life’s journey. Together, they can make their life great with endless possibilities. This reflective track is led with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and is sung with great passion. “Adventures of You and Me” finds Bingham and his love traveling across the country. Fittingly so, the song sounds adventurous with some Latin musical influence in the production along with what sounds like an accordion among the rocking guitars and drums. The song emphasizes that though the world and material possessions aren’t forever, the memories of our adventures are forever.

The album slows down for the next couple songs. The title track is tied together with the line “I don’t fear nothin’ except for myself.” It’s a darker tune about going out, presumably getting drunk, and raising hell. Up next is “My Diamond Is Too Rough,” which has a blue-collar theme finding pride in hard work. But really, the song has an understanding that life is more important than how much money you make. Up next is another filler song called “Radio.” The song is more mid-tempo, and details how music can intensify our emotions. Following “Radio” is the other standout track called “Snow Falls in June.” Using winter as metaphor, this song is about someone in a relationship going through a depressive time and feeling blue. Bingham confirms his true love and declares he’ll always be there for her when she feels like this. It’s an honest, heartfelt love song with a light rock production.

“Darlin” is another love song where Ryan Bingham expresses his need for her to be with him. He needs her strength and presence. It feels a bit like a filler song and doesn’t feel as strong or heartfelt as the song “Snow Falls in June.” “Hands of Time” has a rock and roll influence with some simple lyrics. The song is about going forward in life, and living as much as you can in the present. “The hands of time are a precious thing, I can’t just live so I can die on memory lane.” The song has great encouragement and reflection; it is a good representation of album’s message. The album ends with “Gun Fightin Man” is a nod to old western films. Harmonicas and acoustic guitars lead this track about life of a cowboy. This song is a great concluding track, in my opinion, with great instrumental breaks between the verses.

Bingham wrote each of these songs in solitude in an Airstream in the California Mountains, and the focus and care taken into each song is evident. Ryan Bingham is a talented writer and tells some compelling stories on this album. The diversity in the content and production on each track, the varying tempos, and honesty in Bingham’s voice make this album standout among the crowd. While there may be some filler tracks, they don’t take away from the listening experience, and the few strong, standout tracks truly add to the this album. Overall, Fear and Saturday Night is a fantastic listen from start to finish and comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10

 

Album Review – RaeLynn’s Me EP

One of the many The Voice alumni from Team Blake, RaeLynn is still looking to establish herself in country music. Why country music? A because she was coached by Blake Shelton. B because country radio is so diverse in pop sounds and influences that even RaeLynn’s bad pop music can find a home. I’m going to be frank, the production of this EP is rather awful. Where other “country” artists like Lady Antebellum or Sam Hunt released albums that featured decent pop music, RaeLynn’s new EP, titled Me, is crappy pop music combined with country elements. RaeLynn also clearly shows that she’s singing songs for young, teenage girls, further polarizing herself from the general country population. There are only five songs here, so I’ll break them each down.

“God Made Girls”: This song faced quite a bit of criticism from Josh and I last year. And, rightfully so, the song was nominated for worst song of 2014. I can’t really say anything new about this song without beating a dead horse, so here’s a short snippet from Josh’s original review of the song: “This song is insinuating that girls were made to look pretty and basically be objects for guys. Isn’t that what these lines are saying? A girl should live up to the stereotypes.”

“Kissin’ Frogs”: The basic premise of this song is that RaeLynn doesn’t want to tie herself down right now. Eventually she’ll find Mr. Right and they’ll live happily ever after, but for the time being, she just wants to have some fun. There’s a lot of fairy tale references: “I don’t need a mister trying to fit that perfect slipper on my foot” and “right now there ain’t nothing wrong with having fun and kissin’ frogs.” Also she specifically cares to mention “making out” as what she means by having fun to further confirm that this is meant for a young demographic. The song starts out with some nice banjo and mandolin sounds, which are quickly abandoned for a roaring pop beat in the chorus. And newsflash, RaeLynn still can’t sing, and the chorus sounds worse due to the fact that she’s borderline screaming.  In fact, the second verse starts out with “right now the only thing that matters is the radio and screaming every song.”  At least RaeLynn is a little self aware here. Yet sadly I could see this song faring well on country radio since the bar for quality right now is set so low.

“Careless”: As far as pop country goes, “Careless” has a rather safe, friendly sound. It’s the least annoying of the five. There are some pop effects with the melody, but overall it’s not bad. And in the hands of a better singer, it could actually sound like a good song. Lyrically, the song’s about one of those rotten relationships where the guy cares too little and keeping the ever-pining girl still hoping and waiting for things to change. Here RaeLynn ponders, “Maybe if I care less, you would care a little more.” The song still features a girl wanting a guy who’s probably a jerk, but the chorus flirts with the idea of her wanting to turn his attitude on to him “I bet if I turned this heart off, baby, it would turn you on. I bet if I blocked you, you’d be blowing up my best friends phone.” Oh, joy, yet another reference to “blowing up phones.” As empowering as “Kissin’ Frogs” and “Better Do It” are for girls, “Careless” is a song that confirms to girls that they should still try to make the guys care for them, regardless of how the guys really feel.

“Boyfriend”: RaeLynn has a crush on another girl’s boyfriend, but she’s not going to take him away. RaeLynn will just sit back and wait for the inevitable end of this relationship because she can see in the boy’s eyes that he’s also pining for her. The lyrics here are terrible. There’s a random name drop of Shania Twain that serves absolutely no purpose to the song or story. There’s also a line about how what’s meant to be will always find a way to be, which is bothersome because there’s no indication that this relationship has a forever feel. The worst part about this song is that RaeLynn does spoken word on the border of rapping. She can’t even sing, let alone rap. And yet, the rapping continues in the final track.

“Better Do It”: Just to get through the good of this one, the empowerment of the song that I referenced before is that RaeLynn wants her guy to make up his mind. Basically, you said you’re going to leave, so leave because I don’t want to deal with your mind changing every other minute.  Now to the ugly: the fact that I was able to sit through the whole three minutes of this atrocity is shocking. If the CIA wants some approved torture techniques, put this song on repeat at full blast. The first words we hear are from an annoying, distorted voice, presumably RaeLynn, saying with a valley girl sort of attitude, “If you say it, you better do it” over and over again. And that phrase is repeated all over the song. RaeLynn also borderline screams in the chorus, before she raps the bridge at the end. Throw in the awful pop production of this song, and I’ll claim that this song is worse than “God Made Girls.” It’s a way-too-early nomination for worst song of 2015.

This is the main problem with country radio’s current identity crisis. Now that bro-country is on it’s way out, we’re basically at a point where the producers don’t yet know who to target. So it seems to be a time where they’ll release a little bit of everything to see what sticks. RaeLynn’s Me EP is without a doubt targeting young teenage girls. And the worst part she’s targeting them with conflicting messages. Songs like “God Made Girls” and “Careless” reaffirm years of stereotypes and attitudes women should have in respect towards men and relationships. However, songs like “Kissin’ Frogs” and “Better Do It” have more empowerment to fight those stereotypes behind their messages. And as if I haven’t said this enough, RaeLynn cannot sing or rap. I can’t see how the general mass of country fans can buy into her. It seems like producers are trying to recreate early “Tim McGraw” and “Love Story” Taylor Swift with RaeLynn. Yet, RaeLynn appears to be too immature. Taylor Swift did show some maturity in some of her early songs, but even songs where she didn’t, there was an easy listening production to them. Me is incredibly annoying in its production, and with RaeLynn’s immature, pandering lyrics, I don’t see how anyone over the age of sixteen can find enjoyment from this EP.

Grade: 0/10

 

Review – Mo Pitney Brings Back Traditional Sounds with “Country”

Debut music, especially debut singles, can sometimes be a rough catch-22. First and foremost, coming out of nowhere to establish yourself as a marketable artist with a style people buy into, you’ll need to build a fan base; a demand for this new music. The easiest way to accomplish that demand would be to release a song that has a wide appeal to attract as many listeners as possible. This is typically means that these debut songs have clichéd, safe lyrics with simple instrumentation so as not to alienate potential fans. That however, is rarely met with high critical acclaim due to the fact that many debut songs tell overdone, unoriginal stories. Such is the case with country newcomer Mo Pitney and his first single, “Country.”

“Country can be in the middle of a city. Country can be on a farm. Country ain’t even a place on a map; it’s a place in your heart” Mo sings in the chorus. The verses continue to list many of things that are included in a country heart. Thankfully, there are no mentions of cutoffs or pickup trucks in a field! However, from old river baptizing to helping those in need without a second thought, Mo Pitney wants you to know he’s a country boy. He loves the Opry, and he’s a patriot who respects his military and all they sacrifice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with songs like this. As I mentioned, they’re safe and bound to attract an audience. However, the song panders to the stress free, simple country lifestyle, and it’s extremely unoriginal. Mo Pitney doesn’t offer anything fresh or new with the lyrics and story.

However, the bright spot of Mo Pitney that’s more important at this moment is his sound. Mo Pitney is true, pure country. “Country” has noticeable fiddles and steel guitars behind the lyrics. The instrumentation is, for my money, the best part of the song. The fiddle solos are fresh and needed in the spotlight of today’s country music. The instrumentation is key because it’s full on traditional. This seems to be the route Mo Pitney wants to go, and I think country music purists everywhere can smile while listening to “Country.” Mo Pitney also has a heck of a voice, reminiscent of Randy Travis and Easton Corbin. Pitney’s vocals here sound seasoned and authentic and they’re another shining spot in this song.

Overall, “Country” does its job as a debut single. It establishes Mo Pitney as a singer, and establishes the sound he wants to bring to the country music world. His voice, with those instruments, on a song with an actual story, like this other original he played at the Opry, is something to look forward to when an album from Pitney is released. It’s worth noting that Pitney is signed to Curb Records, so let’s all hope Mike Curb doesn’t treat Pitney poorly and that we’re given some more music soon. As for “Country” we’ll just have to look past the clichéd, tired lyrics for now while we enjoy the pure sounds of good ol’ country music coming from Mo Pitney.

Grade: 6/10