As readers of this website know, if I review a song here, it’s usually going to be a radio single. For one, I like to save bigger discussions for the eventual album review, giving me a larger framework to discuss the cultural context surrounding the artist or band. Plus, if any review outlet tried to review every single song that was released each week, especially if we’re counting “singles” from the independent country scene, it’d be much easier to fall behind.
In other words, by focusing more heavily on album reviews, I’m operating the way no music outlet should operate in 2019. But the goal here is to facilitate discussions rather than recommend music or break any hard news anyway. Since I’m falling behind in song reviews meeting that criteria anyway, however (even after already posting two song reviews this week), I’m going to take a more streamlined approach to today’s reviews. All of these, with the exception of one (for now), are new singles at country radio that I either haven’t gotten to yet or just don’t offer enough for me to say in a full review, especially when I’ve already said all I needed to say about these artists in some instances. Also keep in mind that new singles like Eric Church’s “Monsters” and Luke Combs’s “Even Though I’m Leaving” are songs I’ve talked about in other posts. This won’t be a regular feature, but rather one that I’ll resort to whenever necessary (and with more music on the horizon by Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini and more, perhaps sooner rather than later). I’m also not opposed to reviewing other individual songs that don’t meet my review criteria, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Without further ado …
Chris Young – “Drowning” (written by Chris Young, Corey Crowder and Josh Hoge)
Chris Young is exactly why I decided to go this route for this feature – an artist who stopped caring about being interesting years ago and is on his third new song now without any news of an eventual album or EP. His new single, “Drowning,” however, is probably his best song in years. Of course, that comes with own set of caveats to be addressed shortly; but if there was ever a song that saw Young recapture the warm, inviting, rich timbre of his voice to sell a track with a lot of heart and soul behind it, it’s this song. The content is also fairly compelling, telling of the natural feeling of desperation and despair that comes not just from losing someone in a relationship, but losing a friend in death. The song isn’t filled with the absolute greatest imagery or has the keen specificity in its approach to label it an all-time classic, but this is a wonderful combination of pairing together one of modern country music’s most gifted voices with a touching subject. And yet it’s all ruined by the production, which is the same story with just about every Young song released in the 2010s aside from a select few. The track screams for warmth and intimacy, yet it’s plagued by snap beat percussion that makes the track feel more hollow than anything. Perhaps if it lingered in the background it wouldn’t be so bad, but here it’s practically clipping the mix. Instead, too, it’s the piano that ends up feeling buried and is only further hindered by a gutless guitar solo. In short, it’s one of Young’s better tunes lately, and I can’t fault him much for the song’s issues, but they’re still, in fact, issues that can’t be overlooked. Just don’t tell Young the song isn’t good, though; he’s proven to be quite petty when it comes to handling criticism. (Strong 5/10)
Caylee Hammack – “Family Tree” (written by Caylee Hammack, Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges)
Truthfully, there are certain songs on the charts I tend to ignore until they become bigger hits, but I’m not actually sure how this slipped by my radar. Caylee Hammack is a Georgia native who scored a record deal with UMG’s Capitol label last November, with “Family Tree” acting as her debut single. Yet while it was released in April, the song is now gaining traction thanks to being a beneficiary of iHeart’s “On The Verge” program (that, along with Ingrid Andress’s “More Hearts Than Mine,” a phenomenal song). And I’ll admit I’m in a weird place with this song; on one hand, it’s a good representation of Hammack’s potential as a vocalist, even if it’s hard to say that “Family Tree” is a country song. On the other hand, it’s a weird amalgamation of gospel and pop that falters more than succeeds. Hammack probably has one of the most naturally soulful vocal tones out there in mainstream country music right now, and she really shows that off on the chorus. Plus, with the added usage of a backing choir for support and revival organ, that gospel swell is upfront and fairly potent. Yet Hammack feels trapped on the verses, stuck in a lower register that fails to convey much energy or show her strengths off nearly as well. Of course, part of the blame also goes toward the production, which features little more than a synthetic snap track on the verses, clashing against the more organic instrumentation we hear briefly at the beginning. It’s the same standard, bad-sounding mix that ruins most mainstream country songs, and it doesn’t help that it sounds like Hammack is doing her best Maren Morris impression on the verses either. Again, the chorus is good, especially with that slicker electric guitar, but it’s scattershot and inconsistent. The writing is also fairly spotty, showcasing the strengths of family with some gems every now and then (the line about Hammack’s grandmother bailing her uncle out of jail is particularly good), but it’s also too broadly sketched to come together as a whole. And if there’s an area where the chorus falters, it’s definitely in this regard. Overall, “Family Tree” is a track I want to like more than I do. (Strong 5 to a light 6/10)
Matt Stell – “Prayed For You” (written by Matt Stell, Ash Bowers, and Allison Veltz)
Speaking of artists I should have covered before … wait, no, how did this guy manage to sneak his way into the top 15 of the charts? Not to judge a book by its cover, but Nashville has to try really hard to make their latest male artist of the day seem interesting. Granted, Matt Stell’s background is kind of interesting, boasting a graduate degree and embarking on medical missions in Haiti. As for the music, however, there’s very little to say here. The fact that his debut single, “Prayed For You,” was released in March 2018 and is only now gaining traction says all that needs to be said. Folks, we’ve been here before – a forgettable pop country track led by overstuffed percussion, gutless electric guitars and a fake handclap beat layered to overtake the entire mix anyway. Not that Stell isn’t inserting some effort into the track, vocally, but he’s not a terribly distinctive or memorable singer either, and when the premise of the song is to use placid religious iconography to show how this woman just magically came into his life, it’s about as corny as it gets. Florida Georgia Line and Brett Young already milked this trend about three years ago, and I’ll say here what should have been said then – woman don’t just fall out of the sky for your needs, dude. (Decent 4/10)
Parker McCollum – “Pretty Heart” (written by Parker McCollum and Randy Montana)
In truth, I’m not sure if this is a proper single from Parker McCollum or just something to satitate the fans until something new arrives (the song is apparently an old fan favorite). It is, however, the first taste of new music we’ve gotten from McCollum since he signed to MCA Nashville last year, and not to be that guy, but “Pretty Heart” is a clear step down from McCollum’s previous material. The production shouldn’t be as limp and boring as it is, especially when Jon Randall has worked with the likes of Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley; but it’s an example of inconsistency at its finest, with the mix being more organic than your average mainstream country song, to be fair, but never all that interesting. The dobro is a nice touch, if mixed oddly and sounding a little too dour to be all that effective, yet the acoustic guitar has no punch to it, and the percussion is way too heavy in the mix. Then again, I’ll take boring and forgettable over the song’s actual content, which is essentially nothing more than a pity party for someone who doesn’t deserve it. The song tries to frame its character as someone who redeems himself by learning his lessons, but it fails by trying to also cast the character as someone we should sympathize with, when by all accounts, it’s his actions that led to his demise in the first place. It’s a whiny, entitled song with a slogging mix that’s not a good fit for McCollum at all. (Strong 4/10)