Quick Draw is a recurring feature where I cover multiple new country airplay singles in a gauntlet style format, in order from best to worst.
In this edition of ‘Quick Draw Single Reviews,’ we take a look at new singles from Gabby Barrett, Dan + Shay and Sam Hunt, in that order, talking about the ever-so-popular “country versus pop” debate.
Gabby Barrett – “I Hope” (written by Gabby Barrett, Jon Nite, and Zachary Kale)
Singing competition television shows only rarely achieve what they aim for, and for every Carrie Underwood who’s managed to buck the system, we have Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, The Swon Brothers and a whole slew of others to remind us who didn’t; different shows and comparisons, sure, but that’s beside the point. In Gabby Barrett’s case, the American Idol alumnus had to first release her debut single, “I Hope,” independently before Warner Music signed a deal with her this summer to re-release it.
While “I Hope” is yet another song pushed to country radio that barely offers any traces of country music, for 2019 mainstream country standards, this is a brand of pop-country I can get behind (certainly more than the other entrants in this edition of this feature, at least). The song begins with some off-beat synthetic elements that don’t flatter the track much, but it’s the darker pulse of the electric guitar that gives this song a sharp, ominous potency. Even the snap track that manages to find its way in doesn’t overtake the mix, and if anything, the mix only picks up more steam as it moves along for something surprisingly powerful.
As for Barrett as a singer, this song both does and doesn’t flatter her. The verses find her trapped too much in her lower range to effectively stand out all that much, and while she flips the coin to deliver a powerful performance on the chorus, it’s hard not to see why other critics have been making direct comparisons to Miley Cyrus and Carrie Underwood (which makes sense given the backstory, even if it hurts the “distinct” factor about Barrett). Her personality is sharp enough to effectively sell the seething rage this track offers underneath the surface, but the multitracking also manages to bury her in the mix on the chorus, which is a real shame given how much flavor she brings to the track there.
Lyrically, though, while I’ve criticized other tracks for showing heinous amounts of petty rage over breakups, the difference between something like “I Hope” and those tracks comes down to the framing. The darker atmosphere of the track lets the listener know that Barrett’s words of optimism to her ex-lover are false, yet when the punchline hits (“and then I hope she cheats … like you did on me”), it delivers the kind of pent-up rage that’s understandable and relatable, showing Barrett “letting it all out” through thoughts, not actions, which is an important difference. I wouldn’t say this song flips any kind of script, necessarily, but I would call it effective in what it’s trying to go for. Barrett will have to find her own voice on future singles, but this is a solid start. (Light to decent 7/10)
Dan + Shay (w/ Justin Bieber) – “10,000 Hours” (written by Dan Smyers, Shay Mooney, Justin Bieber, Jordan Reynolds, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd)
When observing just about any trend in country music (post World War II, at least), the key comes in detecting that, underneath the popular flavor of the day, good or bad, there’s always been an underlying balance to the format. That balance seemed to lose itself throughout much of the 2010s, but even while the format looks ahead to what traditionally oriented artists like Luke Combs, Midland and Jon Pardi have to offer, there’s still always going to be room for fluffy, lightweight pop-country.
And when it comes to Dan + Shay, underneath the obvious Rascal Flatts comparison, they’ve been fairly solid over the past few years, at least for the brand of music they deliver. But “10,000 Hours” looked like a collaboration that screamed more as a power play than a genuine connection of artists and genres, and hearing the song only confirms that.
Actually, the conversation surrounding everything else around the song is more interesting than the song itself, which is about as corny as pop-country gets. There are worse offenders out there, but there’s nothing interesting at all about the sappy, boring acoustic guitar (and yes, this is most certainly “white guy with acoustic guitar” music) or the heavy, thumping drum machine that overtakes the plodding mix. Instead of sweet, this song is boring and forgettable, not helped by the fact that Bieber contributes very little to his performance here. Shay Mooney maintains an impressive amount of earnest charisma, but that falls flat when the lyrics are absolutely creepy. Probing your love interest with endless random questions doesn’t show affection, but rather that you might be a stalker she needs to get away from, and why this needed to be a duet is something I’ll never know. Maybe this is Scooter Braun’s continuous play to overtake Nashville; maybe this is all a thin attempt at getting Bieber a “country” hit; maybe this is Dan + Shay looking to leave country music and head for pop music; again, the questions surrounding the song are more interesting than the actual song, which is too boring to even play in the background of whatever commercial you happen to stumble upon next. (Light 3/10)
Sam Hunt – “Kinfolks” (written by Sam Hunt, Zachary Crowell, Jerry Flowers, and Josh Osborne)
Even as one of Sam Hunt’s harshest critics (well, self-anointed, at least), his return to the format hasn’t sparked any feelings from me, good or bad. Perhaps it’s because his biggest hit happened over two years ago, or perhaps it’s that his damage done to the genre is already looking to be scrubbed away in the coming years. Either way, after listening to “Kinfolks,” my biggest takeaway is that it’s another bad Hunt song, but one that also doesn’t feel as destructive or, on the other hand, interesting, in comparison to past singles.
To give credit to Hunt, the mix isn’t quite as obnoxious as his past singles – the percussion is way too heavy (because of course it is) and throwing a token banjo in the mix is a little insulting, but the acoustic guitar has some flavor, especially toward the end. And the drums have a sense of atmosphere about them on the chorus that’s somewhat redeemable, but the synthetic elements feel too blocky and overcompressed, leading to a mix that seems to contradict what it’s aiming for. On top of that, by trying to stay equally afoot in country and pop, it leads to a less interesting, generic sound that’s more predictable for 2019 mainstream country standards than innovative or edgy.
Lyrically, Hunt can be hit or miss, and when he misses, his writing reeks of an attitude that’s shallow, self-obsessed and reliant on charisma Hunt doesn’t have in order to effectively sell it. “Kinfolks,” unfortunately, is an example of this, where a chance meet turns into Hunt probing some poor woman even worse than Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber do on “10,000 Hours.” Beyond just being an awkward turn of phrase, Hunt’s writing fails to conjure up any nostalgic feelings of a unique town, which is odd, given that he’s got a great knack for detail. While Hunt also refrains from any embarrassing attempts at a half-talking, half-singing delivery, he never comes across as endearing or likable enough to brush away the blemishes of the writing. In other words, Ingrid Andress covered this topic much better earlier this year with “More Hearts Than Mine,” and while there’s no doubt Hunt’s song will be the bigger hit – off name recognition alone – this also lacks the same unique firepower that his earlier material did, which is good for some listeners, but bad for Hunt. (Light 3/10)