The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox is a recurring song review series. There’s only three possible ratings – Boom, for the good stuff; Bust, for the stuff best avoided; and In Between, for the stuff that’s, well, somewhere in between Boom and Bust.
Yes, I’m giving this feature another go. If you’re wondering why it stopped, well, it’s complicated. Anyway, unlike before, this will now operate as a recurring feature, used only when I have thoughts on current singles floating around the country and Americana realms. I still don’t like to review more than one single per album release, so that won’t change, but without the rules and restrictions that made the previous version of this feature sometimes feel like a chore, this will hopefully be a little more free-flowing. Also, I’m still toying with my review style, so please be patient as I get my review groove back. Anyway, onward!
Jason Aldean, “If I Didn’t Love You” (featuring Carrie Underwood) (written by John Morgan, Kurt Allison, Lydia Vaughan, and Tully Kennedy)
What kind of hold does Jason Aldean, of all people, have on the women in country music to get them to duet with him? Granted, Miranda Lambert basically admitted she collaborated with him on “Drowns the Whiskey” a few years ago to secure her radio rebound – because country radio just sucks at promoting anything other than generic male “talent” – and considering Carrie Underwood is heading toward a similar path – at least for her standards – I can see why this exists.
Really, though, you and I already knew what this was going to sound like before it was even released. It’s a power ballad trying and failing to even reach the standards of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” a track that favors muted percussion and heavy reverb to denote its serious intentions that only throws the few traces of pedal steel on to loosely tether it to country music, rather than actually complement the mix (because that’s a concept that was lost on Aldean years ago). And when you throw together Aldean’s gruffer tone against Underwood’s penchant for dramatic flair, it just doesn’t work with these two. Granted, it’s not as terrible as I expected, and that both vocalists actually seem to be making an effort and trying to make this a real duet saves this from being a total bust. But there’s no real saving grace in the actual content – just a checklist reasons of why they can’t move on each other that’s so overly saccharine, that it begs the question of why these two don’t just get back together! But that requires deeper stakes, and this is a primary Aldean single meant to launch his next album, so, eh? Again, I can’t say it’s terrible, but it is a slight Bust.
Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (written by Dave Pittenger, MacKenzie Porter, Parker Welling, and Tenille Arts)
Given how much I enjoyed Tenille Arts’ debut album, her unlikely success story with “Somebody Like That” was one of the few bright spots of last year for me. Of course, that album was from way back in January, so I get moving on to something new rather than possibly stifling the momentum, but I’m not nearly as excited about this new single. Simply put, “Back Then, Right Now” joins the odd new trend of songs looking to evoke nostalgia through stock images rather than with actual depth or a story told – like Thomas Rhett’s “What’s Your Country Song,” for instance. And it doesn’t help that the song itself adopts the same tired, modern formula of favoring loud percussion and a choppy flow to basically undermine the sentiment entirely. Sure, there’s some mandolin here and there, but it’s buried so far down that it hardly matters or contributes much of anything here. And when her idea of the “good old days” basically evokes bro-country stock images and tropes with the predictable small town twist, this is one nostalgia trip that runs on empty calories. Hate to say it, but it’s a Bust.
Brandi Carlile, “Right on Time” (written by Brandi Carlile, Dave Cobb, Phil Hanseroth, and Tim Hanseroth)
It’s easy to forget that, between her involvement with the Highwomen project, producing a comeback effort for Tanya Tucker and other excellent releases from the Secret Sisters, and writing a book, among other things, Brandi Carlile hasn’t released any new solo music in three and a half years. Add her upcoming album to the growing list of anticipated releases, then – because the second half of 2021 is looking stacked, y’all – even if I’m far more lukewarm on her newest single than I’d like to be. She’s described this next album as a very dramatic experience that will pull primarily from acts and influences like Elton John and Roy Orbison, and while she’s always been at home in Americana and rock first and foremost, if you heard her latest record, this isn’t that far of a stretch.
The problem is, this is a dramatic yet vague piano power ballad focusing on a failing relationship that reminds me of one of her best and most recent songs operating within this vein, “Party of One,” and whereas that track knew to highlight Carlile first and foremost, this pulls from the familiar template of saturating everything with reverb in hopes of heightening the impact, yet dampens it instead. Carlile sounds as great as ever, but she’s the type of raw vocalist who shouldn’t have to fight over the production to let the emotion soar, and considering the writing is punching lighter by leaving things open-ended enough to focus on the performance and presentation, I’m not sure how to take this yet. Not quite a boom or bust, it’s somewhere In Between.
Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer” (written by Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, Hunter Phelps, and Michael Wilson Hardy)
It’s been a while since I discussed Dillon Carmichael, a rising talent I’ve wanted to enjoy far more than I do. The Montgomery Gentry connection will always mean a lot to me, but with Carmichael, I just haven’t heard much to inspire further listening outside of gimmicky material that I’ve heard done better elsewhere. Sadly, there’s where I’m left with “Hot Beer,” a bright spot on modern country radio with the unpolished 2000s-inspired production that really favors that fiddle and its crunchier electric axes, but also one that falls flat in actual execution. I like the idea of playfully taunting an ex-lover by listing a bunch of things you’d rather do than get back together with them, but Carmichael just doesn’t have the easygoing charm or humor to really sell this effectively. He actually goes overboard with the vocal here, and I can’t help but feel like this would have come across better in the hands of, say, Jake Owen or – dare I say it – Blake Shelton. As it is, it’s fine, but I’m still not onboard the Carmichael train. In Between.
Jordan Davis, “Buy Dirt” featuring Luke Bryan (written by Jacob Davis, Jordan Davis, Josh Jenkins, and Matt Jenkins)
Jordan Davis is one of the many names on a list of male country artists who have an impressive radio track record and an unimpressive discography. He’s also on my short list of acts who I still pay attention to because I think he’s capable of better and has proven he is, and sure enough, this new single is a huge step in the right direction. Not even Luke Bryan can ruin it! In fact, while this really is an unneeded duet and the two acts don’t blend that well together, it’s the best that either one of them has sounded in a long time. Yes, it’s another checklist song detailing how to make a good life through familiar country music tropes, but there’s two elements that elevate it. For one, it’s told from the wistful perspective of an older man – and if Bryan had adopted that role to make this a real duet, I’d like it even better – where the advice to a young upstart feels more like a list of regrets of what he didn’t or couldn’t do for his own family, and it hits with a little more impact because of it. Plus, the emphasis on warm acoustics and soft percussion at the front of the mix lets this come across with an equally warm empathy that’s also slightly melancholic and bolsters the framing really well. This has been a weird batch of singles for today, and it’s about to get weirder, because this is a Boom.