Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Strum and Twang: A Look at What's New in Country's Top 10

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 7:02 AM

Here's a whole mess of clichés coming together, which is appropriate since we're talking country radio, where the clichés are revered and preserved like Jurassic Park brontosaurs. First, take the old line about how country stardom is for folks who couldn't make it in rock and roll. Then, try on the myth that few people bought Velvet Underground records but everyone who did went on to start a band. Finally, consider these clichés - both of which I've always considered bullshit -- in light of the fact that two of this week's top ten country singles whole hog steal the riff from "Sweet Jane."

Does this validate the clichés? The Velvets themselves couldn't make it in rock and roll. Maybe they should have tried Nashville.

Montgomery Gentry, "One in Every Crowd" (#7)

Verdict: Godawful But Interesting

Dierks Bentley's "Sideways," (see below) just echoes "Sweet Jane"'s one-two, and one-twos on the verses, and could get over without it. But this abomination rides that riff raw. It also rides: Billy Joe Shaver's "Honky Tonk Heroes" for its title and punchline (There's one in every crowd and it's usually me) but none of its wit or insight; and, hilariously, at the minute five mark, "Hey Ya," which here becomes "Hey, y'all!" shouted by a boy chorus more Seabees than honkytonk. Admittedly, all these mismatched parts Frankensteined together are kind of compelling, and if some ironist DJ has mashed this together from all the original songs, I'd probably love it. Unfortunately, Montgomery Gentry doesn't seem to know how funny it is. Worse, I doubt they realize that the shirtless, girl-stealing, life-of-the-party "good-time Charley with a Harley" they're celebrating in this song is an asshole.

Dierks Bentley, "Sideways" (#10)

Verdict: A Keeper

Another mishmash, but this one sounds natural by comparison, more like a band in a room than a label boss on ProTools. It's nothing more than a rock-and-roll pick-up song, built on fiery banjo, big ol' drums, at least three strong guitar hooks (including "Sweet Jane"), and a chanted chorus that owes as much to hip-hop as it does square dance. Unlike the "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"s of the world, this shames neither. Bentley opens and closes asking some barroom gal her name; in between he tries to get her "a little bit sideways" without ever once suggesting that this hook-up means they'll be together forever (like Keith Urban, #5) or that they're somehow like a river meeting the sea (the sin of Brad Paisley, #4). Bentley's unapologetic horniness is a relief - Nashville being Nashville, he atones by including a track called "Pray" on his current disc. Choice Detail Guaranteed to Connect to Listener's Lives: Ain't no need to fight/Y'all take that redneck stuff outside/that's what parking lots are for.

Keith Urban, "Kiss A Girl" (#5)

Verdict: Godawful

So slick and flavorless it sounds more gel-capped than produced, Keith Urban's new single finds the twee and hatless guitar man exclaiming, over what could be a mid-'80s Bryan Adams track, that he wants to kiss a girl, hold her tight, and etc. He does this with what I can only describe as a queasy glee, as if he thinks his recognition of his basic biological urgings are something in which the rest of us should exult. Still, the hormones are subordinate to propriety -- unlike Dierks Bentley, Urban insists he won't go too fast because, maybe tonight could lead to the rest of our lives. Note that it's a girl, not the girl or my girl, emphasizing the point that it's girls he wants to kiss. Look for this to become a favorite at those pray-yourself-straight camps for gay Christians. This should also appeal to people who say "I want to hear a song" but don't care what song it is.

Brad Paisley, "Then" (#4)

Verdict: Acceptable

There's Brad the comedian, Brad the guitar showboat, Brad the superstar, Brad the tender of the old traditions, Brad the serious bandleader, and Brad the writer of thrilling sing-a-longs like "Alcohol." Unfortunately, all these Brads are subordinate to Brad the career-minded pro, who knows that it's Brad the sap whose success feeds the rest of them, so he'd better follow up last year's guitar-hotdogging Play with this bland but pleasant ballad. This is penance for profit. That's fine, but I wish the sap Brad of "Waiting on A Woman" and the clever Brad of "Ticks" would collaborate more often. "Then" would benefit from the sharp details and inventive arrangement of the comedy numbers, just like the corny but affecting "Letter to Me" did. Instead, this is wordy and vague, with Brad the sap recounting a relationship in which everything always gets better and nothing is particularly memorable. Their love, he insists, is like a river meeting the sea, which means what -- that it's run its course? That one of the lovers poured all he or she had into the other and then ceased to exist? There's a crisp guitar solo, but it lasts eight seconds, and the cool falsetto cooing over the coda makes me wish Brad the pro would stop being polite and record his "Purple Rain" already.

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