Judging by the e-mail, some country fans don't cotton to my failure to cotton to everything on country radio. That's cool. You want Rascal Flatts, you can have them. Let me remind you, though, of the great unspoken understanding between reviewer and reader. No matter how high my horse may seem, my reviews, like all reviews, come stamped with an invisible parenthetical caveat: "In my opinion."
I don't think I come down from Mount Sinai, either, but I'll bet you this much -- if Moses ever heard "Summer Nights," he'd pass those forty years of wandering picking the puke from his beard. (IN MY OPINION.)
This week, I'm appending to all these reviews a bonus invisible parenthetical caveat: "It's a crime against aesthetics that this singer is famous while Hayes Carll isn't."
Randy Houser, "Boots On" (#5)
The difference between real southern rock and most of the current country inspired by it is something like the difference between a juicy peach and peach yogurt. Yeah, it takes a stab at the flavor, and you might even prefer it, but it's lab-hatched and textureless, a glob of product nobody would ever mistake for the real thing.
This stiff go at '70s awesomeness feels not just like southern-rock-flavored yogurt, but like Lenny Kravitz Yoplait. Shut out the vocals, and this could have been on Mama Said. But here's the scary thing, the proof that technicians in those labs have some unholy knowledge: Lenny-Kravitz's southern-rock-flavored country music yogurt isn't all that bad.
Over riffs as tuff and toy-like as old-school Tonka trucks, Houser grunts about wearing his dirty jeans, hat and boots to a bar. He's going out with his boots on, get it? In the later verses, a hot girl wants to take him home, and Houser muses that death won't inconvenience God since he's already got those boots on. That makes no more sense in the song than it does here. I can't decide whether I should make fun of the lines Because I am who I am/that's the man I'm going to be or award them this week's Blake Shelton "The More I Drink, the More I Drink" Award for Inarticulate Profundity.
Blake Shelton, "I'll Just Hold On" (#10)
Verdict: A keeper
In pop, the easy-listening placeholder ballad has been endangered ever since Whitney Houston inflated Dolly Parton's tender wisp of a farewell song into a planet-destroying asteroid of garish horribleness. Nashville still gets that music can soothe, so it cranks out unassuming exercises in melody and time-killing like these two, polite little numbers from Shelton (above) and Aldean (below) that aren't running for a slot at anybody's wedding.
Shelton's is all slow, sunny heartbreak, warm and relaxing and sung as if Faith Hill had never existed. Like much of his work, the craftmanship is strong and the singing and production even better. As written, the verses have the hammy theatrical feel of early (and very late) Neil Diamond. But Shelton's so deft at burly understatement that even Girl, I know you're a gypsy soul fails to crack me up. Still, the Babyface-goes-country half-rap over the outro is hilarious, and the theft from Paul Young's "Everytime You Go Away" is so blatant I almost admire it. The piece of Paul that Shelton took with him? His lick.
Jason Aldean, "Big Green Tractor" (#6)
Aldean's "Big Green Tractor" crowds into the same niche Shelton commands, but where Shelton's is an easy listen, Aldean's is just dull. That's too bad, because tractor-driving isn't uninteresting. Butch Hancock got a whole record out of it, and George Jones could make a lawn-mower bad-ass without even stepping into the studio. (Not that that stopped him from singing about it later.) Here, the tractor is just another empty symbol of the superiority of a rural life that barely exists anymore.
As the music slumps along its own barren plain, Aldean celebrates the virtues of farm machinery and gives some fancy woman in a BMW a country-values loyalty test disguised as a simple date-night choice: they could either go to town for the show she dressed up for, or they could John Deere down to the fields, watch the moon and fireflies, and then ride on back. Aldean takes entirely too many words to sell this. The chatty chorus starts, We could take a ride on my big green tractor/We could go slow/or make it go faster, which is one of those tractor facts that even a BMW woman probably doesn't need to be told. (I wonder if he explains that his faucets have hot and cold water.)
Words That Aldean Thinks Rhymes With Tractor: faster, pasture, matter, rather.
Words I Wish Aldean Had Rhymed With Tractor: jacked her, crack whore, back door, O'Reilly Factor, Death Star Trash Compactor. And Con-Agra, which probably owns those pastures Aldean's man-of-the-soil is so excited about puttering towards.
Kellie Pickler, "Best Days of Your Life" (#9)
Yet another new-wave, girl-power, how-in-the-hell-is-this-country? hit, all sticky, sweet and addictive but not what we could call sugary. Instead, this is aspartame, some chemical that does some of what sugar does but also leaves you craving the real thing as a tumor plumps up in your skull. Pickler can't really sing, which, here, is a plus. The way she just barely scraps through the chorus, the ESL-student way she hits each syllable of "con-ver-SAY-tion" in the first verse, the way the pitch-correction turns her into a chipmunk Dolly Parton at 1:34 -- there's more compelling human drama in her attempts to sing the song than the song itself could ever offer, especially if given to a more accomplished Nashville product mover.
The lyric concerns a wronged woman dogging on her ex, telling him that time with her was "the best days" of his life, but I hear no evidence that Pickler's management team has explained this to her. Far from sounding pissed or vengeful, she just sounds happy to be singing. I won't begrudge her that, especially since that chorus -- being aspartame -- is something I've come to crave in spite of myself.