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.
Because he's a ka-jillionaire whose product is mostly shoveled by Wal-Mart and is therefore in no position to sell out anyway, I don't know why it surprised me that Toby Keith, that big ol' hunk of American angus, opened his Friday-night Sprint Center show with a seven-minute Ford commercial.
Or that hearty Ford logos bedecked his tailgate-themed stage set.
Or that this stirred reverential whoops from the breasts of an audience more like constituents than mere fans.
"Selling out" is a 20th century notion, and now that the bailout's behind us, Keith naming his "American's Toughest Tour" for America's Toughest Truck is tantamount to patriotism.
Toby + flag = a boot in Prius' ass.
And just as with truckbeds, the ad's length didn't hurt, since it took shots at prissy boy bands and showed us Keith -- iconic and thickly-sketched, a cartoon of himself -- quite literally performed feats of strength. Plus, there were explosions afterward. But even if he'd skimped on the fireworks and had followed it up with a pitch for pudding pops or Amway or something, nobody would have given a shit. Only way he could piss these fans off is if he went Taliban or let a Dixie Chick come first.
What didn't surprise me was the love in the room.
This week's three (plus one) top 10 country hits demonstrate the full range of approaches available to Nashville's hit-making men. There's Toby Keith's beefy traditionalism, Billy Currington's barroom morality tale, Darius Rucker's poppy reassurances, and Rascal Flatt's party-time crossover abomination.
They also demonstrate the limitations of those artists' producers, as every song here resorts to the cheap trick of dropping out most of the instruments for a dramatic hush just before the final chorus' fireworks. Meetings, guys! Meetings!
Toby Keith, "Lost You Anyway" (#11)
When it came to me that I should write about the country top 10, I figured two things, both of them wrong. First, I assumed I'd be writing a lot, but come to find out change comes slowly to country radio, which means even after a week off there's only two hits I haven't gotten to, yet. They're below.
Second, I thought that contemplating all this gung-ho, uplifting, too-slick, cheese-stuffed, real 'Merican Nashpop might lead me to some insight about this country's cultural divide - like, maybe the popularity of Montgomery Gentry might help me comprehend the popularity of Sarah Palin. Instead, I just get tangled up trying to make sense of the sun-polished rock sound of today's country.
This week's songs reveal little about the culture, but they do support a theory I advanced last time: that one formula for a Nashville hit is to take the easy, rootsy '90s alt-rock of Hootie or the Gin Blossoms and subtract what little nuance or ennui was there in the first place.
Kenny Chesney, "Out Last Night" (#2)
Saying Nashville apes Hootie might be a little much, since (a) the real deal himself is on Music Row, and (b) Kenny Chesney here aims lower than Blowfish, catfish, or all those copies of Cracked Rear View stacked on the floor of most used CD shops. Instead, Chesney's latest targets the Barenaked Ladies. Whether that's an improvement over his stabs at Jimmy Buffet, I'll leave to you.
Since only one of this week's three newbies on the country top 10 would strike my grandpa as having anything to do with his beloved hillbilly music, and since even the one kinda-hillbilly number - the Alan Jackson song - sounds like the Tony Rich Project, it's fair at this point to ask just what in the holy hell it is that makes modern country country.
This week's "I Run to You," by the comically named Lady Antebellum, is an upbeat '80s power ballad stripped of all country signifiers - no steel, no fiddle, no twang, no narrative, no nothing. My current theory on how a song qualifies for country radio is simple. If it's pleasant, guitar-driven pop based on the pre-Pixies classic rock chord changes, it's country. Jewel and Hootie have gone Nasvhille because Nashville has already gone Jewel and Hootie. [Editor's note: Hootiepants singer Darius Rucker will be performing at the Midland on December 6, 2009.]
Alan Jackson, "Sissy's Song" (#10)
Verdict: A keeper.
Like his "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," Jackson's latest is a cagey, low-key, grief-driven sing-along that those who don't listen closely might mistake for simple minded. As Jackson sings tenderly about family members coping with the death of a young mother, the impolite emotions of the verses (Feeling so lost inside/Anger shot straight at God) are balmed by the homilies of the chorus, which insists She flew up to heaven and She walks with Jesus. That might seem like treacle, but pay attention to the lines right before each chorus: I just have to believe for the first, I'm hoping maybe for the second, and I won't cry because for the third.
Instead of a wallow in the encouraging clichés people offer up at funerals, Jackson has penned a narrative exploration of how those clichés, repeated like mantras, firm up from vague hopes into convictions you need to live. A demerit for its deep melodic indebtedness to that one Tony Rich Project song, which itself borrowed heavily from the Prince B-side "I Love U In Me," which almost relieves the demerit--you can sing "I Love You in Me" over the chorus, but don't let Jackson hear you. Clever detail that gives me confidence that Jackson intends these complexities: the way he rhymes the word rhyme when complaining that tragedies happen "without reason, without rhyme."
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.
Rap and rock are about rappers and rockers, about virtuosity or bad-assedness or some other salable trait specific to an individual performer. Country hates all that. Instead, it takes as its subject its own listeners. The only boasting you'll hear from the hatted pros concerns their audience: that they're decent, humble, and everything that's right with America. It's no coincidence that the audience in turn reflects these salable traits back on the flatterers. Whether it's talk radio or CMT, the surest route to greatness is to reassure the audience that they're already great. As for virtuosity, oversinging afflicts country, but the closest Nashville radio comes to instrumental showboating is some session player's polite little lick just before the verse starts.
This week's top five is led by two godawful flatterers, one jingoistic and one exploiting region and class. There's also a pair of weepy show tunes and, bless me, "It Happens," a New Wave number worth any rock fan's download.
5. Sugarland, "It Happens"
Verdict: A keeper
I am incapable of playing this just once. All riff and bounce, with a wake-up couplet out of 9 to 5 and a clap-along final chorus out of Cheap Trick At Budokan, this throw-away pleasure takes on weight from its very offhandedness. That's a rock-and-roll trick, and this is a rock-and-roll song, one classified as country only because of Jennifer Nettles' twang, some cloying regular folks signifiers ("goin' down to Wally World") and the fact that rock radio rocks but never, ever rolls. The chorus goes, Ain't no rhyme or reason/no complicated meaning, which is both an expression of and a kick against relativism. Choice Detail Guaranteed to Connect to Listener's Lives In A Way Rock and Pop Don't: the narrator drags into work an hour late, "a walk of shame with two different shoes on."
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